Illustrations by Tom Ford
Illustrations by Tom Ford

Is it ever OK to ask someone if they are single?

You can’t ask me that! Continuing her series tackling socially unacceptable questions, Christine Manby asks the real meaning behind querying someone’s relationship status

“Are you single?”

This is exciting. Why are they asking? Do they want to know if you’re unattached so they can ask you out on a date? Or is it just small talk again?

It’s a fairly innocuous question, isn’t it? Are you single? Or the flip side, are you married?

It’s the kind of thing you ask someone you’ve met at a party after “what’s your name?” and “where do you come from?” It’s impossible to cause offence by asking someone whether or not they have a partner, surely… Are you mad?

Once again, the problem with the question is in the answer. What are they going to do with it once they find out? Let’s take it from there.

“Yes. I’m single,” you respond, casually stroking your moustache.

“Are you busy this weekend?” they reply. “I need a date for a party on a yacht moored in Monaco. Blumenthal’s doing the food. Sheeran’s doing the music. We’re getting there by private jet. Just bring your swimming costume.”

That would be your best case scenario (except perhaps for the Sheeran). More likely, as has frequently happened to me since I’ve looked old enough to sign a register, the person asking the question puts their head on one side and gives a smile that says not “fantastic, now I can make my move” but “I wonder what’s wrong with you?” (It was probably the moustache).

Since Noah shuffled all the animals except the manmade ones* onto the Ark, mammals have been going two-by-two. Admitting that you’re without a “better half”, or even “a half you would push under a bus if you thought no one was looking”, generally elicits pity and not a little distrust.

You feel it even at an actual singles’ night, where people without partners, who are supposedly looking for love, approach potential dates in a spirit of anxious trepidation, each convinced they’re the only person in the room who is single by circumstance and not because they’re a potential bunny boiler. To be single is to be suspicious.

And yet the number of people living alone is very much on the rise. The Office of National Statistics calculated that almost eight million people were living alone in the UK last year. The ONS further estimates that by 2020, the number of households where people live alone will increase by another two million.

That’s an awful lot of weirdoes. Or widows. Widowers. Divorcees. Single people who haven’t started looking. Single people who are actively looking. And single people who’ve looked and decided they don’t actually want to be in a relationship at all. That’s a pretty broad group to consider somehow lacking.

Yet we do make judgements based on people’s relationships or lack of them and the most prevalent assumption is that coupled up is better. “Four legs good, two legs bad,” to borrow a phrase from Snowball in Orwell’s Animal Farm. (Six legs is something else entirely.)

Fortunately, in a work context, it’s illegal to discriminate against someone just because they don’t have a romantic partner. Questions about marital status are among those proscribed by the Equality Act of 2010. An interviewer should never ask if you’re single.

That said, “singlism” is rife in the workplace with a recent study of 25,000 workers by Opportunity Now, finding that two thirds of those without families reported they were expected to work longer hours than colleagues with partners and children.

Likewise, single workers complain that they have to provide holiday cover for those with families. And when they do get to go on holidays, they’re hit with the dreaded single supplement of course.

Being single definitely isn’t the cheaper option and it’s not just single supplements on your holiday accommodation versus the married person’s tax break. Many things are more expensive when you’re on your own.

While officially your employer can’t discriminate against you for not having a partner, insurers certainly discriminate based on relationship status.

The website puts it this way, “Marriage symbolises so many things, not least it demonstrates that you’re responsible and care enough about another human being not to do anything crazy or reckless.” Which equals lower insurance premiums for the coupled up.

I’ve seen it in action. A few years ago, having accrued a few points on my licence for speeding (Not clever, I know), I was having a hell of a time finding someone to insure my Fiat Panda for less than a hundred million pounds. A friend suggested I add him to my insurance application as an extra driver.

The cost immediately dropped by nearly two hundred quid. Since the website hadn’t at that point asked for any details beyond his name, I can only assume that an algorithm decided my friend was my partner and he’d be sitting beside me whenever I got behind the wheel, tutting and scowling if I went over 30 in a 50 zone.

Surely by the same token, I’d be just as likely to go crazy, put my foot down and run every red light on the south circular every time the controlling bastard wasn’t in the car?

It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Technically, single people may have more car accidents but that statistic must be skewed by all the newly licensed 17 year olds who aren’t married because they’re still at school.

Age and experience is the factor there. Not whether “you’re responsible and care enough about another human being not to do anything crazy or reckless”. Crazy and reckless like marry the wrong person because all your mates are coupled up and you feel like the odd one out?

Marriage might just as well equal desperation, depression and a desire to divorce as stability.

While divorce is generally on the decline, that might be due more to the fact that in the current economic climate people simply can’t afford to split a household rather than because we’re getting better at relationships. And when people do get divorced, they’re no longer in such a rush to couple up again.

At least, the women aren’t. A recent survey showed that fewer than half of female divorcees would be willing to tie the knot again. To quote Shakespeare, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama (according to the internet), “there’s nothing lonelier than being with the wrong person”. Exactly.

I’ll leave the last word on the question “are you single” to this unattributed quote (found on a Pinterest board), which might come in handy next time that bore breathing whisky hears you answer “yes” and suggests it’s because you’re being picky or not making enough of an effort (it’s that moustache again).

“Stop asking why I’m still single and I won’t ask why you’re still married.”

*The “manmade animals”. A friend’s step-mother, a devout denier of evolution, answered her son’s question about how big the ark would have had to be to get all the world’s creatures on board by explaining that some of the animals were in fact manmade and thus not around in Noah’s time.

She didn’t specify the animals in question, but my friend and I concluded they must include the duck-billed platypus and the aye-aye. I mean, come on, they were clearly both invented in the course of a drinking game.

Christine Manby has written numerous novels including ‘The Worst Case Scenario Cookery Club’

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