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Taking the hint

By Nina Funnell - posted Friday, 24 October 2008

When artist Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear and sent it to his lover, I wonder if she thought “that's not what I wanted when I told him he never listens”. It wouldn't be the first time that a man has responded to a woman's request in a painfully literal fashion. Nor would it be the first communication breakdown to result in a relationship break-up.

Recently “singled”, I've been reminded that it's not just a person's Saturday night routine and Facebook status that alters after a relationship break-up. Our vocabularies also change as we switch from “couple's lexicon” back to “single's lexicon”.

There's no more “I'll check with the Mrs” or “I'll just ask the boyfriend”. No more “yes we'd love to” or “sorry, we're having couple's night in”. On the flip side, there's no more “we need to talk” or “not tonight honey”.


But not all “couples lexicon” is exclusively reserved for people who are actually in relationships. I'm thinking of single people who fallaciously use the line “thanks, but no thanks, I'm already seeing someone”.

We're probably all familiar with the scenario where a would-be Casanova has had one drink too many, or, for some other reason, has become a little too amorous and so won't accept a straight-forward “no”. Now I'm not talking about rape. I'm talking about the guy at the Christmas party who thinks he's re-enacting a scene from Dirty Dancing, or that crass, intoxicated woman at the bar who won't stop groping the men around her.

Men and women who have experienced this know how painfully awkward it is when someone wont take the hint. It can also be quite threatening. It's at this point the “already seeing someone” line often comes into play.

For eons singletons have been inventing imaginary partners to get out of such situations. The line has also become an established part of courting etiquette because it allows a person to be rejected without being humiliated. When turning down a well mannered, well intentioned suitor, it often seems more diplomatic to use a depersonalised excuse as opposed to a blunt truth.

But while a white lie might seem permissible in some circumstances, the problem is that the etiquette has gotten in the way of ethical communication. For starters, it's not exactly courteous to patronise a person by lying to their face. But more to the point, by over-relying on the line, some single women have stopped believing that they have the right to assert themselves.

The corollary is that some young blokes have become so accustomed to these women pandering to their egos, that they no longer recognise a woman's right to say that she is “just not interested”. As a young woman, say these words and you risk being called a “frigid bitch”, or, ironically enough, a “rude slut”.


And the problem is cyclical because there are only so many times you can handle being called a “bitch” or a “slut” before it becomes simply easier to invent an imaginary boyfriend, or, on some nights, a whole battalion of them.

Now of course there is no need to be rude or callous when rejecting an offer, but if a man or woman makes an offensive, unwelcome or inappropriate sexual advance, the recipient should always have the right to turn them down without having to resort to dishonesty. Nor should they cop abuse for doing so.

Women in particular need to know that they have the right to assert themselves and they certainly should not feel the need to cloak any discomfort in politeness, apologies or fabrications.

But the other problem with the “already taken” line is that even when women use it to “let nice guys down gently”, they inevitably end up constructing themselves in terms of male ownership. Rejecting one man, by identifying oneself as the spoken for property of another man, is hardly empowering and merely reduces women to the status of chattel. Moreover, this line does not encourage men to respect women: it merely reinforces the “brotherhood code” that says that you “do not touch another man's property”.

It's time that etiquette took a back seat to the real issues of gender equality and ethical interaction between the sexes. For women, sparing Casanova's feelings might still seem like the polite thing to do, but surely, compromising one's integrity is too great a price.

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About the Author

Nina Funnell is a freelance opinion writer and a researcher in the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. In the past she has had work published in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age, The Brisbane Times and in the Sydney Star Observer. Nina often writes on gender and sexuality related issues and also sits on the management committee of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre.

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