Redefining the perplexing concept of “playing hard to get”

I come from a fairly conservative Asian household, and so throughout my childhood and my high school career, my parents always told me that when it came to dating, I should never be “cheap” and always “play hard to get.” If I did not make myself slightly out of reach, any guy I dated would quickly lose interest in me and move on. My parents and I would watch movies together, and if the guy rejected the girl after they had sex, my mother would say, “See? That’s what happens if you have sex too soon with a boy. She gave herself away too soon. She should have played hard to get.”

At the time I went to a girls’ school, so I didn’t have much of an idea about relationships at all, except what I had read in books, seen in movies, and had heard from my parents and friends. I did not have much of a basis to suspect that real life would be any different. So I was quite out of my depth when I came to Swarthmore and was introduced to the frantic party hookup culture and the forward nature of the relationships around me. “If you want to call him, why don’t you just call him?” a friend asked me, as I agonized over why the “him” in question hadn’t called me. “Playing hard to get” seemed to be a foreign concept to my peers. Now, four years later, as a senior with some actual dating experience, I hope to revisit this perplexing concept and put it in perspective.

What I’ve observed among people my age and the internet is that there is a huge debate over what the idea of “playing hard to get” actually entails. The concept often comes under fire because of its common association with manipulation. Why play mind games with a person you’re interested in, when you could simply tell them? When you tell a guy that a girl is just teasing him, are you giving him the very wrong message that “no” really means “yes”? Why can’t people simply be frank about their intentions and feelings with each other?

And I agree — people should be frank, and people should not play games. Being played, teased, or led on is never fun and usually results in misunderstanding and hurt feelings.

Yet we cannot deny human nature. We cannot deny that it is in human nature to enjoy a chase. We constantly strive toward things and ideas that are hard to obtain. It is the same kind of desire that drives us to constantly upgrade our phones and laptops and make our cars faster “Playing hard to get” seemed to be a foreign concept to my peers. Basically, to want more and better. The reality is that we do, by and large, want partners whom we see as valuable, whether it’s how much money they have or how intelligent they are. But still, it is not productive to model our romantic behavior off of perceived dating game strategy, or how we think our behavior will be perceived. So how can we reconcile the human desire for pursuit and apply this ingrained desire to relationships in the modern world?

I have lately come to believe that playing hard to get is really a misnomer for being hard to get. That could mean different things for different people. For me it means having an identity and interests that exist outside of the dating game, as well as simply having standards ­— in other words, basic principles about what I would like in my romantic partner, whether they be loyalty or common interests. A romantic chase is not about figuring out another person’s game, but about aspiring to reach the standards that person has set for themselves. Done correctly, playing hard to get is not about playing games with people at all – it is about being careful and trying to truly know a person before you begin a relationship. It is to be sure about who you are and what you want before plunging into emotional or physical commitment.

Consider Pride and Prejudice’s Lizzie Bennet (fictional, but highly relevant).  Lizzie is hard to get, but not because she’s manipulating or playing games with the men in her life. She turns down proposals from Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy, not because she wants to make herself more desirable in their eyes, but because she does not want a husband whom she does not love or hurts her family. Ultimately she chooses her partner not because he is the richest or the most stable, but because he is the most loyal.

Being hard to get is not a dating game strategy, but a way of life. It draws upon your confidence and conviction in your personal values, goals, and passions. Ultimately, it is about being sure that whoever pursues you wants to be not only with your body, but also with the person inside it.

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