How to ruin pretty much any romantic comedy

Emily January, of The Bookshelf of Emily J, writes about the minefield friends create when they enthusiastically loan you a book that you don’t want to read:

In one particular instance, I took the highly recommended book home. I kept that book for a few weeks, allowing it to stab guilt and anxiety into my heart each time I saw it laying on the bookshelf, untouched. I knew from the dust jacket that I didn’t want to read it. Should I give it back the next time I see the person and pretend to have read it? Should I bring it with me the next time I visit this person’s home and slyly put it back on the bookshelf without this person’s knowledge? Should I just read the darn thing? Should I be honest? (link, via Brandywine Books)

My answer to this particular problem and pretty much all the others is Yes to the last questionBe Honest.  I recall an experience from my undergraduate days, trying to gauge whether a particular young woman was interested in me.  I had developed a strategy (which I still believe to be sound, though I’m out of practice in the way a decade-married man should be) I called the “lunch or coffee test.”  Here’s how it worked:

  1. Meet someone in whom you’re interested.  Have some inkling they might be interested too.
  2. Invite them to have a non-date coffee or lunch at a casual time (in college, it was ‘after class’).  As in, “I’m going to grab some lunch? Want to come?”  They can wave you off right here, if they consistently turn you down flat.  Alternately, they can offer another time or say something encouraging like “I’d love to, but…”
  3. At said lunch or coffee, they have a clear opportunity to establish ground rules.  Someone in a committed relationship could/should mention that significant other.
  4. If things go well, proceed to “asking out.”

There are two ways this could fail:

  1. If the object of your interest is clueless (or not nice), you could have several lunch/coffees before you hear about the significant other.  It just seems courteous to make it clear where things stand.  (The wedding ring serves that purpose later on — Back off, ladies.  I’m taken!)
  2.  If the object of your interest isn’t dating anyone but doesn’t want to date you.

The first fail is hard to avoid, because it depends on the object of your affection noticing your interest and making their situation clear.  The latter experience has been given the monicker “Friendzoning” on the Internet, and in its common form has become perceived as another sexist construct, as something women “do” to manipulate men (Foz Meadows has a good discussion on the issue here (via Manboobz)).  But like the book-borrowing that started this topic, boys or men who find themselves “friend zoned” have only themselves to blame, because they weren’t honest.

Meadows points out that a boy (or man) who befriends a woman only as part of a long-term strategy to date her and then resents the woman when she says she “doesn’t like him that way” has mistaken friendship for courting.  To say a woman in a friendship with a man is leading him on denies her rights to be friends with men.  What a load of shit.  The problem here is that the man has not been straightforward with his intentions.  If he’s interested in her romantically, he should express that desire fairly early in the relationship and listen clearly to the answer.  Then, any future heartache he experiences (by, say, cultivating a friendship after she’s expressed disinterest in a romance with him) is his fault.

"Toilet Honesty Box" from I See Modern Britain, cc-licensed
The photo owner remarked on the double entendre in the word ‘members’

All this goes to my title, which is that most romantic comedies, especially bad ones, center around dishonesty.  If the characters were just honest about what they were feeling, things would work out quickly and without the chaos and drama that such films turn on.  (Of course, then they wouldn’t be entertaining.) This is why I hate the movie Meet the Parents.  Every problem Ben Stiller’s character experiences in that movie stems from his fear of being who he is and telling the truth.  If he’d just been honest at the beginning, the whole film would have gone differently. (Alternately, good romantic comedies involve characters who are honest.  To whit, I like Notting Hill and Forgetting Sarah Marshall because the main characters are honest, but struggling with real-life issues. )

So to return to the conundrum at the top: Be honest.  Tell your friend that you really appreciate their recommendation, but you just aren’t interested in the book.  Say this nicely, in person.  But before you do so, read 50 pages or so.  If they’re a friend and they gushed about it, presumably there’s some connection between you and them, something may click.


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