Signals Crossed: Sometimes a Bad First Date Went Worse Than You Thought

One of the more gratifying things about being in a long-term relationship is that (at least briefly) you get to sit back and watch everyone else play the dating game. Even better, often your significant other will have friends who forget you're actually on the other team – and nothing is more romantically enlightening than being there when the real Guy Talk begins.

In my current boyfriend's male posse, there is one guy (“Sam”) who stands out for both his comments and his conquests: Tall, good-looking, and quiet minus occasional sarcastic interjections, he's the elusive combination of detached and flirtatious that drives women to self-medicate. Unfortunately, Sam became fully aware of his lady-killer status sometime in college, and has since earned the title of a “big player.” Like, a makes-you-question-their-entire-gender-as-guilty-by-association type player.

During the first year I knew him, Sam cycled through an impressive array of females without hesitation or regret:  Bartenders, co-workers, one-night nameless encounters, cougars, teachers, attorneys, and even one surprisingly naive PhD.  The women were always infatuated with Sam, but he cast them off like dirty clothes.  As a ringside spectator, it was fascinating to see just how quickly he moved on. (Albeit a bit disturbing, too.)

There were a few instances when Sam seemed to favor one girl more than the rest, and he’d say something along the lines of, “She’s a really cool chick. I really like her.”

Usually by the time we hung out again though, if I asked about the “cool” girl he “really” liked, it always ended the same way — he’d shrug,” Who? Oh, her? Yeah, turns out she’s crazy.”  (For the record, his definition of crazy meant the girl caught him sleeping with someone else and got angry.)

Overall, seeing Sam in his natural habitat was an experience that made me re-think the advice we females exchange regarding the male mind.  For example, in one instance Sam showed up with a girl he’d met at the bar a few nights before. It was technically a first date, but something was off.   Why did he bring her out with his rowdy drunk friends?  Why was he talking to us more than her?  Sam was completely inattentive to the girl (“Sarah”) and absent the game he usually exuded with new prospects.  His approach to women was always subdued, but this interaction was icy to the point of uncomfortable.  So, when Sarah went to the bathroom, I took the opportunity to ask him why he was being so weird towards her, and making things insufferably awkward for the rest of us in the process.  Secretly I’d hoped for some kind of romantic musing like, “She makes me nervous” or “I don’t know what to say” etc etc.

But, that didn't happen. Instead, his zero-hesitation response was: “She wore a cross on a first date.”  It took me a second to realize that he was talking about her necklace, a fairly unobtrusive piece of jewelry that most people probably wouldn’t have noticed.

You might wonder: Was religion a deal-breaker for this guy?   Had Sarah been proselytizing at the bar?  Pulling out “Jesus Saves” sign-up cards for an upcoming revival?  And the answer would be no to all of the above.  Really, the cross as a religious symbol wasn’t a problem.  The cross as a first-date accessory, however, was.  In short, Sam explained that her necklace was meant to send a message: “I want you to think you’re not getting anywhere sexually with me quickly or easily.”

This seemed like an unusual interpretation, and at the time I pointed out to Sam that people with the most conservative exterior can have the most interesting closets and shocking wild sides — Catholic school girls, anyone?  But, regardless of what her choice in neckwear actually meant (if anything), Sam didn’t want to take the time and find out.  In his mind it was too much effort one way or another, and he explained that he met up with us that night because he “wasn’t interested in sitting around talking to her” and “couldn’t figure out how to ditch her quickly.”  Ouch.

Given that his intentions were sleazy and his assumptions highly questionable, it was interesting to hear what was really going through this guy’s head.  The bad news, however, is that his date didn’t get the same courtesy of full disclosure. Throughout the night, Sarah kept ambushing me with questions: “Do you think Sam likes me? He’s being so much less friendly than he was at the bar when we met. Did he say anything to you?”

I felt cornered – it didn’t seem like a good idea to start a war with a boyfriend’s close friend, or attempt to explain the awful male reality to a more or less stranger. So, I tried to play it off. “Oh, he’s just quiet,” I said, “Pretty laid back guy.” Ugh.

In retrospect maybe I should have taken one for the team and told her the truth — but is there any subtle way to tell someone that they’re dating an a-hole?   Plus, it almost didn’t sound believable:  “Based on your choice of necklace, Sam thinks he’s not getting any and that you’re trying to look like a high-maintenance purity princess. And, even though that might not be the case, he doesn’t think you’re worth the effort to find out otherwise.”

So, while Sam continued to ignore his date and I continued to feel awkwardly guilty for staying quiet, Sarah went out of her way to keep up appearances of a good time.  Maybe it was meant to show Sam what he was missing or just out of sheer discomfort, but she acted out a nightlong charade of fake laughs and over-enthusiastic responses (“Where did you go to school?” and “What do you do for a living?” rarely have people jumping up and down).

At the end of the night, Sarah asked for my number so “we” could all hang out again, and I silently prayed she wouldn’t use it to harass me with follow up questions.  Thankfully, she didn’t.    Knowing my gender, though, I’d guess she went home with her self esteem in the toilet and maybe spent the next few weeks re-hashing all the potential reasons Sam didn’t like her anymore. Sigh. If only she knew.

To this day I feel bad for keeping Sarah in the dark, and wish I’d found the words to explain how she was really dodging a bullet.  I hope that most guys don’t have similarly low thresholds when it comes to first dates and (unintended) social cues, but it might explain why women often feel so confused.  Who would have guessed that an accessory caused a 180-degree change from interested to apathetic?

Sometimes we're better off just letting a bad date go.  Sometimes the answer to “Why didn't he call me?” isn't anything constructive so much as just crude. Sometimes the take-away is simply:  Wear more crosses when you go out.  If nothing else, it scares off the players.

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Anna Harte is a writer, researcher, and caffeine connoisseur in Texas. Read more of her work at —

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  1. Guys are “supposed” to be simple, but they are much more confusing and play more games than any women I know. I was recently dumped after a third date due to the guy feeling there were “no sparks” even though he enjoyed our time together and thought we had really easy conversation. I wanted to ask where his “no sparks” feelings were the night before when he was lying on top of me making out like a teenager, but I didn’t.

    1. Elle,
      Sex does not a spark make. That is, a spark can mean something very different to men and women both. Your meaning of a “spark” apparently has less meaning than what this guy was saying possibly… Thoughts?

    2. Hmm…As Alex subtly points out, unfortunately what you’re describing might not be a gender difference in ‘complexity’ so much as ‘opportunity.’ Apologies to the fellas for this sweeping generalization, but a lot of guys will go however far sexually that a girl lets them, regardless of how they feel about her. Either way, you’re right – rumor has it that men are “supposed” to be the straightforward ones, but they can be just as confusing as the rest of us. Good luck!!

  2. Ouch. That was cold.
    You know what, Anna? Maybe it’s better that you didn’t tell her: we take criticism very seriously. Obviously, your friend was being an a-hole. I seriously don’t know anyone (me and my fiance are both atheists, and we hang out with lots of male and female atheist friends) and we know no one that would actually judge a woman (or a man, actually) for wearing a cross.
    And he wasn’t even talking about religion; he just wanted her to put out easily! Maybe it was Catholic guilt?
    Anyway, I digress. Imagine Sarah taking that for granted, and not wearing her cross again “in fear that it will scare people off.” I would totally understand her if she did, had you told her this. So, better her not being afraid of expressing herself and her religious views, than hiding it in fear of driving away the “players”. By the way, well said last line!

    1. Our friend was indeed being an a-hole, and certainly not everyone thinks the way he does about what the sign of the cross ‘really’ means (maybe he does have pent-up Catholic guilt!) – I’d hope one comment wouldn’t change her mind about wearing whatever religious paraphernalia she wants to wear, on dates or otherwise, but sometimes all it takes is one harsh review….

  3. So you guess Sarah went home with her self esteem in the toilet and maybe spent the next few weeks re-hashing all the potential reasons Sam didn’t like her anymore. Interesting. First of all, Sarah is at fault. She should have walked out. Her self esteem was only affected because she decided to stay. Believe me, walking out would have done wonders for her self esteem. Ladies, you need to know when to fold ’em.

    1. That’s good advice in a lot of situations for sure — in this case Sarah probably didn’t walk out just because Sam picked her up, and calling a cab or something would have looked too “dramatic.” If it had been an option, though, simply leaving would have been the best decision. I guess that’s another first date lesson learned: Always have an exit strategy!

  4. Nice article! This is a great reminder that we (ladies of the female persuasion) should stop feeling bad and blaming ourselves for not being “good enough” when a date goes wrong. Because usually when a date goes wrong, it means you’re just not compatible. Or you dodged a bullet.

  5. It’s the “nice girl” thing of not wanting to offend anyone, make waves or seem difficult. Leaving would “look bad”.

    So the nice girl suffers in silence until the date’s over because she doesn’t wish to seem “rude”.

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