Why “are you single?” is a hilariously pointless question

This morning, I was chatting with a friend about how a guy she’s just met keeps pushing the “are you single?” question.

This kind of thing makes me twitch. Now, I’m all for people using their words like grown-ups when it comes to relationships  – but there are good ways to do it, and this really isn’t one of them.

For one thing, asking someone this when you’ve literally only just met them implies pretty strongly that you’re mostly interested in their physical appearance. (To quote my aforementioned friend, who did try to explain her complex relationship status to the dude in question, “I don’t really think he was actually listening to me at all. I mostly just felt like some tits and a face attached.”) And – particularly when asked by straight men to presumed-straight women – there’s also this underlying assumption that being single makes you “fair game”. Like the most pressing reason this lady could have for not wanting to date you is that some other man has already staked his claim! Like a dog pissing on a tree, or something. Why bother spending time as friends, learning about each other – your shared interests, your points of divergence, what makes the other tick – and finding out about her relationship status the slow and boring way, when you can just cut to the chase and find out instantly whether there’s a chance she might fuck you? (And if what you want is a no-strings fuck, then, well, listen to Captain Awkward, Use Your Words and be up-front about it, yeah? In fact, anyone who wants to ask other people out without being a prat, go read some Captain Awkward, who has been writing about this stuff since post #3.) 

But also – to leave until another time a deeper analysis of patriarchy and loaded questions and coercive situations and Schroedinger’s Rapist and the way that (in the economy of normative heterosexual relationships) women are still postioned as Objects To Be Won whereas men are People Who Win Objects – it’s just a stunningly pointless question.

Asking “are you single?” reminds me of all the misfires people make when playing Twenty Questions, because a “yes” or “no” response will not get you any closer to the answer you actually want. (Incidentally, this is why asking about gender in Twenty Questions is frequently pointless – if you can narrow someone’s character down to being a famous fictional 19th-century detective, you can tell without knowing gender that it’s probably Sherlock Holmes – unless you’re playing with a Doctor Who fan, but even then, “are you a Silurian?” will get you just as close as “are you a woman?”.)

The thing is, we don’t live in a world where the two (ONLY TWO, NO MORE, NO LESS) options when responding to “are you single?”  are:

– “Yes, and I think you’re also super-cute and would like to do kissing with you!”

– “No, I am in a happy monogamous relationship, and cannot conceive of makeouts with someone other than my beloved!”

When actually, there’s a whole constellation of answers:

– “Yes, but I am celibate / asexual / not attracted to people of your gender / just completely uninterested in sexytimes with you personally for whatever reason!”

– “No, but I am attracted to you and polyamorous / in an open relationship / getting a divorce / happy to cheat on my partner for whatever reason, so let’s get down and dirty!”

For the purpose of squeezing MAXIMUM ENTERTAINMENT VALUE out of such interactions, I also recommend introducing answers along the following lines:

– “No, I’m married to the sea.”

– “YES I AM SINGLE BUT ONLY BECAUSE I BITE MY SEXUAL PARTNERS’ HEADS OFF AT THE MOMENT OF CLIMAX
HEY OUT OF INTEREST HOW STRONG WOULD YOU SAY YOUR NECK IS
JESUS WHAT, IT WAS JUST A CASUAL QUESTION, STOP BEING SO DEFENSIVE”

– “Yes, but only technically. Because apparently marriage to robots is not legally binding. Apparently.”

– “[whispering] We are not single… we are LEGION. A thousand vicious voices instruct our every movement as we struggle to puppet this stifling mortal shell we must wear to conceal our true nature, until the Day of Reaping…
I MEAN UM YES DEFINITELY SINGLE THERE IS ONLY ONE OF ME HA HA HA”

– “[incomprehensible hissing noises and the buzzing of ancient wings risen at last from the tombs of once-glorious kings]” <— That one probably works better over textual media, unless you’ve got some seriously evocative vocal abilities.

This might be why I’m not an agony aunt. Still, being surreal sometimes feels like the best way to get creepers off your back. Unless they’re, like, “creepers” in the sense of being tendrils of some kind of horrifying bloodthirsty plant-monster, in which case maybe weedkiller, or the common cold if it’s of extra-terrestrial origin?

(And to anyone wondering – the next Frozen post is on the way,  it’s just taking a while because I decided to make it a collaborative piece, and I’m still waiting on a few people!)

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15 thoughts on “Why “are you single?” is a hilariously pointless question

  1. There are some massive leaps in logic here. Asking someone “are you single?” when you’ve just met them does not imply that you’re only interested in physical appearance or a quick fuck. I (a single woman) have asked men this myself. It means that I’m attracted to them and want to know whether or not I should pursue getting to know them with the idea of eventually getting into a relationship if we both get on.

    It’s also a socially acceptable way of unambiguously declaring your interest in someone. Of course he may be single and not looking for a relationship or single and totally uninterested in me in particular but usually in this case he’ll find a socially acceptable way of letting me know this and we’ll both move on. What I’m really saying here is “are you interested in getting to know me with a view to possibly getting into a relationship” but this question would put someone on the spot and possibly force them to reject you outright in a way that would make most people feel uncomfortable.

    Yes the reason I’m approaching a guy is because he’s attractive – but whats wrong with that? We have to be attracted to each other if we’re going to be in a relationship, that doesn’t mean his personality isn’t important or I’m just looking for a one night stand. If we’re both interested then we’ll get to know each other otherwise I’ll move on. Quite frankly I have plenty of close friendships and at this stage in my life I want a relationship (I’m 32 and want to have children within a monogamous long term relationship) so I’d rather know straight away if the guy is on the same page. If he’s not then fine but I’m not going to spend a great deal of time getting to know him.

    It’s true that I’m unusual in being a female who doesn’t mind making the first move but you seem to imply in your blog that the current socially accepted set up (men being the aggressors) is beneficial to men in general, which isn’t the case in my experience. Plenty of men hate approaching women as much as other women don’t like being approached.

    • Thanks for saying a lot of what I was thinking.

      I’d add, I feel a lot of this comes from less the question itself and more the way it is used and how people react to the answer. Men who can’t take any type of “I’m not interested” response is bad. But it is not the question but the attitude which is the problem. Address that and you would have a point.

      Also in response to the idea I should befriend someone first. I have enough friends, male and female, and have a hard enough time socializing with new people, that finding out the “slow and boring” way is of no real interest to me. It can also save me the social discomfort of chatting/flirting with someone only to find out they are not interested for what ever reason.

      Also HappyFemm, I’d definitely say I’m am one of the men who don’t like making the first move.

      • So, I was making two distinct points in my post, which I think you’re conflating in your response.

        The first point is, as you say, so much not about the question itself: it’s about “the way it is used and how people react to the answer.” It’s a general point about the dynamic of men pursuing women, and the way that women are constructed as “fair game” if they’re not obviously “claimed” by another man. For example, I’ve had experiences where getting male friends of mine to pretend to be my boyfriend was _the only way to make a creepy and threatening guy go away_ (and I’ve written about similar experiences here: https://helgurney.wordpress.com/2014/03/21/adventures-in-microaggressions-misogyny-and-ablism-in-public-spaces/). I’ve also put some links to more posts about this in my comment response to happyfemm.

        The second point _is_ about the question itself, and what I’m saying is, _even without_ the dynamics present in point one, “are you single?” is an empty question, “yes” and “no” don’t actually get you closer to finding out whether this person is sexually/romantically interested in you and able to act on that interest. It only works in a world where everyone is heterosexual, monogamous – and even then, it still doesn’t account for people who just plain aren’t interested in the person doing the asking.

        So, point #1 is that “are you single?” feeds into wider social things that are crap for everyone, point #2 is that “are you single?” is very silly even without doing that, and point #2.5 is that I find it helpful to respond to silliness with more silliness, because that way at least you’ve got something to laugh about after someone’s tried to mark his territory for the umpteenth time.

        • I’d say it feeds more into a monogomous society than a patriarchal society. The question can be used all directions with regards to gender. The only assumption it makes itself is that if someone is in a relationship, they are not looking for more and if they aren’t, it is worth pursuing this line of conversation further. And that is assuming a simple yes/no answer. However I’d be surprised if most people asking it are expecting that. Answers like “I’m in an open relationship”, “Yes, I haven’t met the right man/woman yet”, “I’m happily single” and “Yes, but I think that might change soon” all give a valid answers while also communicating more information. Frankly, few questions are asked expecting a single word answer. And if one is given, it is normally an indication that the person answering is not interested in talking about the subject any longer.

          Men being idiots and not taking ‘No’ for an answer is an issue. However I question how much this question adds to that, relative to all the other “ice-breaker” questions out there. I would have thought the idea that men are expected to make the first move leads more to aggressor/object culture than a question aimed at asking “Are you ok with me flirting with you?”.

        • I absolutely agree that you don’t have to justify your lack of interest by being in a relationship, or being gay or asexual, and there are some people who (both men and women although perhaps more often men) that don’t respect that. People being too persistant after clearly being rejected is an issue. I would disagree however that this is what happens in the majority of cases. I’ve only once experienced a man this insistent and far more often men can pick up a lack of interest on my part and move on.

          However you’ve completely failed to address my point. People don’t communicate entirely literally and this one question is unlikely to be the only one they ask you.

          If someone asks “are you single?” they’re not necessarily assuming that if you are single you’re automatically straight or interested in them. They’re hinting that they are interested in you. Usually they would at least attempt to gauge your interest by your response. I see nothing wrong with the question at all. I see nothing wrong with a man being interested in either a relationship or one night stand and not a friendship as long as they’re upfront about it. The alternative to asking “are you single?” is a long list of questions “are you single, straight, do you find me sufficiently attractive to peruse a relationship with me?”. This is far too literal, most communication as you meet people happens through more subtle cues and body language. This question usually serves as an ice breaker and to register their interest, with many follow up questions to come.

          From your blog post you seem to object to anyone ever pursuing someone because they find them attractive, or you assume that if their physical appearance was the first thing that appealed to that person it must be the only thing that matters. This just isn’t true.

    • If you’re looking for someone to start a relationship with, and you don’t want to waste time getting to know people who are not on the same page, why not join a dating site? That way you can establish from the outset that anyone you meet from the site is looking for the same things as you, and it’s less awkward for everyone.

      • I’ve tried dating sites. They don’t always work. I’ve had few women send me a message, with zero during my time on the latest site. As for responses to my messages, rarely positive. The two relationships I’ve have had, one was with a girl in China and the other from Indonesia. Alas neither turned into long term things. So why limit myself to one method of trying to meet new people?

        • I’m not saying dating sites always work. I’m saying that if you want to focus your time and energies on talking to people who might be interested in a relationship and avoid the social discomfort of chatting with people who definitely aren’t interested (which, by the way, I think is a valid choice to make) – you can seek out other people who are explicity making the same choice on dating sites, instead of approaching random people and hoping.

          I realise this comes across as me trying to give you dating advice, which was not really my intention. I saw your post as posing the question “If I don’t ask people whether they are single, how do I go about meeting single people?”, and wanted to make the point that there are other ways of doing that.

    • Fundamentally, I think it’s weird to categorise every new person you meet as either a future partner or a complete write-off. “Hey, this person seems awesome and I enjoy being around them! I see them as a potential future spouse, and the parent of my children! Oh wait, they’re not single? Then I’m not even slightly interested in getting to know them better!” Just… what?

      I also think that “are you single?” only works as “a socially acceptable way of unambiguously declaring your interest in someone” in the context of a society which normalises (/expects/enforces) heterosexual monogamy for everyone, and that’s not a society in which I want to live. Which was pretty much the point of the blog? (Well,really the point of the blog was to see if I could spread the gospel of If In Doubt, Pretend To Be A Praying Mantis, but hey.) If you’re attracted to someone, say so, and actually ask them out, rather than ask something which rests on a bunch of problematic assumptions.

      Re: your final point… I don’t think that the social convention of Men Are Normally The Ones To Ask Women Out is the greatest of the world’s evils, and I’m certainly not saying that all individual men benefit from it or that all individual women are harmed by it. What I’m saying is that it takes place within the context of a patriarchy which positions men as active and women as passive; men as the desirers and women as the desired; men as the pursuers of sex and women as the gatekeepers of sex… and what’s more, women are taught to appease men rather than give them a direct “no” (and in turn, men are taught that even a “no” doesn’t always really _mean_ no). It’s a social convention that is a relatively benign symptom of a terribly malign system; it’s part of the feedback loop that proliferates rape culture.

      I didn’t go into this in depth in the post because my audience (or at least, the ones who communicate with me) tends to be familiar with this stuff, but here are some links that might be of use in understanding where I’m coming from here:

      http://thefeministanthropologist.com/2013/03/04/this-is-what-consent-looks-like/

      http://broadblogs.com/2014/01/15/women-as-prey-men-as-predator/
      http://www.theferrett.com/ferrettworks/2012/08/can-i-buy-you-a-coffee/
      http://theyesresource.org/

      (And a quick note for any regulars reading this and wondering why I’m not hammering the “also men and women aren’t the only genders!” button – it’s because I’m talking about the normalised social scripts for romantic/sexual interactions which exist for presumed-heterosexual men and women.)

      • With regards to your first paragraph: It really depends on the person, and the situation they are in both personally and currently. I myself, have a number of close friends. I’m more than happy with my friend circles. However I am missing a “significant other”. So if I meet a group of new people in a transient situation, I am less inclined to want to make strong friendships as opposed to finding out if any of them are looking for a closer relationship. So I am more inclined to want to spend time getting to know the women I find attractive. More so if I don’t expect to be seeing these people again unless I actively try to.

        That doesn’t mean I’ll ignore someone as soon as I find out they are not interested in a relationship. Again, depending on the situation I’ll happily be friends with them and have done so. I just find it odd to want to get to know everyone I meet and make as many friends as possible. Different strokes for different folks and all that.

      • Sorry I completely missed this reply. I think again you’re jumping to conclusions. Why does asking “are you single?” only work in a society which normalises heterosexual monogamy? Someone is saying “I’m interested in you”, and if they’re a decent person they’re giving you an option to make it clear whether you’re potentially interested in them or not. It’s easy to reply that “you are single but…” (gay/not looking for a relationship/just hanging out with friends not really looking to meet new people).

        You might find it strange to be interested only in new relationships and not friendships, but you don’t justify why this is unreasonable stance to take or why you think this makes someone superficial or just out for sex. I have a demanding career and an already busy social life. I prefer meeting friends in small close knit groups rather than large gatherings so to add extra friends into my life is a big commitment. One that I’m not prepared to make at present.

        “and what’s more, women are taught to appease men rather than give them a direct “no” ”

        For me this is exactly why a general open ended question like `’are you single” works better than one which is more literal “I find you attractive and want to get to know you better are you up for that?”. It gives me the opportunity to register my lack of interest passively (“yes I’m single I just don’t have the time or energy to meet men/women at the moment”). I’d much prefer that to “no I’m not interested”. This kind of preference to being passive in rejection is not limited to a particular gender or sexual politics but is common place through out society. Rarely will an interviewer tell you they’re not interested in you because you’re inarticulate and have mediocre qualifications. More likely you’ll receive an anodyne platitude in a few weeks time about the high level of applicants.

        Thank you for your links -I’ll definitely read them. I think I perhaps do not understand your use of the term patriarchy. To me it implies an almost deliberate subjugation of women by men (or some men) for which I see no evidence (it’s the lack of non anecdotal evidence which i find particularly gauging when claims are made).

  2. Brilliant, brilliant post! I hate the “why are you single” question so much! It seems to come up more on dating sites for me and is an instant “delete message” for me, though I may have to use some of your alternative responses instead. 😀

    • 0.o /boggle
      ok, that is confusing. On a dating site, surely you check their status? I’d never even consider asking that there.

      You could even try “No, there are 5 of me. However the others shouldn’t have accounts on this site as well. If you do see my other selves here, tell them I claimed this site first”.

      “No, I’m [Username]. Can’t you read?”

      “Why yes I am! I’m so glad you read my profile description before asking me stupid questions. Most people around here are idiots and don’t bother to learn about the person before making contact, but you are obviously not one of those people. It makes me so happy to have someone ask more useful questions that I want to have your babies! My favourite position is Preying Mantis style, see you soon ;-)”

      Hmmm, was that last one over the top?

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