Real communication is often more difficult than we imagine, especially when it comes to difficult topics such sex or romance.
Early on in graduate school, I argued with my friend Ed one day that he shouldn’t be romantically kissing a woman (as opposed to a simple kiss of greeting, such as one gives one’s grandmother) unless he was open to marriage with her. Note, I wasn’t arguing that he had to be ready for marriage, merely that he had to be open to it, and that if marriage with this particular woman was unthinkable or impossible, then he shouldn’t be engaged in this sort of kissing. My friend had never heard anybody make such a radical claim before, and at the time, he found it mostly ludicrous.
“I’m from Northern California,” he insisted to me, “and young people in California have a sophisticated understanding of sex, so we can engage in mutual sexual entertainment,” (as he called it), “without it having to mean anything romantic.” He could, he insisted, “make out” with “a friend,” and it would be “just for fun.” Nothing else.
Admittedly, different people are different, but I wasn’t so sure.
A few weeks later, Ed brought a friend of his over to my apartment to have the same discussion. “Hey, Smith,” he said laughing, “tell Chris that same thing you told me.”
So I did.
“This is unbelievable,” was Chris’s response. “I mean, it’s completely out of the Dark Ages.” “I’m from Southern California,” Chris told me (I was beginning to see a pattern developing), “and we make-out all the time, and it doesn’t have to mean anything.”
California, it seems, had become the Land of the Meaningless Kiss.
There was only one problem for Chris. Unfortunately, he had brought his current girlfriend along to our little discussion. And although she sat quietly through the whole affair, within a week, they had broken up. When she and I became friends sometime later, I recounted that evening to her one day, and she told me: “Yeah, I was sitting there thinking, ‘What? Kissing doesn’t mean anything? Well, it meant something to me!”
A smile is just a smile, but a kiss . . . well, that’s different.
It wasn’t so much that Chris was immoral, as he was simply young and foolish and, of course, from California. And Lord knows, I was certainly no more “moral” then he was in terms of possessing the relevant virtues. It’s one thing to know that you don’t know how to communicate effectively with women about romantic matters, and another thing to learn how to do it wisely and well. On that score, I still have very little advice to give young men except this: persevere and pray.
It’s precisely because I know how little I know about what women are thinking that I find it strange when other men presume they do. Chris presumed he knew what his girlfriend wanted; he assumed, without having discussed it with her, that she shared the same attitudes toward their physical relationship that he did. The culture he was from had convinced him that everyone thought the same way about physical intimacy. Worse, he came from a culture that had convinced him that all women think about physical intimacy the way rakish men wish they would.
If you think what you do with your body has no intrinsic meaning, then ask yourself why smiling is a universal expression of happiness among human beings. There is no group on earth that expresses happiness with a frown. Indeed, even newborn babies react positively to a smile and cry at the sight of a frown. Babies can even recognize the difference between a real smile and a fake smile. Saying that kissing doesn’t have to mean anything is like saying that smiling doesn’t have to mean you’re happy. The point, rather, is: it usually does. And people who see you smile thus have good reason to ask: “Why so happy?” If at that point you were to reply: “Why does smiling have to mean I’m happy?,” they’d probably wonder what planet you were from.
So too, doesn’t the person you’ve been kissing have at least a good prima facie case for thinking that it might have meant something to you? When we see two people kissing in a movie, do we generally say: “Look, two friends”? No. We usually say: “Oooh, they love each other.”
Saying that kissing doesn’t necessarily mean anything is as foolish as trying to insist that a woman who is cooking you dinner every night isn’t necessarily interested in a long-term, romantic relationship. You think I’m kidding, but I once knew a young man who thought this. “We’re just friends,” he insisted. The fact that this young woman was cooking for him didn’t suggest a long-term commitment to him, so he simply assumed it couldn’t possibly mean that for her either. He was like the child who puts his hands over his eyes and says to the adults around him: “You can’t see me.”
Young people who are thinking about any kind of physical intimacy might turn the question around and consider not merely what do I think (or assume) is going on here, but how might the other person be interpreting this physical act? Am I presuming that the act “means nothing” because that’s what I want, not necessarily what she wants?
We live in a pluralistic, multi-cultural world (or so people say) in which young people are supposed to be sensitive about different cultures. And we all know that certain totally innocent gestures in the United States might be interpreted very differently in, say, Italy (don’t make certain hand gestures there unless you want trouble). So people of good will try to be careful.
Being careful about other people’s feelings and not presuming everyone interprets kissing as “merely for entertainment purposes only” might be a good start when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex.
Unless, of course, you really want to be a jerk.