You've probably heard about Self-made Man, the book by Norah Vincent, a woman who went undercover as a man for 18 months to see how the other half lives. I read an excerpt from her book in the most recent People Magazine and one portion in particular struck me. (Yes, I read People Magazine rather than The Economist. So I am not a serious person. Bite me.)
Anyway, the portion that struck me was her frustration and anger at women she tried to date when she was a man. She was angered by their icy demeanor and the power they had over her. She apparently believes this is a common reaction among men and I suspect she may be right. Here is how she describes it:
The first night we went to several watering holes that catered to young professionals. As I got up to approach the bar, I could see the women I was heading for absorbed in conversation. The female me knew that my approach, no matter how unassuming, would be perceived as a little pathetic and detestable. I didn't want to be that nuisance guy women dread.
"Hi, ladies. (Ladies? Jesus.) Sorry to interrupt, but I wanted to meet you." The women looked me over like inferior produce, then smiled weakly.
As I talked to one woman, I found myself switching to her point of view. Seeing how protected she seemed, I remembered my brother saying, "They only want one thing. That's how guys are." I had, I realized, treated most men with the same coldness that these women were showing me.
[Norah then reveals her true identity to the women.] Then, with startling quickness, we all began chatting like hens. The inclusion was physical. When I'd approached as Ned, they had only bothered to turn halfway around to talk to me, their faces always in profile. Now they turned all the way.
[Later] I found myself thinking about rejection and how small it made me feel. Dating women as a man was a lesson in female power. I disliked women irrationally for a while because of it. I disliked their superiority, their accusatory smiles, their entitlement to choose or dash me with a fingertip.
One reason this section struck a chord with me is that the dynamics Vincent describes seem oh so very familiar. I've been in bars with groups of female friends when a man approaches. I have observed the icy tolerance my friends have extended to these poor saps. This type of interaction always makes me incredibly ill at ease, because I hate seeing people embarrassed. It is at odds with my own instinct towards acting with an eager puppy-dog friendliness towards anyone who hasn't yet proven to be ill-intentioned.
Warmth and friendliness, however, can get a woman into trouble in this context, because it is perceived as promising something. I am not saying life is a cake-walk for men, who to this day are perceived as responsible for initiating all romantic interactions, but women seemed to be damned-if-we-do and damned-if-we-don't. We are, after all, still considered responsible for policing men's behavior and "not leading him on."
The technique I perfected in public places like bars was the full-face, warm smile, accompanied by a firm, "It's very nice to meet you, but I came here to catch up with my friend." This has the advantage of being up-front without forcing me to take on an ambiguous ice-queen demeanor that makes me uncomfortable. Unfortunately, this directness often resulted in men storming off angrily or calling me names or simply ignoring my request to be left alone. Very few men withdrew politely (and back in my single days, those were the men I always wished I HAD talked to after all). Frankly, the ice queen approach seems a bit safer because it rarely provoked an angry reaction; instead, the man would eventually give up in defeat and we women could get back to laughing and talking to each other.
Of course, a lot of the problem is that there is no well-defined dating etiquette in our culture. Manners are not taught in any systematic way and, even if they were, there is no real consensus in our culture as to what appropriate dating etiquette is. Since there is no established etiquette, the raw power dynamics take over, each side's prejudices hold sway, and people get hurt.
I have suggested some tips here that I think would go a long way towards reducing misunderstandings between the sexes.
(NOTE: I should also point out that Vincent apparently experienced not only a sense of vulnerability towards women but a sense of entitlement as well. Why SHOULD she have expected anything but an icy reception when interrupting a group of strange women who were already "absorbed in conversation" ?)