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    On Meeting People at Bars

    If you're single, and you want to meet someone, where do you go? People always meet one another at bars, right? Get a little drunk, engage in a little chit-chat with comely strangers, perhaps take one home, at least get some digits. Right? Wrong. I, for one, have never had the courage to converse with strangers. Well, that’s not entirely correct. Once engaged in conversation, I can talk with just about anybody, though I may bore them to distraction. What I cannot do is approach a complete stranger and initiate conversation. As a child, I was deathly afraid to call strangers on the phone and would engage in protracted negotiations with my mother in order to persuade her to make the call for me. When I get lost, I rarely ask strangers for directions, not because I’m a macho guy with a map but because I’m a wimpy guy with a complex. Strangers are scary, and I avoid them whenever possible. I am not alone in this regard. People are shy; it’s in our genes. Millennia ago, these behavioral tendencies protected us from violent pillagers and kept us from becoming entangled in dull conversations with Neanderthals.

    As if that weren’t enough to confine everyone to their own comfortable little circles, most of us also bear a virtually insurmountable terror of rejection. If a woman chooses not to talk to me or not to give me her phone number, it suggests that she doesn’t find me attractive or interesting or clever enough or she's disconcerted by the hair protruding from my left nostril or something of the sort. Who can bear the horrible implications of rejection without collapsing in abject humiliation? Not me. I’d much prefer to chat with my familiar, relatively accepting friends than risk such peril. People without such inhibitions, and I’ve not met many, always impress me, sort of. Some are naturally unafraid. These are the sort of people who talk to anybody and everybody, sometimes charmingly, often abrasively. Some, on the other hand, condition themselves. I suppose that panhandlers quickly become inured to the humiliation of begging. Likewise, some people, most often men, purge the anxieties from their souls by constant practice. I’ve attempted such self-training before and occasionally stammered out a few felicitations and bland questions to bemused young women, but I inevitably scurry away as soon as I begin to feel self-conscious, and the whole exercise proves fruitless.

    But I admit that it is possible, though much rarer than popularly supposed, for single heterosexual people to meet one another at bars. It can only happen under certain proscribed circumstances. When they visit bars, young attractive people (as opposed, say, to pathetic old drunks) usually surround themselves with friends. Indeed, a young person sitting alone at a bar is clearly a desperate loser and perhaps a psycho to boot. At the end of the movie, Swingers, Jon Favreau meets Heather Graham, playing a beautiful, single, swing-dancing lawyer, as she sits alone at a bar. Absolutely preposterous. If there are any single, swing-dancing, Heather-Graham-lookalike lawyers out there at all, they are certainly not waiting alone at bars for Favreauish schleps to ask them to dance.

    Now the friends with which we surround ourselves present a major impediment to the bar pick-up scene. Advancing alone on a table of friends is like attempting to seize the White House with a BB gun. You can’t even make it past the perimeter. Entering an ongoing group conversation can be awkward even if you know the participants. How can you possibly introduce yourself into a group of strangers? What would be your pick-up line? “So, what are your signs, in order please?” I, for one, would snub and ridicule (not necessarily in that order) any stranger brazen enough to attempt to include herself in a conversation I was having with friends, unless of course she looked like Heather Graham.

    On rare occasions, however, young people will visit bars in groups of two or three. I would never attempt to engage a threesome, but it’s at least within the realm of possibility. Two is ideal. Women, if you ever want to meet men at a bar, bring one and only one friend. Otherwise, your only suitors will likely be the panhandler-types, the smarmy shameless losers who will hit on anyone, anywhere. I appeal to women, here, because the unfortunate truth is that women very rarely “make the move”. In addition to the standard fear of strangers and rejection that most human beings share, a woman must overcome the cultural expectation of passivity in order to introduce herself to a strange man. I once read a (unisex) bathroom wall exhortation to women to introduce themselves to men they found interesting, which sparked a lively bathroom wall debate as to the gender and wisdom of the writer, complete with the usual bathroom profanities. The last contributor wrote plaintively, "I wish I were gay."

    In any case, let’s set up a scenario. Two young, attractive women are having a conversation at a bar. An intrepid young man would like to introduce himself. However, even when there are only two women, the suitor cannot engage them alone. Remember, a man who is alone at a bar is clearly a desperate loser and perhaps a psycho to boot. The suitor must employ a wingman to distract the friend while he, Gold Leader, engages the primary target. I’m a terrible wingman. Insecurity again. I figure that the friend doesn’t know that I’m just the wingman and assumes herself to be the primary target. That means one of two things:

    a) She’s very attractive, and I haven’t got a prayer of matching her in a dogfight. I stammer nervously, make dumb jokes, and repeatedly tell myself to be cool. Silently to myself. Usually.

    b) She’s not attractive, and suddenly I face the threat of an enthusiastic opponent gunning for my tail. It doesn't really matter whether she has the faintest interest in me. Actually it's worse if she doesn't. Then I face rejection from someone who doesn't even attract me.

    Either way, I panic, hit the eject button, and float back to the safety of home base, leaving Gold Leader to engage the enemy himself.

    The real trick is to hit on people without appearing to hit on them. Take a second to imagine an encounter with the perfect stranger. We all have fantasies about running into Mr. or Ms. Right. Perhaps in the park, on an airplane, at a concert or museum; maybe at one of those S&M parties or during a Carmelite retreat, whatever. Are you imagining it? Now, in your fantasy, is this person you’re imagining hitting on you? Was he scoping for a hot chick when he saw you. Was she looking around for a cute boy to catch her eye. Not likely. People who are looking for love turn us off. The man or woman who invariably attracts one’s eye is precisely the one who is not looking around for eyes to attract. So when you go to a bar to try to meet someone special, you want to avoid as much as possible looking like you’ve come to the bar to try to meet someone special. You’re just making conversation to pass the time or were struck by some fascinating fact (“That’s a really shiny shirt.”) or uncanny resemblance (“You look just like Heather Graham”). Perhaps you happened to overhear a shred of conversation that interests you (“Sorry, I heard you say that you went to Middlebury? I had a friend who went there.”

    I once met a woman at a bar while waiting for the bathroom to become vacant. We underestimate the value of the bathroom line in stimulating relationships. Despite their reputation for group bathroom excursions, women at bars usually go to the bathroom alone or with one other friend at most. And even if one waits on line with a friend, there’s probably only one toilet, so at some point, they have to split up. Then there she is, flying solo and just as socially naked as you are. So you engage. Engagement is easy because there you both are, awkwardly starting at the ceiling or at your own shoes. It seems rude not to say something. Moreover, you have a common interest, the bathroom. So you make some clever wisecrack, e.g. “This place needs more bathrooms.” It’s utterly stupid, meaningless, and not at all funny, but it doesn’t matter because at least you’ve said something, shot off an opening volley. Now you’ve done your job, and you’re off the hook until she returns fire. She presses her lips together, insinuating a smile, and murmurs, “Hmp,” a half-born abortion of a laugh, the kind of noise people make when someone says something that has the façade of a joke but isn’t really funny. That’s OK. What else would she do? Laugh outright? The real test comes approximately two seconds later, after the awkward pause. The pause must be necessary for her to muster up her own courage or to decide whether or not to talk to you or to imagine you bearing her children or who knows what. The point is, there’s always an awkward, look-down-at-the-shoes pause. If she doesn’t say anything to break the pause, you’re screwed. Some guys might fly in for a second pass, in case she’s indecisive or just timid. Me, I stare ferociously at my toes as if they were the most incredible things I’ve ever seen and pray to the toilet gods to spirit one of us into that little room as fast as they possibly can.

    But perhaps, if she thinks you’re cute or just feels like chatting, she adds her own inane comment to the conversation: “Yeah. One toilet just isn’t enough for a bar this size.” If she says that, you’re off and running: you can wax philosophical about the importance of bathrooms to our society, statistically analyze the ideal toilet-to-patron ratio, tell her some story about how you were once locked in a port-o-potty, whatever. You have from thirty seconds to two minutes to get friendly enough with her to continue the conversation after your respective visits to the toilet. Because that, of course, is the rub. You’re on the bathroom line for a reason after all. The trick is to move the conversation beyond the bathroom. If the bathroom is all you’ve talked about, there’s nothing to carry on; you simply shared a stupid experience with a stranger. But if you can move on to some other subject before the parting, you’ve got a real conversation going, and it’s not unreasonable to carry on afterward. It also helps to be the first one out. If you get done first, you may be able to get away with waiting for her to finish. If she gets done before you, chances are high that she’ll immediately return to the protection of her friends, and then you’ve lost her. Once, when I was talking to a woman who had just come out of the bathroom, I postponed my own relief for almost half an hour until I was virtually doubled up in pain in order to prolong our conversation.

    Moral of the story: If you want to meet someone at a bar, find one with a low toilet-to-patron ratio, and visit the bathroom as frequently possible without appearing to suffer from dysentery.



    Best meeting-someone-at-a-bar formula? As a woman, going with two male friends can be a fantastic ice-breaker.  Right away, you're not on a date, and you're cool enough to hang with guys.  I bet the same would work for dudes. Not, of course, that actually meeting someone at a bar has ever turned into a successful relationship for *anyone* I know.

    If only I knew two men.

    Not sure about that. Feels like too much competition. If I had two wingwomen with me, it could work.

    I am very outgoing and talk to everybody but it still doesn't work.  Sometimes I play the good quiet girl and wait for them to come to me and it still doesn't work.

    Isn't the point of meeting people in bars to take them home, sleep with them, and hope they leave before you wake up? I'm with Paige. I've never known anybody who met in a bar that formed a lasting relationship. When your starting point for what you have in common is alcohol, you might want to put off ordering the wedding invitations.

    I think I hear some tut-tutting in the background. Fair enough point, though. I don't know anyone who found a serious relationship in a bar either. But I suppose that this post was not really about bars. You could insert a coffee shop, a party, or a poetry slam. I'd have the same feelings though the degree might differ. And honestly this post isn't even about finding a relationship. It's about the conflicting feelings that I have between what I wish that I could do and what I feel comfortable doing and about the absurd games we play as sexual beings looking for partners. We know they're absurd even while we play them but that doesn't stop us. Most of us.

    Just so you know, I am very good at talking to strangers and I still don't know how to successfully play the "absurd games."

    My feeling is that everyone should have a sign that they hang around their neck. Just put it out there. Like maybe: "I'm looking for a relationship, but am also open to casual sexual relationship with the right person. I like a challenge, so the best thing to do is to talk with me for a few minutes, pretend you're not interested, but then actually call me later. Please don't ask me to talk about my work."  The sign should be on our back so we forget it's there, but people will at least have a clue. Yours could say "I like to talk to people but I can't approach them so help me out by coming over and saying hi."  Someone's could say "I just broke up with someone and am looking for rebound sex."  Also, people who are in serious relationships who are hanging out in bars should definitely have a sign on them. I find the most charming men will always always then introduce you to their girlfriend/fiance.


    I like it. At the very least it would make for a kickass performance art project. The problem with the actual execution is that advertising one's availability is a turnoff. Hence the absurd games.

    Well, of course you are right about the execution. Honesty is a turn off. Unless somehow we could make everybody do it... then maybe things would shift.  What gets me is this.... if availability is a turn off... then seeming unavailable is a turn on. But the only people that approach someone who seems unavailable are people who are either very confident, or arrogant, pushy, etc. How does one attract someone who is shy?  Or how do you attract someone else who is also petending to be unavailable?

    Catch 22

    That's why you need a "bathroom line"

    If seeming unavailable is a turn on, then I'm totally doing it wrong. I guess I should be clingy?  I prefer honesty, honestly (heh). What's wrong for asking for what you want? I don't get games. I guess that's why I suck at dating.

    Not tut-tutting exactly. And anyways, what do I know? When I'm attracted to someone, I usually ignore them so I won't have to deal it. I look at dating as a massive chore and suffer through dates with men that my friends and family pick for me. Ten years ago, I was probably like you, in that I could talk to anyone as long as they started the conversation. My mom was one of those people who talked to strangers all over the place--on the bus, in the supermarket checkout, at the doctor's office--and it used to mortify me to no end. Now, maybe because I'm older and don't care as much what people think of me, I have no problem starting conversations, just problems finding people I actually care to talk to. But there again that could be false snottiness, just to avoid the drama of dating.

    I have heard of it working out, meeting someone at a bar.  I kind of agree with you about the alcohol though... it probably isn't as useful as it seems.

    The trick is to fall for the bartender, or barmaid as it were.



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