By Lois Romano with Kristen Holmes and Jenna Holmes
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; 12:15 PM
My 20-year-old daughter informed me that she recently dumped a guy because when she asked him the meaning of a word, he said, "Are you serious?"
"That was it. It's like a huge test for me. . . . It told me he felt intellectually superior to me," explained Jenna, a pre-med sophomore at George Washington University. "He's the kind of guy who would try to make me seem stupid in front of our kids."
Whoa . . . give the guy a break, I thought.
I twitched my mouth disapprovingly. She rolled her eyes.
You . . . don't . . . get . . . it, she conveyed.
In fact, I should have gotten it instantly. Back in the "olden days" -- as my daughters refer to my freewheeling single years -- I shamelessly probed my disastrous relationships (as well as my friends') on these very pages. (Sorry, guys.)
One of the final humiliations for my unsuspecting subjects came with "Love and the Litmus Test," an article that appeared here 28 years ago and essentially justified the kind of subjective, quick and seemingly irrational judgment that Jenna had made. I described it as the moment in virtually every relationship when the euphoria of chemistry and promise gives way to the reality of everyday life -- and a decision has to be made. An "insignificant gesture, an offhand comment" or a plaid sports coat can alter destiny.
Can I survive one more evening with a guy who spends 10 minutes reviewing the check at dinner with his own calculator? Am I mature enough to sit on the beach with someone wearing a teeny-weeny red stretch bathing suit? Would it be unreasonable to ask someone on the third date to get his back hair waxed if he expects there to be a fourth date?
Reader reaction was swift and voluminous -- and this in an era before e-mail and Web comments. There were dozens of calls and letters from folks wanting to share their personal litmus tests, all feeling validated by their own verdicts. So overwhelming was the response that the story became the basis of a 1984 book, "When to Dump Your Date." Everyone, it seemed, had a secret test.
With daughters Jenna Holmes, 20, and Kristen Holmes, 24, who are very much in their dating prime, the time seemed right to revisit the premise. So herewith we offer views from a couple of Millennials, juxtaposed with the opinions of the previous generation. Of course, these are not necessarily the dating mores of the entire Net Generation . . . we'll leave compiling those to the official surveyors of public opinion.
Our broad generational differences were immediately apparent. A number of their litmus tests revolve around the nuances of Facebook etiquette and social networking -- nonexistent three decades ago. There even seem to be cultural differences between the two of them: Kristen remembers a time when not everything could be found on the Internet, Jenna does not.
On some fronts, their litmus tests are far more progressive than mine. Coming out of the '60s, my peers considered themselves feminist prototypes who were hellbent on having careers and families. Yet not a single woman in my original research mentioned cooking as a litmus test for a potential mate. In fact, a guy who wanted to cook you a three-course dinner at your place back then was considered a little too domesticated.
For my daughters, ineptitude in the kitchen is almost a deal-breaker.
"Cooking is a huge deal," said Kristen, a member of the Teach for America corps in Chicago.
"It's such a nice skill -- but beyond that it's a telling quality. . . . There's something very charming about a guy who can cook. It's says to me, independence, confidence, unfazed by gender roles . . . ."
"I have to have a guy who cooks," Jenna said bluntly, "because I can't."
"Movies can be a giveaway about the style and taste of a potential soul mate. . . . When she prefers Cheech and Chong's first movie to "Breakfast at Tiffany's," the time may not be right for a romantic weekend in New York . . . ." -- "When to Dump Your Date"
"You put way too much emphasis on classic cultural references. I don't think they resonate anymore. You have the Casablanca Test -- you have to have seen it. Look, everyone should know by now certain lines come from the movie, 'We'll always have Paris' and 'Play it, Sam.' I've known since I was 9 -- but if you haven't seen the movie, so what? . . . For me, a guy has to at least know of 'The Daily Show' and 'The Colbert Report.' If they don't, well, they're really out of it." -- Jenna
"Does he read a lot? Does she know Jung from Jong . . . Books -- they bring out the intellectual snob in all of us . . . Rod McKuen: instant disqualification from polite conversation in most parts of civilized world." -- "When to Dump Your Date"
"I still have a literature test, but I think I'm a rare case. It's lame if a guy doesn't even have a bookshelf. When I go to new boyfriend's apartment for the first time, I look at his bookshelf. One guy I dated only had high school books -- I mean, like AP textbooks. You know he doesn't read. My last boyfriend didn't like to read. We'd be hanging out and I would be reading, and he would be like, 'What are you doing now? What are you doing now? What are you doing now? I'm bored.' . . . But he could sit and watch golf on TV, pretty much the most boring sport ever, for hours at a time, but he wouldn't sit and read a book. No intellectual curiosity. . . . The reality now is a lot of people don't read anymore. Everything is so accessible. So guys are getting stupider and stupider." -- Kristen
"I just don't care if guys read books. I actually think there may be a difference between my generation and Kristen's. Even Kristen didn't grow up with computers in the same way I did. . . . You wrote about checking out what guys have on their bookshelves -- whether they have the right kind of literature. No one looks at that anymore. Everything is available on ebrary. A lot of guys now don't even have bookshelves. Books are a hassle to move. I want a bookshelf because they're good furniture pieces." -- Jenna
"The sluggish check-payer is enough to give any woman a pit in her full stomach." -- "When to Dump Your Date"
"The check shouldn't even hit the table if you're out to dinner -- he should grab it out of the waitress's hand. On a first date, if a guy doesn't reach for the check, if he looks the other way or turns it over and says you owe $7.50 -- I'm outta there. But whereas in your generation, it was expected the entire time, I think for us it's only a certain amount of time, like in the wooing period. Even if a guy is dirt-broke I expect him to pick me up on the first date and pay for it. After that I'm fine going Dutch." -- Jenna
"I haven't been on a date in the last six years where a guy didn't pay on the first date. Not only should they pay, but if you meet them somewhere, they should be there first -- and ready. When I went out with Pete, this is a random guy, we went and played bingo at a bar. When I got there, he was there and he had already bought the bingo cards. Good start. Now, after that, he proceeded to get falling down drunk, so it ended there." -- Kristen
"First Night turn-offs are not confined to the big blunders. . . . A sure-fire bad sign: When he starts making very important calls as soon as he walks into your apartment. [Note: This would have been from a land line!]" -- "When to Dump Your Date"
"A total no-no for me is being on your phone at dinner. It's my biggest pet peeve in the world. Phone etiquette is still really important. If a guy ever picks up a phone during a meal, I would never talk to him again. Sometimes we'll be at dinner, and a guy will pick up his phone and say, 'Oh. Don't worry, it's my mom.' First of all, I'm not worried. Really? Second of all, I understand that you have this relationship with your mom. I have one with my mom, too, but it's not like we're going to be out to dinner for seven hours. I bet she can wait." -- Kristen
"I cannot tolerate a guy who, when you're out to dinner, puts his phone on the table. I want to say, 'What? Do you have a child who's allergic to peanuts at a sleepover at a bar?' What is it exactly that he is afraid of missing that's more interesting than the date? You're so insecure that you want to be somewhere else?" -- Jenna
"[The perfect woman] . . . takes a telephone message from your old girlfriend, gives it to you, and never mentions it again." -- "When to Dump Your Date"
Of course, 28 years later, social media outlets have made the very notion of telephone etiquette seem quaint. If only it were still so simple. Cellphones have supplanted land lines. Texting has replaced talking. BlackBerrys have overtaken phones. And Facebook trumps them all.
"Okay, so Facebook is kind of a weird thing -- it has many tests. First, let's look at poking. We meet, you think I'm cute, I think you're cute. You friend me on Facebook and a relationship is budding. Then you poke me. I wake up, excited, and poke you back. Then you don't stop. Why are you poking me every five minutes? Now you're getting on my nerves. Then, I'm unfriending you. Next, status updates. Are you trying to get me interested? Then why would you post 'The Mexican I had at lunch is making me sick -- been in the bathroom for an hour'? . . . No, we will not be making out. Lastly, irrelevant wall posts tells me the guy has too much time on his hands. We've met twice and we kind of like each other. It starts with funny links to YouTube videos every once in a while. Then it's more like, 'What are you doing?' even though you have my number. Then it moves to inside jokes that we don't actually have. Then I'm deleting your number out of my phone." -- Kristen
"The great thing about Facebook is that it can give you some distance -- but it is also very invasive. The worst is a guy who is too eager to change his relationship status. By the second date he's changed his profile to 'In a Relationship' and invited you to be in a relationship with him. And by the third date he wants to know why you haven't changed your status. So you navigate that -- and then he starts writing possessive messages on your wall -- so the whole world knows you went out. You know, 'Hello, sweetie, Saturday night was awesome -- can't wait for our next date.' What next date? Then there's the guy who has 1,000 photos in his [Facebook] album and he's tagged himself in 998 of them -- there's something a little too narcissistic there." -- Jenna
Three decades later, it's quite clear that some truths are universal: After adapting for technological advances and generational cultural shifts, there wasn't all that much difference between us. Buying a woman dinner and holding doors are as important to my daughters as they were to my mother. Texting through dinner is as big a taboo as table-hopping was two decades ago. And a jerk is a jerk in any situation.
These young women have a well-honed concept of gender equality, yet they still want a man to step up in a traditional way. Although they are the first generation to view Facebook, Twitter and texting as integral to their social lives, they are part of a generation that still values character and commitment. As for those official surveyors of public opinion, a recent Pew Research Center survey reports that the Millennial Generation rates parenthood and marriage "far above career and financial success."
Of course, marriage is not a topic I dare raise with my own daughters.
Again, some things never change.