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Appointment for Coffee

Thursday, May 2, 2013
There are strengths and weaknesses to the current Coffee-for-a-First-Date convention. The strengths are that it is relatively inexpensive, conducted in full view of the public and can, and should, be short. The weakness is that it depends almost entirely on chat and yet in itself gives host and guest very little to chat about. Both host and guest have to depend on, and indeed display, their social skills unaided.

I wonder what quiet men who do not like to talk would consider the ideal first date. I will have to ask one. Meanwhile, this will shock you, but in life you may have to fulfill appointments for coffee in non-date situations. Adult life may present you with invitations you do not expect.

For example, some time ago I was asked out for coffee by a fellow foreigner I will call Simon. I had done Simon a good turn, and Simon proposed coffee in a café. I was startled by his email because no (non-colleague) man had suggested coffee to me since I got married. I very much doubt any man has ever suggested coffee to my mother since she got married. (Goodness! And what would she say?)

The whole concept of married ladies having friendly coffees with single men in real life and not just in historical novels was new and suspiciously European to me, so I believe I replied something intensely North American and married-lady like, "I'll have to ask my husband."

So I asked my husband, and he said "Yes, why not?" and I emailed back, "My husband says yes," and far, far away my mother felt a pain and all our Scottish ancestors rolled in their graves. I could not imagine why Simon wanted to spend time in a café with a married lady, but I thought perhaps he wanted to practice his English or merely show gratitude for my good turn. So I went to this appointment for coffee, having previously thought I was done with appointments for coffee with new men forever.

Fortunately, some hours before this appointment, I went to an exciting court case that disturbed me very much. This meant that when I turned up in the café I had something solid to talk about. And I recommend this to any woman who has agreed to meet a man for coffee: be up-to-date on something of general interest. Crime is better than politics because whereas you may disagree unpleasantly about politics, any man you meet in a café is going to agree that crime is a bad thing. At least, I hope so.  At any rate, a good way to get a conversation rolling is to answer "How are you?" with "Well, I'm fine, but I'm rather disturbed by today's bank robbery in the west end."

Simon listened carefully to my descriptions of the courtroom and then, to my surprise, castigated me for assuming that criminal members of the Scottish underclass would share my middle-class values. He also condemned light sentencing, which he said illustrated how degenerate Britain is, and recommended corporal punishment. This was not in a confidential undertone, but normally as if behind closed doors where speech is free and no conversational holds are barred.

It turned out that Simon was not one for small talk (few men are, actually), but for getting right to the good stuff. Naturally, not being Scottish, English or even Canadian, he did not care very much what those around thought of his ideas. But I felt rather panicked, as he was not following the polite conventions of Scottish or Canadian public conversation which my parents (and Canadian society) had instilled into my very bones. Fortunately for my peace of mind, the conversation shifted to the less controversial topic of Simon's grasp of English, in which he was naturally interested, and other language-related issues. These kept us entertained until 5, when I said I must go home and make my husband's supper.

I know you're dying to know, so, yes, Simon paid the bill.

The biggest difference between this appointment for coffee and your first-date-in-a-café is that my appointment had no courtship overtones, and your date does.

Both, however, are uncharted territories, potentially fraught with cultural misunderstandings and social disasters. And this is why coffee appointments really demand social finesse and careful drawing of boundaries, including ending the appointment with a good excuse.

Yesterday, I pointed out that you are doing a favour to men by ending your dates early, for it prevents them from becoming subconsciously bored. But speaking of Simon, who was intensely Old World and chivalrous, has reminded me that a chivalrous man will be reluctant to allow his guest to think for a moment that he wants, for whatever reason, to end the date/appointment himself. For that reason alone, you must draw the temporal line and say good-bye.

Surviving first appointments for coffee with new people, whether they are dates or not dates, comes down to six principles:

1. Tell yourself and the chap who asked when the appointment will end.
2. Have something of sure-fire general interest to talk about.
3. Listen carefully to the other person's point of view, and respond thoughtfully.
4. If the conversation gets too rough for your comfort, find an opportunity to steer it into more peaceful waters.
5. He who invited pays.
6. Go home when you said you would go home.

By the way, I am positive that my majority-American-and-Canadian readership is having seizures at the idea of a married woman going out for coffee with a single man (not even a work colleague!), so all I can say is (A) apparently it's different in Europe and (B) my husband said it was okay.

Update: I regret that last paragraph because it looks like I am setting up a distinction between so-called provincial Americanism and so-called European sophistication. That is not what I mean at all.  North Americans have a good reason to worry about divorce: the USA and to a certain extent Canada have had divorce cultures for almost a century. Divorce as a contagious disease is rather newer to Europe (especially outside the UK); divorce in much of Catholic Europe is still a major scandal. (As I discover every time an Italian or Polish Catholic journalist grills me on my annulment.)

As a matter of fact, I do believe married people have to be very careful about what they do and with whom they associate and about keeping their social life an open book to their spouses. This is not merely because I am Canadian, but because I am well over 30 and well-acquainted with human nature. Let me tell you one day about the young male religious who told me over lunch that he hoped Father Karl Rahner had had a mistress.