Tradition Tends to Expect Women to Cede the Primary Initiative
When it comes to dating, many elements of competitive strategy apply. One very general principle is the importance of keeping the initiative. In competitive engagements, keeping the initiative means being able to control the engagement by your own actions in a way that forces your opponent to be reactive instead of proactive. Although it can be advantageous to do things that appear to be ceding the initiative, rarely, if ever, do you want to actually cede it.
In dating, one of the primary instruments for an “engagement” or making a relationship official is the act of asking someone on a date (especially a first date). It is here that tradition expects women to refrain from acting, essentially ceding the initiative in the dating interaction (note: some of you may disagree that it is still expected that the men do the asking. After the article I have put links to a bunch of articles that popped up when Googling things like “Is it ok for women to ask men on a date?” and such).
Of course, other tools to control the engagement exist. These may include flirting, looking nice, being intelligent (or dumb, if you’re trying to attract one of those guys), being involved in interesting things, having lots of money, etc. Although these tools can be very effective at inducing a male to succumb to the woman’s will (by asking her on a date), they are ultimately indirect methods that rely on the male to utilize a specific “counterattack.” The primary tool of engagement still rests at the control of the male.
Ceding the Initiative Can Cause Problems
Lieutenant Colonel David Kilcullen of the Australian Army said it succinctly in his “Twenty-Eight Articles” on counterinsurgency that “28. Whatever else you do, keep the initiative.” Why is it a problem to lose it? Let’s take a look.
Ceding the Initiative Stinks if You Don’t Want an “Initiating” Man
It’s quite an uncomfortable circumstance when a woman interested in the quiet, shy, introverted type of guy. A guy who, although is capable of keeping things going, has trouble starting them. For the woman interested in this guy, she almost finds herself at an impasse. He won’t get the guts or motivation to ask her out very easily, and traditional society seems to dictate that she’s not allowed to do it herself.
I confess that there’s a high likelihood that the woman would find it valuable to wait or find ways to encourage the guy to do the asking, but “high likelihood” doesn’t translate to “true in all cases.” I’ve encountered enough girls that would rather just get the job done and ask out a guy they think is pretty awesome even if he’s too shy to initiate things. Taking control can sound better than trying the indirect methods anyway.
Ceding the Initiative Allows the Opponent to Control the Terms of Engagement
This is the crux of the strategic issue. If you’re not controlling the engagement then either no one has control, or your “opponent” has the power. The terms of engagement can come in a myriad of factors.
Your opponent can decide where the attack will take place. This was evident in Japan’s decision to attack the US at Pearl Harbor to avoid fighting them at Japan (the reasoning behind it was a bit stretched, and really interesting, but for another day. Check out Andrew R. Wilson’s Master’s of Strategy for a great commentary on it). Later, after the US had managed to take the initiative, they decided to take the war to Japan’s cities with nuclear weapons instead of to Japan’s military bases with conventional forces.
In dating, the man generally gets to decide where the asking takes place, whether or not the female is thrilled about it. It could come in her phone, through a complicated scavenger hunt through town, in a hallway in front of everyone, etc. Wherever the guy thinks is a good enough spot to ask is where the asking happens, even if it’s embarrassing or inconvenient for the girl.
It’s kind of like proposing in front of a ton of people. It’s reasonably effective at getting girls to say “yes” since she knows that saying “no” will make her look bad, and hurt and embarrass the guy. It’s much easier to say “no” in a note that your friend leaves on his doorstep after you’ve safely landed in Europe.
Your opponent gets to decide when the attack takes place. The Nazis made liberal use of a technique they called “Blitzkrieg” (“Lightning War”) where instead of digging into trenches like had been done in past wars, they quickly cut through enemy lines before opponents were adequately prepared. Timing was a huge element of their initial military success.
Beyond just when the actual date happens, the asker gets to choose when the asking happens as well. The asker will call or ask when it’s most convenient for him, but there’s no guarantee that the askee won’t be caught off-guard or in an inconvenient situation. Heck, there’s no guarantee that some guy won’t call a girl up at 3am to go to dinner on some weekend, but fortunately most guys are smart enough to know that such timing isn’t generally advantageous for the asker either.Many people have been asked out on dates that they would like to go on when they already have something scheduled (or, they don’t have something scheduled when they’re asked on a date they want to avoid). Being the one to ask for a date puts the privilege of ultimately deciding when a date will happen in the hands of the asker. Granted, the askee has to agree to and show up at the appropriate time as well, but they tend to have less flexibility, and when timing doesn’t work out for an otherwise attractive date, minor repair actions have to be taken to ensure the ‘asker” doesn’t quickly retreat.
Force Behind the Initiative
In the Peloponnesian War, Athens fought against Sparta for domination of the region (note: that’s a huge simplification). In the middle of it, Athens sent an expedition to Sicily to conquer the island. When Athens arrived, they didn’t put much effort into attacking for quite a while, which enabled the people of Syracuse to get help from Sparta. The Spartans quickly gathered large forces, and took the initiative. Sparta decided the terms of engagement, happily bringing a superior force to meet the ill-prepared Athenians. Had the Athenians used the initiative when they had it, their forces would likely have been sufficient to achieve their goals.
Although each side brings their own enthusiasm, desire, and effort to a possible engagement, the guy often gets to decide how much of those forces meet. If he’s highly interested, he has an easier time at finding ways around her excuses as to why she can’t go on a date. The girl has a greater chance at being caught off-guard and running out of legitimate sounding reasons to avoid the date (some guys don’t even quit after the “you’re ugly and I hate you, go away” reason is employed). And if the girl is highly interested, traditional society often expects that interest to be expressed openly only after the guy makes the first move.
Length of Engagement
The Pelopennesian War got started when Sparta marched on Athens. It was kinda lame, the Athenians mostly stayed in their neat city walls until the Spartans had to go back home. But Sparta was still in greater control than the Athenians. The Spartans were the ones to decide when they went home. They also decided how many years to keep coming back and laying siege (which ended up being quite a few). Eventually plague broke out in the Athenian walls which probably played a significant role in their total defeat several decades later.
The asker also often gets more influence as to how long dates (or the asking thereof) go. Girls that don’t like marathon dates may be unwittingly sucked into one by a devious date designer. If a date is going well and she wants to spend more time with him, all it takes is a previously scheduled engagement (like another date) to end the activities early and reduce her opportunities to seize the initiative with her own methods.
I don’t think that the Viet Cong explicitly thought “hey, the US population isn’t really into war right now, and there’s a bit of a misalignment between the military and the government officials. This would be the perfect time to stick-it to the US and spread communism!” but even if they didn’t plan it, the political factor was still a huge factor in both the results and activities of what the US calls the Vietnam War. From protests to draft dodgers to inefficient operational supervision, it was a war that the US struggled to fight.
I think the dating equivalents are probably a bit more difficult for any individual to leverage, but an especially crafty (read “creepy”) pursuer could go so far as to try to get the proper “politics” in place. Things like getting parents involved, using religious influences if any, or getting friends on his or her side. This method is indirect enough that an askee could probably use it just as effectively, but the decision on what political climate to act in still rests with the asker.
Ceding the Initiative Forces You to be Reactive
Ultimately, if you don’t have the initiative, you must react to the entity that does. Any opponent that makes good use of their control will make decisions that force you to respond in one way or another before being able to initiate some sort of “counterattack”. When attacked, a fencer must first parry or dodge the strike before (or while) striking back. A base under fire must make a decision on whether and how to defend before engaging an enemy stronghold. An askee must decide whether to and how to accept or reject a date before using alternate methods to steal the initiative. A muffin, when baked, must decide whether or not to be delicious (they always choose delicious).
Ceding the Initiative Can Have Benefits
Although it’s generally a problem to lose the initiative, there may be some good reasons to systematically give it up.
Ceding the Initiative is Great if You Want an Initiative Taking Man
Stereotypes tend to promote men that can be confident and in control of things. Letting the other person take the lead can be a decent first test to see if a potential partner is capable of such action. If he can’t even take charge in asking someone on a date, what guarantees exist that he will get other things done?
I would bet that this is not the most airtight test in the world. After all, I think there are many guys that would take initiative if they noticed or considered certain people outside their current scope. Where indirect methods fail to catch the attention of some guy, having the option to take a direct approach could be useful.
Having met several highly successful guys that didn’t get in (or are still not in) serious relationships until later than their peers, I would guess that not taking initiative in dating isn’t indicative of being unable or unwilling to take initiative in other areas as well. That awkwardly segues us to the next section:
Ceding the Initiative May be Evolutionarily Significant
A guy that is willing to take and keep control of a situation may end up being better at securing scarce resources, which could be very important in difficult pregnancies or in the process of rearing children. It may be less important for survival in our modern society, but I’ve seen enough people find great opportunities by simply being willing to take control (or be obnoxious) that it probably still helps. An ability to take and keep the initiative may be (or have been) a significant factor in survivability in earlier man.
There are a few things to take away from all this:
1. My mom will certainly comment with something like “stop overthinking it and go on dates already!”
2. Women who insist that the man take the lead may be shooting themselves in the foot
3. Traditional society probably favors men (what???*)
4. I’m a nerd
Keep seeking truth.
Articles contending that men should do the asking:
NuclearChickenCollusion Blog, with a sweet game theory tree
Psychology Today blog post by Jen Kim, which references the sentiments against women asking men out, then addresses the other side
Psychology Today blog post by Michael Mills Ph.D. that looks into why women don’t ask
Hello Beautiful (that’s the name of the site)
The fact that this reddit thread exists
Evan Marc Katz’s Blog
The fact that this forum exists
This Jewish Journal post that starts with the lady needing to overcome the traditional arrangement ideas
I acknowledge that society has definitely swung a bit and it’s more ok for women to ask men out on a first date than it was before, but it doesn’t appear to be mainstream, and the traditional setup is still adamantly defended, for worse or for better.