To crib Dickens and dogpile a couple clichés while I'm at it: It's the best of times and the worst of times for nice guys, dating-wise. Granted, with their constantly finishing last, it's kind of always been the worst of times for these fellas who sometimes have trouble making girlfriends, as opposed to girl friends. And their evil twin brothers, "nice guys," who recently set the Internet aflame with their tales of sexual entitlement and women-directed anger documented on the now-non-existent Nice Guys of OK Cupid Tumblr, didn't help matters.
So, how could it simultaneously be the best of times? The New York Times said so. That's what I gathered, anyway, from the New York Times article heard 'round the world on how courtship is dead, long live the hookup culture. The article's rehashed hand-wringing over casual sex and implications that every bright-eyed young woman is looking for a marriage-bound boyfriend aside, the ladies it quoted echoed despairs I've uttered myself and heard from girlfriends throughout my 20's:
"The word 'date' should almost be stricken from the dictionary," Ms. Silver said. "Dating culture has evolved to a cycle of text messages, each one requiring the code-breaking skills of a cold war spy to interpret."
And also this:
"I've seen men put more effort into finding a movie to watch on Netflix Instant than composing a coherent message to ask a woman out," said Anna Goldfarb, 34, an author and blogger in Moorestown, N.J. A typical, annoying query is the last-minute: "Is anything fun going on tonight?" More annoying still are the men who simply ping, "Hey" or " 'sup."
I'll cut those implicated men some slack because I'm also guilty of spending obscene amounts of time scanning my Netflix Instant library, but if the media portrayal of the hetero dating landscape (the article never once acknowledges that same-sex dating exists, ahem) is accurate, it's become overrun by lazy single dudes who offer little more than breadcrumb trails of post-coital text messages in their wake. And in that case, nice guys out there would also be wise to consider this supposed demise of dating a clarion call for their kind.
Any nice guys reading this have probably heard something similar before -- that they're the kind of bring-home-to-Mom gents that women are really, truly looking for. All they have to do is just be themselves, and eventually, the gal of their dreams will fall into their laps. Those, however, are absolute promises I'm not about make. For one thing, anecdotal evidence tells me that too many men in that department have experienced romantic letdowns that they -- both rightly and wrongly at times -- attribute to their Neil Young-certified hearts of gold. And for another, I've also know enough women (my younger-adult self included) with penchants for jerks who ought to come with complementary pairs of Nikes since they require so much chasing down. In other words: sometimes, it just won't work out.
But we might be able to dismantle the self-defeating trope of nice guys finishing last if we refocus the conversation to look into what the "nice" in nice guys really means. In doing so, we can uncover some old school gender stereotypes -- or anomalies, rather -- at work. See, in psychological circles, niceness is just a quotidian synonym for agreeableness. People seen as agreeable tend to strongly value interpersonal relationships, exhibit modesty and compliance and foster trust. In other words, they're incredibly likeable folks who have the stuff that friendship is made of in spades. The only problem is, niceness is a culturally feminine-associated trait (remember how girls are made of "sugar, spice and all that's nice?") Simply by being their altruistic, modest, complaint selves, nice guys inherently challenge social norms of masculinity, which can come at an empirically documented cost thanks (but no thanks) to entrenched notions about how men should behave.
A 2012 study examining gender, niceness and income suggests that the root of this "nice guy penalty" lies in flouting the gender construct of maleness. The researchers found that men in the office who display the most agreeableness (read: nice guys) have plenty of cubicle pals but tend to earn less than their more prototypically masculine coworkers. Those super nice male employees, while they had plenty of potential for promotion and were less likely to be fired than the Gordon Geckos storming the halls, were more interested in maintaining amicable interpersonal relationship than "aggressively advocating for their position." Hence, they ended up bringing home less bacon, on average, than the brusquer men. It's a case of outmoded gender roles coming back around to bite us in the butt, or at least the bank account (NB: the worst-case-scenario employees? Nice women who had the skimpiest paychecks of everybody).
If we apply that compelling finding to the dating realm just for fun, nice guys might see more advancement, so to speak, if they "advocate for their position more proactively" and exercise the straightforwardness associated with their agreeableness trait. Will there still be disappointments and dates turned down? Of course. Will some lackluster bad boys whose relations with women subsist on text messages and late-night liaisons still enjoy plenty of sexual success? Totally. Will some women still buy into self-defeating stories about bad-boys-turned-good by the right sweetheart? Bet on it. None of this is new to dating, except for people's tech-enabled modes of non-communication. But for all of those reasons, and perhaps now more than ever before, hetero dating could really use some nice guys.