On a Friday night in early February I drove out to meet a girlfriend for a movie, bringing my teenage daughter Claire along for the event. Running late, we circled the parking lot like vultures until we finally found a space.

Why the unusual crowd, I wondered as we speed-walked to the front of the theater to buy tickets. When we rounded the corner, I stopped cold. A line of nearly 100 people stretched from the ticket window down the length of the sidewalk. The movie we had come to see had been out for a couple of weeks, so what was all the fuss about? It didn’t take long to find out. That night a new film was debuting, and I realized in one sweeping glance down the sidewalk that the buzz generated by the book of the same name had carried over to the box office. And why shouldn’t it? After all, we can’t get enough of trying to figure out the opposite sex. The movie’s title: He’s Just Not That into You.

Billed as the ultimate date movie, the film promised an entertaining two hours delving into the lives of contemporary singles struggling to find love—and often “getting rejected by seven different technologies” in the process, as one character (played by Drew Barrymore) laments. But the movie also looked upbeat, funny, a romantic comedy that all of us could relate to with wry humor. Certain we wouldn’t make our intended show, I texted my friend and told her Claire and I would have to opt for another movie—and we chose a later showing of the one everybody else had apparently come to see.

A few years ago I actually read the book He’s Just Not That into You by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo at the urging of a friend. Considered a “tough love” manual for decoding guy behavior and speech, the book was helpful, if not always hopeful, and the trailer for the movie version hinted at a playful, tongue-in-cheek look at men's and women’s hits and misses in the dating game. Claire and I found seats and settled in for an enjoyable night at the movies, but as the story unfolded something very different happened. It started in the pit of my stomach, a slight nauseated feeling not unlike the sensation of having been punched in the gut and unable to catch your breath. As the characters loved and laughed and cried their way through complicated relationships, I sat frozen in my seat, trying not to process what I was feeling. But later that night, back at home, I allowed myself to put a name to my unusual reaction to the movie. I will call it simply familiarity.

In the film’s storyline, one of the hip male characters befriends a woman and gives her free advice on how to decode what men say and do to arrive at what they really mean—which, sad to say, is often the opposite. Repeatedly, the woman is dismayed to hear that so many of the casual and outwardly encouraging messages men send (like the notorious “Hey, I’ll give you a call sometime”) actually mean HE’S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU. The irony is that the male character himself later misreads his own signals (breaking all his rules) and realizes he’s falling for someone.

The reason why this movie hit me so hard is because it sums up in one word what I find so patently wrong with our modern singles culture: namely, insincerity. Trying to read cues from the opposite sex for signs of interest is one thing, and probably as old as the human race, but outwardly saying one thing when you mean another is a form of deceit. No good thing can come of it, so I wonder: why do men and women do this so often? Men are often lauded for being up-front and meaning what they say, while women are considered the more subjective gender, layering their true intent in an onion-skin of hidden meanings. Yet ironically, in the movie, the whole premise is that men say and do one thing while really telling a woman “I’m just not that into you.” The women, in contrast, scramble to decode this male-speak with sometimes comical, sometimes heartbreaking results.

In everyday exchanges, men are definitely more straightforward and seem to mean what they say, but in the strange “mating dance” of the dating culture, a peculiar transformation happens. In an effort not to hurt a woman’s feelings perhaps, they do the very thing that winds up hurting more than honesty—uttering words that are utterly insincere. I can imagine the rash of responses I will get from male readers decrying how many times a woman has said or done things to falsely encourage them, yet being myself a woman with a bedrock core of honesty, this is unfamiliar territory to me. I think back over times when I’ve told someone—or been told by someone—that “I’m just not that into you” (in kinder words) and remember feeling relief at knowing, or telling, the truth. A person can deal with the truth; what’s not so easy to deal with is a combination of gestures and words that say “green light” when you really mean “red light.”

In the interest of fostering a more sincere dating landscape, I propose two simple ground rules:

  • Say what you mean, not what might “get you out of jail free” in the moment. If you reach the end of an awkward first date and realize you don’t want to see that person again, it is acceptable to shake their hand and say, “Thank you for coming out to meet me. It was very nice meeting you”—yes, that’s a social nicety, but it’s on par with saying “have a nice day” and a far cry from the false “I’ll give you a call sometime” when you have no intention of ever seeing the person again.
  • Don’t pull a disappearing act. This one is the absolute worst and is most often encountered in online dating, though it applies to regular dating as well. I’m not talking about a non-reply to someone you’re not interested in. To me, it’s perfectly acceptable not to reply when you have no interest at all (many people get dozens of online inquiries in a single day). But when you’ve already established contact and shown a level of interest in someone, it is more honorable to offer a word of closure than to pull an abrupt disappearing act. The world of online dating is rife with abuse of this nature because it’s so easy to “disappear” behind a veil of anonymity, but we must remember that real human hearts lie on the other side of our computer screen.

The bottom line of this issue for me can be summed up in a scene from another movie, You’ve Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Hanks’ character Joe Fox is coaching Kathleen Kelly (Ryan’s character, whom he’s falling in love with) on how not to take business matters too personally, but she gives this classic rebuttal: “What is that supposed to mean? I am so sick of that. All that means is that it wasn't personal to you. But it was personal to me. It's ‘personal’ to a lot of people. And what's so wrong with being personal, anyway? Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.”

A.J. Kiesling is the author of  Where Have All the Good Men Gone? (Harvest House) and the novel Skizzer (Revell).  A religion writer for Publishers Weekly, she has written more than a dozen books.  You can reach her at www.ajkiesling.com.

**This article posted on February 26, 2009.