Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Conditional hitting-on

People often engage in conditional utterances. For example, we make conditional assertions: "If there's an avian flu outbreak, people will die." We make conditional apologies: "If I hurt your feelings, I'm sorry." We make conditional promises: "If your house burns down, I promise to build you another one" and issue conditional imperatives: "If Rick Santorum becomes president, flee the country." A conditional promise only operates as a real promise if the antecedent is satisfied, and the other conditional utterances operate similarly.

Sadly, it's not easy to conditionally hit on somebody. Here's a straightforward example: "If you're interested in me, then I think you're really cute." This, however, amounts to actual hitting on, whether or not the antecedent is satisfied. I'm interested in this because even after all the excellent advice to the contrary that I got from kind women here, I feel some prospective guilt at expressing interest in girls who don't feel reciprocal interest in me, even if I do so politely and go away quickly afterwards. But if I could make an utterance that didn't count as hitting-on if they weren't interested, I'd have nothing to fear. Guess I'll just have to gather my courage and charge ahead without the protection of conditionals.

There's one clear problem with conditional hitting-on. It evinces the same attitudes of sexual interest that are essential to actual hitting-on. So when you try to construct a case of conditional hitting-on, it immediately becomes a case of actual hitting-on.

Another possible issue is that hitting-on doesn't seem to be an illocutionary act like promising and asserting. It looks like the only kinds of speech-acts we can conditionally engage in are illocutionary ones. I don't, however, see the deep reason why this should be the case. (And am I right in thinking that hitting on someone isn't an illocutionary act? According to the view implicit here, it isn't, but I don't understand what unifies those five things as the only 5 possible kinds of illocutionary points.)

I'd given up hope for conditional hitting-on last night, but then Josh Dever was able to come up with what I think is a genuine example. Suppose you see a girl who looks like Willow Rosenberg walking into a bar. You go into the bar, and you discover that it's a weird theme bar where everybody wears hoods and masks all the time. So you go up to one of the hooded and masked people, and you say, "If you're the redhead who walked in just a moment ago, I think you're really cute!" In this case, you've only hit on her if the antecedent is satisified. If it turns out to be somebody else, no hitting-on has occurred. Sadly, this example doesn't help me very much.

21 comments:

Murky Thoughts said...

I don't think we communicate in a binary way 1= "I am hitting on you" or 0="I am not hitting on you." There is surmise and suspense and context is everything. I am sure there are many Willows who in your Willow-winning scenario will fail to be won by a conditional, though you would indeed have won them with an unconditional. Still, I suppose the point is simply to avoid never getting laid at all, so perhaps you're on to something.

Anonymous said...

What about "Hey, want to go to X thing, which is not a one-on-one date but rather an outing with a group of friends?"

I figure that this is the equivalent of a conditional-- you're not making it clear that you like the person romantically (maybe you just want to be friends!), but you're still making some sort of move on your target. You're saying "If we have a good time at X thing and really hit it off, then I'm interested in you." Of course, the disadvantage is that you still haven't really "hit on" the object of your affections in a clear way... your target might think that you really do just want to be friends. But it's a start, and will give you an opportunity to be courageous when you get to X thing.

--Michael

Murky Thoughts said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Murky Thoughts said...

I commented:
"I don't think we communicate in a binary way..."

Change that please to "I don't think we always necessarily and/or most of the time communicate in a binary way..."

Obviously people can make overt sexual overtures. I was thinking of the sense of "hitting on" in which one conveys, either subtly or not, the message "we are flirting now, my interest is sexual, so please read between the lines of what I'm saying and consider me as a bedmate." But there's another sense of "hitting on" in which one stranger walks up to another and says "hey baby, wanna come to my place so I can &@7* your *%$#@" and they're straight out the door. The latter hasn't happened to me lately, so I didn't have that possibility in mind when I first commented.

Laura said...

I think "If you're interested in me, then I think you're really cute" is a good way to hit on someone. The "If, then" structure makes the gesture less threatening, less of a proposition, friendlier and it leaves room for a gentle comeback: "Thanks, but I don't think you really think I'm cute" rather than the "buzz off, creep" that usually accompanies more strandard comeons. If you're at a bar where strangers wear masks to hit on each other, then friendly, unthreatening is probably not what you're after anyway.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Murky, I'm wondering if hitting-on is less of a all-or-nothing thing than apologizing, promising, or other clearer cases of things that can be worked into conditional utterances. It seems to me that it is -- one can hit on someone with various degrees of intensity.

Yeah, Michael, I've come to think that that's a pretty good way to do these things.

Thanks, Laura! Your endorsement may cause me to deploy this utterance at some time in the future.

Blar said...

The weird mask example is importantly different from what you're trying to do. Yes, it's conditional, but think about what it's conditional on. Hitting on someone means something like "expressing interest in a person to that person." What's conditional here is the to that person. You are expressing interest in the redhead, you just don't know if she's the one who you're expressing it to. What you want to do is to make the expressing interest conditional, which is trickier, because (at least for many types of interest) the level of interest that you already have is an internal property that can't depend on anything outside your awareness.

Although maybe I'm being too internalist. You could say something like "If you look that good without make-up on, then I think you're really cute." However, this conditional hitting-on would not be very succesful hitting-on.

My advice (not that I'm qualified to give advice here) is that you don't have to be conditional to be tactful, and that you should embrace your inner Benthamite and think about the cost-benefit analysis here. Hitting on someone who's not interested? Tiny cost. Failing to approach someone who would be interested? Big cost. So steel yourself to guilt, think of the man in the cabinet at University College London, and go maximize utility.

Brandon said...

I think hitting-on pretty much is conditional, or if it's not, then the stakes are low. The subtext when you say, "Hi, can I sit here? Do I know you? Are you a model or an actress?" etc., is always, "But if you don't feel the same way, whatever - then I will not be interested anymore."

lowellboyslash said...

The insomniac Englishwoman adds her tuppence...

I think the best approximation of a conditional is an open-ended offer. "Buy you a drink?" is a closed offer - if the person says no, they've closed the whole possibility that you can talk to them. Likewise, "Come here often?" is a closed offer in the opposite direction, because short of being rude, the person answering the question doesn't have a way of getting rid of the person who asks. Questions like "What are you reading?", on the other hand, are open-ended, because they don't imply a requisite response on the part of the other person. The cute person can shrug and say, "Not much," in which case they're probably suggesting that you move on, or they can say, "Oh, I'm so glad you asked! Do you like Tolkien too?" in which case they're probably interested. I'd put questions like, "What are you drinking?", "Where did you get your ___?", and "Do you know what song this is playing now?" in the same category.

Very sleepy, not sure that helped.

Dennis said...

I think you might need to analyze the work you want your conditionals to do more carefully -- it's not really so much that you want interest to be expressed only inasmuch as the hitee is interested back as that you want interest to be perceived only inasmuch as the hitee is interested back. This then pulls the problem into starker relief: hitting on someone is really making an expressive statement about your emotions, and it's certainly difficult to make present-tense conditionals sensibly about your own emotions (surely "if it's raining, then I'm sad" can be criticized for incompleteness -- even if you don't know whether it's raining or not, your current emotional state is one or the other and not both).

From this we might take a philosophical lesson: it might make sense to say "If you're interested in me, then I will think you're really cute." After all, people get more attractive if they're interested in you, and it's more than plausible that you might at some point bump into someone right on that dividing line where they aren't really cute, but would be if they were interested. In fact, I suppose you could modulate the degree of "very" to make that true of practically anybody you might happen to come across.

The more practical lesson is that you want to hit on people in ways that won't convey interest unless it's being looked for, as surely most of those looking for it are in fact interested in you -- subtlety is your friend.

Ezra said...

For what it's worth, I think this conditional is a really bad idea. The point of hitting on someone is showing them that they should like you. Otherwise, you consign yourself to those who are a) instantly physically attracted to you, b) in a mental state where they want to talk to guys, c) not involved in conversation with friends, d) etc. It's much better to go up, start a conversation, see who they are, let them see who you are, and find out if they're interested at the end byasking for a number. If you're simply pleasant, confident and warm, no one will mind you talking to them. If they don't want to talk, they'll give you the message. But it's going to be tough to meet folks if you demand reciprocal statements of interest before you can even utter your name,

Neil Sinhababu said...

Oh, yeah, I was thinking that the conditional endorsed by Laura would only be deployed after >10 minutes of conversation. As some kind of pickup line it'll be a failure.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Blar, your Benthamite analysis is one I'm going to repeat to myself in the future.

If the way you first analyze hitting-on is correct, the mask example presents a situation where one only hits on someone if the antecedent is satisfied, right? If it's not the person, one hasn't expressed an interest in that person to that person. Maybe your concern is that the conditional isn't doing the work in the same way as it does in cases of conditional promising. Even if this is true, I don't see that it makes the key difference.

To all who offered practical suggestions -- good suggestions.

david said...

I'm not sure hitting-on really involves any kind of direct communication at all. Hitting-on appears to me to involve making your intentions/hopes/aims _known_, without actually expressing them. If you explicitly tell her what your intentions/hopes/aims are, then I think you're doing something other than hitting on her. (Maybe you're propositioning" her in that case.) Of course, there may be some facts about yourself that you want the girl to know (e.g. you might want her to know that if she's not "interested" then you'll go away, that if she is interested, then you'll continue to stand there, etc.). But unless you want to do something other than hit on her, you should be looking for a way to let her know these things without explicitly telling her about them. Obviously, that's harder than communicating in plain English, and I don't have any good suggestions about how to do it -- I'm not very good at this sort of thing either. But that's how the process of hitting-on appears to me to go.

Blar said...

Neil, the mask example is a case of conditional hitting-on, but my point is that it's not a very useful example because of what it's conditional on. It's sort of like telling someone "If you can hear me, I want you to know that I think you're really cute." This is conditional hitting-on (maybe she's deaf), and you've only hit on her if she hears you, but it's not a good model for the kind of conditional hitting-on that you want to do. You want to leave the girl an out in case she's not interested, but these cases are only conditional because you might not even be communicating any interest to the girl you like.

I think it was clear, but let me just emphasize that my Benthamite anaysis is not a recommendation of any particular strategy, but rather a spur to action, whichever approach you take.

Anonymous said...

Why don't you just go up to a girl that you might be interested in and say "Hi, I'm Neil," and then talk to her like she's a normal human being? This might require some personality and not merely philosophical ability, but is certainly not that difficult.

Rousseau said...

Neil's got a fundamental point that in our cultural moment, a) it's impossible to say "I am romantically interested in you only if you are available, otherwise disregard this interest entirely", b) this is sad, and c) it's not hard to imagine a culture where that is possible. I certainly don't agree with the philosophers here who have expressed that this is fundamentally intractible.

For instance, I think the conditional "I am interested in you if you are not taken" is possible to express successfully. Or at least, a lot more possible than "...if you think I am cute."

Of course, as our culture moves closer to recognizing that single people can enjoy eachother's company as friends and only friends, I think that conditional will be easier to express. As is, there seems to be so much weight on the idea that a man is interested in any semi-attractive woman he interacts with, that expressing that interest in any way kills the possibility that he is interested in her as a non-romantic person too. With time and progress, this is definitely surmountable.

Rachael said...

I think there are good Gricean reasons why you can't conditionally hit on someone, if by "hitting on someone" you mean "causing someone to believe that you have a romantic interest in them, and to do so on the basis that you want them to believe that you have a romantic interest in them, etc." When you make a conditional assertion, you usually don't have a good reason to believe the consequent unless the antecedent is true. Otherwise, why not just make an unconditional assertion? But it's common knowledge that your beliefs about your romantic desires don't require, for their justification, evidence about the other person's interest. So in order to make sense of your would-be conditional hitting on, the other person has to read it as an unconditional hitting on.

Anyway, I wouldn't worry too much about being creepy or intimidating. Unwanted sexual attention becomes creepy when the attender refuses to take "no" for an answer (or, in the case of the catcaller on the street, indicates that he cares more about being macho than about pleasing the attendee).

I agree with Laura about the goodness of the "If... then" construction. It indicates that you do care about the emotions of the person you're hitting on, and are willing to lay off if she's not interested.

By way of encouragement, I'm pretty sure there's a certain demographic of geeky girls that you're super-appealing to. Heck, I'd probably be part of that demographic if I were (a) single (b) interested in dating other philosophers and (c) ever planning to live anywhere near you.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Rachael, I accept the Gricean point as a refinement of the third paragraph of the post.

Thanks for the (wonderful) advice and encouragement! I've come to realize that my usual behavior won't make me seem creepy or intimidating, thanks to advice like the advice you've given me. Now if only I could change my gut-level beliefs on the matter...

unknown said...

i think i did it with a werewolf my boyfriend acts waerd in the nights he gets realy mad and sometimes he gets realy realy hot and he see things b4 they happen also one time a car was going to hit him and he stoped and jumped ontop of the car and hes eyes wen from brown to white now after me and him did it for the first time i started to have dreams abaut tthat and i get mad out of enything also i feel so strong and always hungry i see things that he sees and in my dreams i see him hes father and little gurl who died but wasent mine thos they all go from wolf to human and tell me that im one of them im realy scared but then again im not is kinda cool im only 16 and hes 17 is crazy how things happen.

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