Is it a “Cultural Thing?”

Assimilation is a hot topic these days.  Whether it’s Tony Blair talking about the integration of Muslim immigrants in Britain (or the lack thereof, as he argues) or the xenophobic cheese steak connoisseurs of South Philadelphia demanding that their customers speak English and only English, there’s a lot of resentment towards immigrants who don’t toe the line.

What exactly does this have to do with dating?

A lot actually.

I know I promised to write something vaguely political once a week and I will, once I get around to actually reading more than just the headlines on my homepage (which is set to the BBC, and no, these posts will not include hyperlinks to the Wall Street Journal and Fox News as today’s does).  In the meantime, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on the subject of cultural assimilation as it relates to dating.

Last Monday, less than 24 hours after my date with the Bovary Reading Bachelor at Fork, I meet He-who-is-not-taller-than-me-in-heels for a lunch date in Rittenhouse Square.  For convenience sake, I shall refer to him henceforth as Date #22 (I was up to 17 when my Match.com subscription ran out back in November, then there were the three ill-fated PSMs from eHarmony and finally the hopeless romantic of Gerber daisies fame).

I wasn’t sure what to think of Date #22: he messaged me directly through eHarmony rather than insisting we complete the whole “guided communication process” (which, to be frank, is total crap) so I found him refreshing— at first.  But then there was the whole “I don’t have a car” thing, which, when combined with the whole “I’ve never been to South Philly” thing also struck me as total crap.

Ordinarily, I’d have written a man off for refusing to venture beyond Center City for a first date but this is 2011.  I’m just as capable as getting to Rittenhouse as he is to South Philly and considering that Date #22 is originally from Norway and still relatively new to Philadelphia, I figured I’d cut him some slack.

(Evidently I have thing for Norwegian men.)

So I agreed to meet him for lunch on his turf— Rittenhouse— and when the waiter brought us the check, I pulled out my wallet.  Having been to Norway (and having had numerous conversations about Scandinavian gender politics with both last Friday’s Single Male Friend and an old classmate of mine from Denmark), I was prepared to pay for my share of the meal.

Nonetheless, since I began my Great Date Experiment back in August, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve paid for anything on a first date: a few cups of coffee, a tip on occasion, a drink or two if it’s one of the marathon multi-part dates… but for the most part I’m always told to put my wallet away.

I suspected, however, that this wouldn’t be this case with Date #22, and sure enough he did not tell me to put my wallet away.

I didn’t have any cash on me so we had to go through the whole embarrassing rigmarole of asking for separate checks which, according to eHarmony, is an absolute no-no for a first date.  How classy.

Ordinarily, I’d have been infuriated by this sort of thing and would have taken it as a sign of disinterest on the part of Date #22.  But here’s where my training as an anthropologist—and my bevy of Scandinavian friends—comes in handy.

Later that evening, I went online to consult last Friday’s Single Male Friend on the matter.  “He didn’t pay,” I reported.  “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s not into me, does it?”

“Of course not,” Ove replied.  “In Norway, most girls pay for themselves because they feel that if the man pays, they owe him something.”

(Something other than the pleasure of their company, presumably.)

Ove went on to explain the bars he frequents are full of “silicone blonds” begging men to buy them drinks and as such, “There is nothing sexier than a girl who buys you a drink.”

I filed this bit of information away for future use and decided to take the “wait and see” approach (which in my case amounts to “wait and see while cruising Match for alternatives.”)

Sure enough, I received a text from Date #22 less than 24 hours later telling me he’d enjoyed meeting me and wanted to see me again.

So Ove was right.  Now I just have to decide how much Norwegian-ness I’m going to put up with.  And seeing as I can’t stand those “Welcome to America, now speak English!” t-shirts (especially because, contrary to popular belief, America has no official language), I can’t exactly say “Welcome to America, now pay for my dinner!”

So my question is this: where you draw the line between cultural sensitivity and letting a guy off the hook for what most Americans would consider an egregious error against first date decorum?

35 Responses to “Is it a “Cultural Thing?””

  1. Zak

    Unfortunately I’m with Ove on this one (the part about a girl buying the guy a drink being sexy), and I have lived my entire life in America.

    Women expect a guy to pay for dinner, drinks, etc, and frequently guys run into women who only go out on first dates for the free meal. Now, don’t get me wrong, I never flinch, and you made clear in a post a long time ago that women equally have to spend time dressing up nicely, etc. But a woman who will pay her way – or at least offer – is infinitely more attractive. A woman who lets us get a door – instead of expecting it – and then thanks us for getting the door, is infinitely more attractive.

    I guess what I’m saying is, especially since women want to be treated equal, don’t treat the date like a traditional date. If you want equality, at least pretend to offer equality during the first few dates.

    Reply
    • Kat Richter

      Excellent point, Zak, as always 🙂 I think its always wise to establish good habits in the beginning, especially when it comes to power dynamics and equality.

      Reply
  2. tinkerbelle86

    totally agree with your friend. i always want to pay my way on the first couple of dates as i feel at least like i have to go out again to even the score and pay. very interesting post though about cultural differences, thanks for the great read 🙂

    Reply
  3. Landlord

    Well said, Zak. It is a difficult balance, one that began in our (45-50 yo) generation of dating (so you’d think there would be more consensus on how to navigate, but alas…) I think you hit the nail on the head. It’s about mutual respect, consideration of the cost of the date, respective abilities to pay the cost, and of course how much you care for each other or whether you have or have not enjoyed the company~

    Reply
    • Zak

      Landlord, you sound amazingly like my former-Landlord! Except, on my blog, she’s called “mom.” Thanks for concurring with me.

      Reply
  4. kbomb78

    My Opinion is this and I am American from America. I don’t want people paying for my stuff Drinks, Dinner, Clothing, Nothing Not even my husband. I am a self suffecient female and I do not require my things to be paid for. I say give the guy a Chance

    Reply
  5. Jenn

    I had always used the one who invites pays. So, if he initated the invite, it should be his treat and vise versa. If I invited you out for dinner I would not expect you to pay. And in certain ways, waiting or expecting a man to open a door for you, picking up the tab… etc… these are things that seem a bit old fashioned. Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful, but old fashioned. I think we as women lost the right to “expect” or even “demand” these things with the passing of the ERA. Is it culturally insensative? No. Is it a pipe dream? Maybe.
    Now, granted I haven’t had a first date in 16 years, but 1) your friend is right? How was the date itself? Is this someone you are going to see again? and 2) maybe before you jump off the conculsion ledge you see what happens on a second date. Maybe he’ll pick up the tab for a trip to Aruba!

    Reply
    • Zak

      Jenn, while I would like to agree that he/she who initiated pays, most women (I believe Kat, included) won’t pick up the phone and ask for the second date (there was a post about this a few months back, as I recall). So, the guy (generally) has to ask for a second date. And thus, he gets (by your logic) screwed into paying again. Screwed is not the right word, but sometimes it feels like that. I think there’s a confusion of modern women with old-fashioned ideals. Women want equality, but want (rather than appreciate) doors to be opened, dates to pay, call, etc. It’s all rather confusing! And the fact that dating is treated like a game by many doesn’t help.

      Reply
      • Kat Richter

        It’s true- I don’t think I’ve EVER picked up the phone to ask for a second date. I know a lot of people who go by the logic of whoever suggests the date should pay for the date and this seems to make sense nowadays considering that most women are just as well educated/employed as their dates (even if they still make less on the dollar but that’s another debate for another time…). Thanks for your two cents, Jenn (I’ll be sure to send you a postcard from Aruba!)

        Reply
  6. Renee

    It could very well be a cultural thing, but #22 appears to be passive about a lot of things. I’m not American and while I agree with Zak and Landlord that respect is a (the) sexy thing, #22’s willingness to go the extra mile closer to your neck of the woods (by public transportation even), or his willingness to have some sensitivity with his new date’s own cultural context is not only a sign of respect, but a sign of good faith in the whole dating ritual.

    I am very thankful for an open door, very thankful that the man insists on paying for the meal, very attracted to a man who is stronger than me not only physically, but mentally. I don’t want a man who thinks like me, is equally strong as me, expects me to pay my way everytime. Traditional maybe….but that’s a lot more attractive than a man who is my equal in every way.

    Reply
    • Kat Richter

      Yeah, this particular interaction is complicated (in my opinion) by the fact that our first date took place in a part of town that was totally convenient for him but totally inconvient for me. The way I see it (or at least used to see it) is that if I’m trekking all the way to your part of town, you should at least pay (and at least pretend to take an interest in making sure I get home okay). But I also used to get extremely fed up with one of my ex-boyfriends when he’d call to check in on me ALL the time.

      I’m with you on being thankful when a guy insists on opening a door or paying for a meal but I think of physical and mental strength differently. I want a guy who’s strengths are different from mine, not superior to mine. (I cant stand guys who think they’re smarter than me and its only been within the past few years that I have learned to graciously accept a man’s offer to carry something for me.) I hadn’t really thought about the notion of superiority vs. difference before reading your comment so thanks for sharing!

      Reply
      • Renee Davies

        Good point worth making, that the differences in strength are merely different and not superior. Though I wasn’t recommending men with superiority complexes, just men who were stronger than me in their particular areas.

        I think, and please correct me if I’m wrong, that men need to be admired – I’d say it’s high on their list of relationship needs, maybe on par with physical affection. If I settle for a guy who does little to evoke admiration, am I in a relationship doomed to fail?

        Reply
  7. Kathryn Craft

    I’m 54 years old and even I think it’s incredibly old-fashioned to expect a man to pick up the tab, especially in the early dates. What was the women’s movement for? Think down the road: today he buys you a meal, tomorrow he says he’d really like you to wear your hair longer, next year the wedding will be where he wants it, in five years the kids will be raised in his religion. Why? He pays, and money says power in a relationship. It’s very hard for a modern woman to fight for equality in a relationship while the man is paying. And if you don’t make enough to go to the nice places, it’s preferable to go to cheaper places and pay half, in my opinion.

    Reply
    • Kat Richter

      Excellent point, Kathryn! Date #4 never let me pay for anything, EVER- not a tip, not a drink, not even a cup of coffee! (And we went out half a dozen time over the course of a couple of months.) Eventually I got sick of our dates always being on HIS time and at places of his choosing… and when I brought this up, he basically blew me off. I imagine I’d be wearing my hair long (and possibly even STRAIGHT) if I’d allow that power dynamic to play itself out!

      Reply
  8. Carl

    I agree with the previous comments. I like the idea that the initiator is the person who pays, or at least offers to pay. I am curious though what the relevance of date #22 not having a car was.

    Reply
  9. Dennis Hong

    I think the paying thing is trivial, but generally speaking….

    As a bi-cultural person, I find it absolutely pretentious when people immigrate to a new country and refuse to budge on their own cultural values.

    And I do actually support the whole, “you’re in American now–speak English” thing. I learned English as a second language. I even get paid to speak and write it today.

    It’s not that hard.

    Reply
    • Kat Richter

      Whoa there Dennis, them’s fightin’ words in the Richter household 🙂 I have a theory (and actually numerous people much smarter and more articulate than me have published this theory) that immigrants and children of immigrants tend to be more ‘patriotic’ than native born counterparts when it comes to ‘proving’ their allegiance to American modes of dress, eating, language(s) etc. This, like feminism, is another debate for another time (who knew a lunch date could raise so many issues?)… but I will say this: you’re very lucky to consider learning English ‘not that hard.’ But does that give those of us who speak English the right to get fed up with and criticize those who don’t?

      Reply
    • Brazilian

      Dennis, as another bi-cultural person I fully agree with you.

      If one wants to continue exercising his/her culture within his/her home that is perfectly fine, but once outside speak English.

      Reply
  10. Debbie

    Wow… interesting comments. I must admit that I am feeling kind of backwards about this. I am an old fashioned girl who likes old fashioned good manners. I do expect a man to hold the door open for me, take my coat, and walk on the outside of the sidewalk. And I think it shows respect on the first few dates that they pay. I become comfortable with the whole “Dutch” thing only after I have gotten to know the person a little better. I do consider myself a feminist, I can certainly pay my way, and I am not in it for the free dinner. It is the gesture, old fashioned or not, that says something to me.

    The whole cultural thing is another matter… I actually feel bad for the guy because how many women would have taken the time to understand his social mores before writing him off! (Especially given the “Match” instructions…) Good on you Kat for helping to make what could have been a VERY awkard situation into a lesser one. Maybe the two of you will be able to have a “that was interesting because this is how it is usually done in America” conversation some day, because I have a feeling that there are a lot of women out there that might not have been so understanding…

    Reply
  11. laterounddraftpick

    Pay? Who pays for dates now-a-days? I just talk my first dates into dine-and-dashing! lol
    But seriously, I think guys should definitely pay for the first date. The only time I would suggest otherwise, is if he doesn’t set the location and now he is covering the tab for a five course meal at a five star restaurant (but then again if a chic wanted that for date #1, then I would have to reconsider going at all).
    With that being said, I think after a few interactions there are times where splitting the bill or her picking up a tab or two is totally kosher. Heck I’ve even had a girl I was dating fly me to Pittsburgh (from Tampa) for the weekend! I paid for most everything while we were there, even though she wanted to use her own wallet at times.
    Yes, it’s a new age; however there are some customs that should be left in place i.e. Guys paying for the first date, walking her to her car, opening doors etc.

    Reply
    • Kat Richter

      Wow, a girl flew you in from Tampa? You must be quite a catch 🙂 Thanks for offering another male perspective here and I’m with you on the bit: certain customs SHOULD be left in place.

      Reply
      • laterounddraftpick

        I dont want to brag or anything but…. Oh I just said I wasn’t going to brag, nevermind. 😀

        Traditions as such are definitely good, but the paying by a man on a first date has other connotations as well. Instinctively men are seen as providers and caretakers. The male of animal social groups provides protection/providers roles. Actions such as paying on the first date (esp without hesitation) and walking you to your car/door/cab portray these traits; these actions usually transcend beyond the physical/mental all the way to the subconscious. The same goes for brining flowers too. Although they are great to look at, if you bring flowers with a pleasant or alluring smell, your first impression is not only marked by debonair good looks (hopefully), but also with enjoyable scents, which we all know is the sense that has the best and longest tenured memory strain.

        Bottom line really is that although these traditions show manners, gentlemanliness (is that a word) and sophistication, they also provide a more instinctual way to prove yourself as a good prospective mate. But I digress…

        Reply
  12. Jill

    I don’t have anything material to add here but wanted to say I’m glad you started the conversation, Kat. Thanks for putting stuff out there for comments and opinions, I’m always learning something.

    Reply
  13. Genevieve

    Hey Kat, really enjoy your blog.

    I find the restaurant experience much more enjoyable when one person handles the payment transaction and then whoever is treated can get the next round (drinks, tickets, cab fare, next dinner etc.) or catch up on the next date. It’s nice to be treated every once in a while, and it’s fun to treat someone too!

    I don’t think the man should feel obligated that it’s his role to pay, but I really like it when one person takes the lead. Keeps it simple and hopefully it will all even out in the end.

    Reply
  14. Wink'd

    Definitely understand the international dating thing. I’ve dated in Doha, in England, in the US… all over. And there truly are a number of complicating cultural differences!

    ..that having been said, I feel like first date rules are pretty universal. Or is that just me being a stickler?

    Fun post.

    Reply
  15. Annie

    Laughed so much at this! It reminded me of one date when we had 55p change from a lunch, and he slid the 5p to me and pocketed the 50p because my glass of wine “was more expensive”. He then asked for another date. Raargh!

    But I’ve learnt that everything has a flip side. My current guy is every bit the macho, world-saving, dashing hero I always dreamed of meeting. But it turns out macho heroes can also be cavemen: sometimes I have to literally drag him to the shower and put a toothbrush in his hand. So maybe #22 didn’t pay for the first date, but it might be a flip side of something good, like recognising an equal in you?*

    *OK that does sound like clutching at straws… But my vote is don’t let that alone be the dealbreaker!

    Reply
  16. Nat

    I’m a ‘third culture kid’, so cultural differences in dating are, well, the story of my love life. Unless I end up dating another Eurasian who is my age, went to my school AND who grew up in the Philippines (but whom is not Filippino by blood), there are always going to be differences in traditions and cultural norms. Its not a bad thing; it just means that I cannot rely on any preconceived notions/’norms’, which does make things a bit confusing. At the end of the day though, people are different and will have differences in opinion even if they do share similar backgrounds. That’s life! And I suppose it’s part of what keeps things interesting.

    Reply

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