by Amy Alkon
Q: This guy I’m dating usually texts back when I text him. But sometimes, like last night, he doesn’t write back. And I’m just texting stuff like, “How was your night?”—not “OMG, I miss you.” His not responding feels so disrespectful. I want to read him the riot act. —Deeply Upset
A: Unfortunately, it’s the rare man who has a mind-reading helmet, and even if this one does, there’s a pretty good chance it’s in the back of his closet under a pile of superhero underwear.
So yes, you actually do have to tell a man what you want. But choose your tone wisely. Reading a man the riot act is the right idea if you’re just looking to vent and be done with him. Angrily attacking someone or even just criticizing them will set off their fight-or-flight system. Their brain dispatches a bunch of biochemical messengers to alert the internal palace guard that they’re under attack. This, in turn, shuts down the systems that aren’t necessary for escape or battle, such as their digestive system (yeah, whatever) and their intellect—as in, their ability to consider your point. Oops.
To give this guy a chance to hear you and maybe even change his ways, turn to the wisdom of the world’s first behavioral economist, Adam Smith. In his 1759 potboiler, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith notes that evoking someone’s sympathy motivates them to want to ease the suffering of the person they’re feeling sympathy for. In other words, instead of attacking the guy, simply let him know how hurt you feel when you text him and get only the cold glare of the blank screen in response—the equivalent of his replying to some question you ask him at a party by diving over the porch railing into an embankment.
Unless he has an ashtray or another small household object where his heart is supposed to be, chances are he’ll feel bad that you’re feeling bad and try to reassure you. Also, as I explain in Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck, “technology makes a nearly instant response possible; it doesn’t mandate it.” But by calmly explaining that you’d really appreciate a response—at some point, even the next day—he can lay out what works for him, and the two of you can see whether it’s possible to meet in the middle. By talking instead of raging, you’ll be getting off to a very good start that transcends problem-solving in the text messaging department. If you can’t tell a guy he’s hurting your feelings, how can you tell him, “So I was parking your brand new car, and I don’t have the best depth perception, and, well … ”?
Q: I was crazy about this guy I started dating, but he got complacent, so I ended it. I started seeing someone else, which led my ex to proclaim that he loves me and wants me back. I recently ended things with the other guy, largely because I still have strong feelings for my ex. My ex swears he’ll break up with his current girlfriend but seems in no hurry to do it. How long should I wait in the wings for him?—Clock-Watching
A: How long should you wait? Well, that depends on whether you’re hoping to go on your first date with him in a flying car.
Relationships are “built on trust,” not rust—forming on you while you “wait in the wings” for a guy who’s under no pressure to speed up the timetable on having the uncomfortable breakup conversation with his current girlfriend. Another explanation for his dawdling may be the “mere ownership effect,” a behavioral economics term describing our tendency to irrationally overvalue and cling to something simply because it’s already in our possession. Consumer behavior researcher Sara Loughran Dommer finds that this ownership effect is even stronger when there’s an “ego threat” involved, like, oh, when your ex’s thoughts of you also bring up thoughts of you dumping him (even if he did deserve it for sleeping on the job).
However, the behavioral science cookie jar has something for you, too—“reactance,” our fear of missing out on an opportunity, the principle behind “Limited-time offer!” To chip away at his current complacency, give him a two-week “grace period” to straighten things out. Allowing him some time suggests that you have strong feelings for him. Making it a limited time suggests that you have strong feelings for yourself (self-respect and, out of that, boundaries). Good things can come to those who wait—just not so long that the movies playing on date night are Bruce Willis in “Die Hard With a Pacemaker” and Jackie Chan in “Kung Fu From a Walker.”