One of the top things I get asked by friends who have visited NYC but never lived here is why it’s so hard to date. I’ve thought about this a lot in the five years I’ve called myself a New Yorker, but tonight while walking home, I came up with a summary.
It doesn’t have anything to do with the Beauty Contest Problem, the Dowry Problem, the Secretary Problem, or any of the other explanations conceived of by mathematicians who have clearly never encountered a New York woman (which is exemplified by the fact that all of these problems are based on the assumption that the man is doing the picking). These “Problems” were defined in 1966, so I’ll cut them some slack (not you though, Satoshi, your evolutionary psychology example makes even less sense). But I’d like to see present-day statisticians take a whack at this, mathematically. Soma did a pretty awesome job visualizing the # of singles in the US, but as you can see from the beautiful, adjustable map (that you need an updated Java plug-in to view), NYC has some of the most singles per capita, so this still doesn’t explain why dating is hard.
Introducing: The subway door problem.
Say you are exiting the subway on one of those elevated platforms that have swinging doors before the stairs, like on the J/M line (such as I did today). Most people will reach out to push open the door for the person behind them as they’re walking through it. It’s a courteous thing to do that requires very little effort. There are three scenarios in which people won’t do this though: If they’re an asshole, if they are unaware someone is behind them, and if they are carrying heavy bags or are for some other reason physically incapable of holding the door.
Already we’ve solved one mystery: There are more assholes in New York, per capita, than in other places. Now, I think NYC gets a worse rap for this than it deserves, and that most of this perception comes from tourists who have had bad encounters with New Yorkers because they were doing something dumb to deserve it. But there are a lot of sociopaths here. In the world of dating, this is also true. There are tons of people here who have no desire to get emotionally close to another human being, who proceed to pillage what they want, sexually, using whatever deceptive techniques necessary, and then split.* In other, smaller cities, this behavior is rare because the asshole will build a reputation and will eventually not be able to successfully execute this type of feat. In New York though, you never have to see anyone again if you don’t want to. It’s not exactly like a slighted lover can come bang on your door and convince you to give them a shot—New Yorkers have locked outer doors, buzzers (sometimes with video surveillance), and door men to ensure that they can’t.
If you’ve had one of these encounters, which most New Yorkers have, you’re going to build some walls to decrease the chances of this happening again, which brings us to the second subway door scenario: It’s hard to see over walls. Like the subway exiter who is oblivious to the person behind them because they have headphones on or something, New Yorkers who have become disillusioned by previous dating experiences have a harder time recognizing when someone is attempting to genuinely emotionally bond with them and enter into any kind of “relationship” situation. So the door closes, and the person who just got it slammed on their face suffers, as does the person who did the slamming, if they happen to glance behind them and realize what they accidentally just did. They didn’t know anyone was there, they didn’t mean to inconvenience them! But now they feel guilty. Or maybe they’ve just encountered so many assholes they gave up on holding the door for anyone, and even though you just got the door slammed on you, maybe seeing your sad eyes through the glass made them realize there are some people worthy of door-holding out there, and they’ll make an effort for the next.
In the third and final scenario in this reductionist thought experiment, you’re exiting the subway and your arms are full of grocery bags. You know someone is probably behind you, but the person in front of you pushed the door open just enough for you to slip through without it smashing your eggs, so you go for it. In that moment, your priority is what’s in those bags; you can’t worry about the person behind you, because there’s no way you can help yourself and them at the same time. If you reach out a hand to hold the door, you’ll drop something. In fact, what would be really nice in that moment, is if the person behind you would reach forward and stop the door from closing, giving you more time to slip through, lessening the chance that your eggs will be crushed. The problem with New Yorkers is that we are all carrying bags, and many more of them than the average American. Inside them are our high-powered jobs, our dreams, and our egos made fragile by the emotional wounds and feelings of being lost that drove us to this city in the first place. And while we might dream of someday being able to walk around without them so we wouldn’t have to worry about damaging what’s inside, we have to protect them now, and let the door slam shut on others.
So we New Yorkers will continue to move about in our lonely commutes. But don’t feel bad for us. We’ve got serious loot in those bags that suburbanites in podunk USA won’t ever know about. And it’s not so cut and dry, anyway. Some of us learn how to meet each other half way, where you slow down to stick a foot out, propping the door open just enough so the person behind you can slip an elbow in, and everyone gets through unscathed.
The good news for the person who just got the door slammed on them though, is if you’re someone who would like to hold the door for someone else, the chick standing there with her arms full of groceries is probably going to be especially grateful to the guy who saw the door slam in her face and rushes over to open it for her.
*I’m not claiming to have never done this. I have and I’m not proud of it. I’m simply acknowledging this is how some people operate.