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Valentine's Advice: Love & Manners


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's almost Valentine's Day and we realize that, along with the avalanche of pink hearts and stuff, there's also an avalanche of questions at this time of year from whether it's OK to romance by text message to how do you decide who pays for dinner to how to figure out whether you're in love or just, you know, stuck in the friend zone.

We reached out to you, our listeners, on Facebook for your relationship questions and now our pair of experts are here with some answers. Joining us once again are Karen Grigsby Bates. She is co-author of "Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times." She's an NPR correspondent based in Los Angeles. Also with us is Steven Petrow. He writes the "Civil Behavior" column for the New York Times and he's the author of "Steven Petrow's Complete Gay and Lesbian Manners."

Welcome back to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.


STEVEN PETROW: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So, before we get to our questions, I have to ask each of you which team you're on. Are you thumbs up or thumbs down on Valentine's Day? Karen.

BATES: I like it as a general proposition, but I have to say I'm the enemy of the romantic industrial complex. I don't think I need a red Maserati as a present to show that, you know, you love me or anything super expensive. I would like, you know, a little handwritten note. That would thrill me, but all the big, expensive things that you see showing up in magazines to advertise the holiday, uh-uh.

MARTIN: I think we're going to vote you off the girl island. Sorry.

BATES: Wait till you get to who pays.

PETROW: That's a riot.

MARTIN: OK. Steve, and what about you?

PETROW: I'm kind of, you know, thumbs in the middle. You know, I know how overwrought and overpriced it is. I was taking photographs of flowers this weekend, just watching them double in price and then, you know, sending them out on Twitter with the hash tag, #Valentines Ripoff, so you know, there's so much pressure and performance anxiety.

On the other hand, there's a part of me that's very sentimental and, you know, I love the opportunity, which doesn't come often enough, to say I care about someone. And so I hope you got my digital valentine yesterday, Michel.

MARTIN: I certainly did. I was very touched. I was very moved. But that leads very nicely to our first question and this is from Nicole(ph). Here she is.

NICOLE: My name is Nicole and I live in Washington, D.C. So my question is about how to interpret various forms of communication when you meet a guy. I met a guy over the summer. We had some phone calls, but mostly, it was just texting back and forth and then. And every once in a while he would invite me out with his friends. And I sort of felt like, OK, well, this just means the guy is not very interested in me. My older friends, those who are above the age of 35, pretty much across the board agreed with me, that he was not interested. But my younger friends all thought that I was crazy and thought that - yeah. He's interested, he's just trying to get to know you and that's, like, the way that people do it nowadays. It's really confusing.

MARTIN: So who better to ask than you two because I have to tell you that this was the most common question that we got, mainly from people in their 20s and 30s. So, Karen?

BATES: Well, as the mother of a 21-year-old, I can tell you that they do go out in groups and they do it kind of because they have found this group of friends that sort of fit into each other's lives and so I would say to Nicole that if he's taking you into the group to go out with his friends, A, he's kind of road testing you in some ways to see that everybody gets along with everybody else. He wants you to know that his friends are important to him and he wants to say to his friends, I kind of like this girl. You know, let's sort of pull her into the group.

So he's going slowly. I don't think that she should probably expect any one-on-one kind of thing anytime soon, but I think he's interested.

MARTIN: Steven, what do you think?

PETROW: Well, you know, I put some of our questions up on my Facebook page and this one, too, got the most number of responses, and from the young people, those in their 20s and 30s, all thought this was positive, yeah. One wrote, you know, it means he wants you to be a part of his life, and then there was a little bit of, I thought, fun wisdom. You know, don't sweat the small stuff. It's whom he chooses to spend the night with that really matters and whom you choose to spend the night with.

So I think it is a positive. I think it's a way that people are dating these days, and it kind of is indicative of how technology is changing, you know, the forms of how we date and, you know, we're using texting and we're using sort of all these means to come together, but I think, fundamentally, people still want to connect.

And I think back to when Ian Forrester said it's only connect that matters. And so we have new ways to do that, to find romance, but it's still the same old, same old, which is a beautiful thing.

MARTIN: Well, so Steven - but here's another question. What about if it's OK to invite someone out via a text or email, what about dumping someone via text or email? We've heard a number of rather painful stories about that and a lot of people thought that was just so rude and other people thought, well, you know, it actually made it easier 'cause you could kind of cry in private. What do you think?

PETROW: I think they're cowards.

BATES: Yes. Coward's way out.

PETROW: I think it should never - I think you should never break up with someone, you know, in an electronic means. It's like those people back in the day, Michel, would leave a, you know, a message on your answering machine when they knew you weren't home. You know, it's part of growing and, you know, and really having a relationship, even when you have to sort of do the heavy lifting like that. But apparently 25 to 30 percent of young people think it's perfectly fine to break up with someone via text. And I want them to hear me - it's not.

MARTIN: Well, it sounds like you two agree, so let me go on to the next question.


MARTIN: This is our - 'cause I hear Karen going, no, this is so rude. OK.


MARTIN: Alfonso of Los Angeles. And he wants know whether romance is dead. Here it is.

ALFONSO: It seems the more romantic I try to be, the worse it goes. And I've done simple gestures such as to make them Valentine's Day cards, or I plan things ahead of time, like a nice dinner. But it seems to be, I don't know, mal-interpreted on their part and it's a part of me that I've had to suppress and, you know, ultimately erase. Are the men and women of our generation more desensitized to the quote-unquote romantic? Should those people who still believe in being romantic just give up for adopting a more unromantic kind of mindset?

MARTIN: I don't know if this is so much about manners as it is about kind of more generally connecting, but you know, etiquette is about connecting, isn't it - so, and how to connect appropriately so that you don't kind of scare the other person off. So I don't know, Karen, what you think?

BATES: Well, I think it's about connection and it's about comfort level. And the first thing I thought of when I read Alfonzo's letter is that he maybe is being a little too intense. You know, if you don't know someone very well and you come on very strongly because you like them a lot - and I think everybody's had this experience - it makes the object of your affection go whoa. So he maybe needs to dial it back several notches.

I once had a friend who told me indifference is the perfume of romance. I don't think he needs to go that far, but I think a little cooler is better than burning so brightly, initially.

MARTIN: Steven, what do you think? And you know I have to ask whether you think the same rules apply for people in same-sex relationships too.

PETROW: Well, I was just going to say on this one, you know, it sounds like he needs a little more emotional intelligence. And, you know, we need to be able to read the cues. And, you know, if they had just met, you know, say two or three weeks ago and, you know, I got this handcrafted Valentine's Day card that said I love you, I'd probably like go running. So, you know, you need to, you know, you really need to sort of understand the tea leaves there. And I think there's more going on here than we were led on. So...

MARTIN: You think - well, OK. So I'm joined by Steven Petrow. That's who was speaking just now. He is the author of "Steven Petrow's Complete Gay and Lesbian Manners." And NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates, co-author of "Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times." We are talking about, just in time for Valentine's Day, relationship questions that listeners wrote to us about.

And, you know, the whole who pays for dinner thing. Oh my goodness, that is so hard. That seems to be another kind of hearty perennial.

BATES: That's not hard.

MARTIN: It's not? Tell me.

BATES: Really, it's not hard.

MARTIN: OK, Karen.

BATES: He's...

PETROW: It is hard, Karen.

BATES: It's not. He or she who invites pays. End of story. Now, the other thing is, you know, that people often say, well, the person that I'm going out with makes so much more than I do. I feel really badly because he or she always pays and I sort of feel like a slacker and like I'm not holding up my end of it. I don't think anybody's there with a calculator. If you remember back to the movie "The Joy Luck Club," one of the girls was married to a guy who charged her half for everything because he thought they should split everything down the middle. And he charged her for a pint of ice cream she couldn't eat because she was lactose intolerant. She's like I'm leaving, I'm out of here, goodbye. So I think that it doesn't always have to be 50/50. I think if I invite you, Steven, to dinner, then the assumption should be that I'm going to pay for dinner.

Now, it's not always going to be fancy dinner. It may be hamburger at some point. But that's the way it goes. And it may not be dinner in a restaurant. It may be what I can afford, so maybe I make a fabulous dinner or...

MARTIN: Well...

BATES: Go ahead.

MARTIN: Well, it seems that the origin of that custom arises from the fact that men used to or traditionally made, earned a lot more than women did and...

BATES: Some of them still do.

MARTIN: And some of them still do.


MARTIN: Well, and to that point, Ellen of Norfolk, Virginia wrote in that she's been dating a great guy for more than two years and she says that, look, I'm a single mom living on non-profit wages so I really can't afford to go out as often as he likes to go out. So that seems like that's something that after two years they ought to be able to talk about. Hmm. But Steven, what about that?

PETROW: Well...

MARTIN: I mean that is not necessarily the case now, as Karen just pointed out, that there isn't necessarily an imbalance, and it isn't necessarily gender driven, right?

PETROW: No. Absolutely. And I just want to go back to the other question for a moment because I do agree with Karen that sort of the rule is the one who asks should pay. And, you know, that's true in same-sex relationships and non-same-sex relationships. But the way people start to date is so informal this year. They're always like testing the ground. Maybe it's actually just a cup of coffee and they are very sort of hesitant to make any move that indicates either that they're interested or disinterested. And I have put this question out on Facebook previously too, and people really shy away from that. So I think that, you know, once you're sort of into a relationship, you know, that's a great rule. But there also should be balance in some way and that's what we get to with this question. I mean he's been paying for her dates for, you know, for a long time. What a great deal for her. But there are all kinds of ways that she can reciprocate, and Karen mentioned some of them, but you know, taking them out sometimes at a place that she can afford, cooking dinner for him at home. You know, you really want to sort of have some skin in the game yourself and show that you care. It doesn't necessarily need to be in a monetary way, but I think she's got a really good deal here and needs to give back a little bit more.

MARTIN: Karen? Karen? Mm-hmm.

BATES: But, you know, the other thing that made me wonder was that she said he likes to go out a lot more than I do. And so, you know, the impetus lots of times is coming from him - you know, we want to go out three times a week as opposed to the one time a week maybe she can afford. And so maybe what she's doing is accommodating his desire to go out.

But Steven's right. What they need to do is talk. She needs to just be able to say to him, look, I feel bad because you're spending all this money. I don't have this money to spend. I'm very, very fond of you. I like going out with you, but I feel as if we go out so much, I'm sort of in the deficit end of this and we need to figure this out.

PETROW: And he should be able to say to her too, you know, we've been going out...

BATES: It's my pleasure. Yeah.

PETROW: ...and, you know, let's figure out some other ways. But, you know, the idea of talking, it's such a lost art and especially in relationships. You know, and people who, you know, who just have started dating and they don't know what to do this Valentine's Day, I always say why don't you talk to each other and sort of ask what you would like to do rather than...

BATES: Or if you'd like to do anything.

PETROW: Right. Because...

MARTIN: Well, hold on. This leads to my next question.


MARTIN: Forgive me, I still feel like I'm being rude and it's - I feel so...

PETROW: Never, Michel.

MARTIN: I don't want to be rude, but I do want to bring in another question, which is just perfect for this particular moment. This is from Dawn. Here is.

DAWN: My name is Dawn. I'm from Seattle, Washington. What are the expectations for Valentine's Day when you've only recently begun dating the guy you're dating?

MARTIN: Steven, what about that? You raised that. You put that out there. What? That's a tough one.

PETROW: So I don't know if everyone knows but the greatest number of breakups happens in the month right before Valentine's Day. And that is apparently because it's kind of a marker of, you know, where is this relationship going. And people get very anxious, you know, and how to celebrate that, how not to celebrate that. And, you know, if I'm home fretting about this, I can be sure that, you know, the guy I was seeing would be too. And so it's really, you know, it's important to, you know, have that conversation wherever that nets out for you. And just be clear. And this can also be really helpful in setting a relationship on a great course for the, you know, for the coming chapter.

MARTIN: Karen, what do you think?

BATES: I think that lots of times, as Steven said, when you're just getting started and Valentine's Day seems like a huge obligation in some ways, or a litmus test of how much do I like you for real, that's when that group date could come in really handy. Also, I actually had a guy once who said let's do it the weekend before Valentines Day so everybody didn't get so freaked out by the day itself. And had a great time. So there's lots of ways to get around it. And I would say don't let the date itself freak you out or push you into doing something that you may not be ready to do. You know, people all of a sudden declare their exclusivity or get proposed to or those kinds of things because, well, it's Valentine's Day, I should do something really romantic. Well, really romantic doesn't necessarily mean stupidly romantic.


BATES: If you're not ready to do it, don't do it.

PETROW: And especially don't write love on your card on your card if you don't feel it.

BATES: Yeah. You can xoxo.

PETROW: Right.

BATES: And do not, do not make that declaration on the Jumbotron. It often goes badly and many of us see things we don't want to see.

MARTIN: Oh dear.


PETROW: Indeed.

MARTIN: Now my mind is going into a really strange place.


MARTIN: Steven, are the people who write to you, do you find that people in same-sex relationships have the same feeling, the same pressure around these issues?

PETROW: You know, absolutely. You know, dating in the gay world has come so far in this last generation like everything else with, you know, the gay community. You know, 15 years ago when people started using the Internet to, you know, both to come out and find community, it quickly turned into a very great medium to meet people. And you know, in so many ways we've been ahead of the curve in terms of using technology in our dating. But the questions, the insecurities, the anxieties, you know, they're all exactly the same. You know, will he or she like me or love me? And, you know, and will I find, you know, will I find my true soul mate? So, you know, in that way, you know, we're really all, you know, very much alike.

MARTIN: Karen, before we let you go, you said you started our conversation by saying you're kind of - what was that phrase you used? The romance industrial complex?

BATES: The romantic industrial complex.

MARTIN: The romantic industrial complex.


MARTIN: Well, I don't know that I'd turn down a Maserati if it were offered by my beloved, even though it's a kind of gas hog.

BATES: You live in D.C. The traffic is so bad you'd only be able to drive it in second gear anyway.

MARTIN: That is true. That is true. Carbon footprint. Hmm. And all that. But for people who kind of would like to make a gesture, don't want to go overboard, I bet there are a lot of people in that zone. Any recommendation, briefly?

BATES: I love romantic books or movies. I've gotten some DVDs, some books of poetry, handwritten note. And I'll tell you, it never fails - if somebody sends me a note that says three things I really like about you or I love about you, those are the keepers. You know, the store-bought cards eventually go into the shredder or go to the - a kindergarten to be used as, you know, collage stuff. But the things that come from the heart are the things that are real keepers.

MARTIN: If you gave me a Starbucks card, I would think it's from your heart.


BATES: It would be from my heart, Michel.


PETROW: You know, I'm on the same wavelength with Karen on this. And, you know, Rumi has a wonderful book about love and longing.

BATES: Mm-hmm.

PETROW: And I think it's also just a great way to spend time with the people you love, regardless of the romantic part here.


PETROW: And, you know, and let's remember all our friends who are still single, that we want to not leave them out of this day either because...

BATES: Extend the love.

MARTIN: That's true. And single people eat chocolate too(ph). That's right.

PETROW: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Karen Grigsby Bates is the author of "Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times." She's also an NPR correspondent. She joined us from NPR West in Culver City, along with Steven Petrow. He writes the "Civil Behavior" column for The New York Times, and he's author of "Steven Petrow's Complete Gay and Lesbian Manners."

Thank you both so much. Happy Valentine's Day to you both.

BATES: Happy Valentine's Day.

PETROW: You too. Bye.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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