Rhodri Marsden: Why mixed romantic messages are vital for love

Life on Marsden

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There are books in the library that attempt to teach us how to speak and interpret the language of romance, called things like Hoodwink People into Having Sex with You. But they fail to legislate for unpredictable behaviour. People are erratic. They might be operating by the rules of a book called Don't Let People Hoodwink You into Having Sex. Sequences of unforeseen events can occur. You could follow the rules of any of these books to the letter and then somehow end up working down a mine in war-torn Angola, thinking, "This is awful – I only wanted to go on a date with Sarah."

We live amid a brutal crossfire of misread signals that make the advice offered by so-called relationship experts totally redundant. We're told that Monday is a low-status night of the week and any invitations for that night are a symbol of lukewarm interest – but who knows, maybe that person has set aside Friday and Saturday night to sculpt your face in marble. I read this week on Twitter that telling a woman you like her shoes is a copper-bottomed romantic strategy, but what if you adore her and her shoes are manifestly terrible, or you love her shoes and hate her guts? It's a minefield.

Last week, I met a girl in a bar and after 10 minutes she said, "Let me give you my number," and handed me her business card, which was tremendously flattering, except I had a nagging feeling that it might actually be business-related, and if I arranged to meet up with her she'd arrive with a folder of quarterly figures and an overhead projector. At which point I'd utter that time-honoured phrase associated with sudden recalibration of expectation: "Oh, I thought we were… Ah. Never mind." It's like when you're at a party and you experience a frisson of excitement as someone whispers in your ear, "Do you fancy getting some air?" and then you realise it's because the person standing behind them has farted.

Having said all that, if it weren't for misread signals and the improbable situations they throw up, the mechanics of attraction would be desperately dull. Romance would involve marching up to someone you've never met before, saying, "I consider you marriage material," and producing a pair of airline tickets to Las Vegas. And that doesn't work. Believe me.

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