Impeccable Table Manners

Claire and Steve

People in their 30s are weird. It’s an unusual time. It’s that last battle between being a kidult and still getting away with looking like one and the weary resignation that, as your hair is turning grey, you suppose you might as well start pretending you’re a grownup. And even though there are people in their 40s and 50s queueing up to tell them that this isn’t necessary at all, that the fun doesn’t have to stop, that life is just beginning – and other dull, fridge-magnet clichés – the people in their 30s don’t listen to them, because they’re  still young, and whoever cared what an old person thought? People in their 30s still have that particular luxury at least.

So they buy houses, get married, idly imagine divorce, have their first affair, get rid of their first banger, have anxious fertility dreams. But they don’t tend to all grow up at the same time, so it can be quite common to find yourself at a party sandwiched between a couple composed of two dreary, repressed 31-year-old drongoes with collars buttoned right up, who’ve spent the last 17 Sundays tiling the bathroom of their Zone 7 flat they just bought, and a matching set of “mature, but still up for it” 38-year-olds who pretend not to worry they’re dressing too young and are raging against the dying of the light – and yet still don’t want you to use the flash on your camera.

Dancing round the abyss that is middle-age and desperately untagging themselves from Facebook pics this week are 32-year-old teacher Claire and TV researcher Steve, 37. ⬇️

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Read what happened on the date before I flick through my GIF collection and wonder whether this is finally the week I’ll get to use the one of Joan Collins spilling Cinzano down her front.

Claire kicks us off in yellow, Steve is close behind in blue.

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I don’t know where I stand on conversation, good or otherwise. I’ve had so many over the years, it’s hard to remember which ones I’ve enjoyed – if any. Even a bad one, with zero laughs and canyon-sized silences, can be memorable. The thing with conversations is that if you’re having a mediocre one with someone you really fancy, this can elevate it to the most engrossing chat you’ve ever had. And who’s to say tedious conversation can’t be a good basis to build a future upon? Chris and Gwyneth managed it for long enough – I imagine their dinner-table musings to be light on LOLs and fairly free of “bants”.

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When you think of “life changing for ever”, you generally think in terms of lottery wins or whichever plot device the new producer of Emmerdale employs to clear out the cast – plane crashes, helicopter crashes, rogue combine harvesters carving up Home Farm – but life can change for ever in mere seconds without you realising. Whether it’s the dull thud of your richest relative’s last heartbeat, a stray cat turning up on your doorstep, or hearing the Kylie Christmas album for the first time, there are life-changing events happening all over, right in front of you, every time you blink. Who knows what awaits us at the end of this post? Breakfast, at least, I hope.

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As Cher said repeatedly, to Christina Aguilera, on the set of Burlesque: ” BE ON TIME”. It just helps, generally, that people don’t view you as a garbage person.

I know there are lots of people who say they’re scatty and “always late and that’s just the way I am” and that’s great, because we all need to live our best lives and “you do you” and all that. And yet. There is something so disrespectful about continued, habitual lateness, and the readiness to write it off as a quirk rather than a very subtle form of control. Because that’s what it is, you’re calling the shots. I am here waiting. For you. The day people who are always late realise that being waited for is one of the greatest honours you’ll ever receive will be a great one indeed. However, it will probably happen on the exact same day that those who wait realise most people aren’t worth waiting for and walk away. Because that is 2016 for you.

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Bright and smiley are good, if a little “and now here’s the weather with Ulrika” – but it’s a start.

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’90s pop. Any excuse for a Louise Nurding gif.

The only conversation topic we have a Blankety Blank match on here is the “favourite Tube line”. This is a question I’d love as I could talk for hours at a time about how much the Underground does my head in, but I do realise it’s not fascinating for everyone, and Claire does seem to be communicating this with her comment that she was “asked”, rather than willingly talked about it.

I’m often asked what you should talk about on first dates but I can usually only tell you what you shouldn’t. I think talking about the Tube is fine, but I’m a gay man forward-rolling into my 40s with an encyclopaedic memory of Victoria Wood scripts, including stage directions – I am not to be trusted with scintillating, sexy, non-geeky conversation.

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There’s something quite unsettling about discovering you’ve been a topic of conversation before the date kicks off. Your first date should be Year Zero – hearing that you’ve been discussed prior with pals does feel a little like someone’s been spying on you in the shower. We know it happens – you’re always going to show a friend a pic of someone you’re going on a date with, for example – but it’s an unspoken rule that this remains… well, unspoken.

I also believe your social media presence shouldn’t be discussed or revealed on a first date. If your date has anything about them, they’ll have run a full social check on you anyway, and will have spent a good hour scrolling back through your Instagram, right back to before you stopped taking pictures of your lunch and started gurning, shirtless, into motorway service station bathroom mirrors for selfie thirst. Your social media following is either your dirty little shame, your secret weapon, or your pride and joy, but it never, ever comes on your first date.

Never livetweet a date either – it’s vulgar. What’s that you say? That I’ve done it? Do as I say, not as I do.

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Usually this kind of response is the domain of the women daters but Steve has bravely stepped up to admit he’s got his awkward side. This may well be face-saving in case Claire skewers him about his Tube chat, but it’s more than likely sincere. And at least it’s not something really lame like “she poured my wine after hers” or something.

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A silence is only awkward if you make it awkward. Don’t underestimate the power of silence, what it can do you for you, and how much you need it. There is so much noise, everywhere; sometimes a moment or two of nobody talking, nobody demanding, the world simply waiting, is just what you need.

Sometimes silences are a sign that there’s nothing left to say, that the evening can’t possibly be bettered with any more chitchat – that it’s time to go home, in a taxi, together, and get acquainted with each other’s buttons.

Not tonight, though.

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Well, this is a really lovely thing to say about someone, isn’t it, but I can’t help but wonder how Steve arrived at this conclusion. Do you talk about your friends on dates? I suppose you do, sometimes. I wonder whether Claire has some pals who are absolute disasters – perhaps they arrive late to things or always forget  to bring their own bags at the supermarket – and she’s the one who always bails them out, listens to them, waits for them.

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Tube lines. Good to take to a quiz. Ran some polls. Steve’s being geek-zoned. Well, at least she didn’t say “sure” or “I think they might be too wild for him” – replies that should be punished by being fired into the sun, with all of your horrible friends.

No shame in being good to take to a quiz – we are a rare beast, if most pub quiz scores are anything to go by.

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OK, so did the shirt come up in conversation earlier because of this, or because it was a bit loud? I had assumed it was a subtle hint Steve’s shirt was a bit zany, but I’m now starting to think he may have run a couple more opinion polls.

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Shit. OK. This isn’t how you play the game. I know the modern way is to “live your truth” but this doesn’t apply here. On a date, you should be yourself, but you need to keep your truths, especially ones like this, locked all the way inside your head, releasing them only by text, several days later, when declining their invitation to a second date.

If someone asks whether they’re your type – which they shouldn’t be doing, really, why do you hate yourself, don’t ask this – and they are not, merely smile, as enigmatically as you can muster, and lie that you don’t have a type at all. Think Mona Lisa, or Princess Diana looking like she’d just caught a faint whiff of Camilla’s Ma Griffe, right as Martin Bashir asked her if she’d ever be queen.

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Bizarrely, Claire was not asked this question. So well never know. Get in touch Claire; what would you have said?

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I can’t help but think the real star of this date is the Tube. Holborn station, in this particular instance, it would seem.

Holborn is one of the most awful stations, I think, with possibly two of the worst Tube lines oozing through it. The Piccadilly line, filled with the kind of people who pose for pictures with the living statues at Covent Garden and sociopathic holidaymakers heading to Heathrow with suitcases the size of Zanzibar, and the Central line, London’s thickening, sluggish artery, packed with sharp-edged shopping bags and people dressed like messed-up sock drawers on their way to work in fashion retail.

I was once knocked down the escalators at Holborn by some drunk garbage fire lawyer in a suit who banged into me – a regular reader, perhaps – so maybe I still hold a grudge. Sorry, Holborn station.

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Just an aside, “cuddle” is one of those words that makes my skin crawl – like the same way some people hate “moist”. It’s creepy, it involves my icy, unloving skin being touched, and someone enveloping me in a situation I can’t wait to remove myself from. When men on Grindr – usually those ones who think promiscuity is bad and that there’s more to life than sex, which is fine, but OK – used to say they just wanted “cuddles”, I’d send them the URL for Hamley’s. This is Grindr, not a lunchtime nap at nursery – go buy a fucking Teddy bear.

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Spark.

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Remind me, Claire, are you on a date, or trying to get a barbecue going?

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Steve is 37. See what I mean about people in their 30s? It’s mad.

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Scores are in.

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I always think there are different methods of scoring – some do it based on the evening itself, others on future potential. While there’s been some subtle hints Claire wasn’t exactly having the time of her life, with the Tube chat, for example, there’s nothing that leads me to believe her evening was an actual 6. Because, as we all know, a 6 is a zero. It’s “the old man’s friend”, the pneumonia of scores. So I’m assuming Claire’s weighing up the future and is thinking, without so much as a Twitter poll to guide her, that it’s a no.

Steve’s 8, I feel, is about the evening. He doesn’t seem too bothered about seeing Claire again – maybe she said her favourite Tube line was the dungeon shuttle of bad taste that is the Waterloo & City line – but is gentleman enough, and a regular reader of this blog to boot, to know that an 8 is a safe way of saying, “You were nice, I didn’t hate you, we’re going to be in a magazine and I don’t want to hurl you under the bus”. A fair 8.

So after three hours or so of mediocre chitchat in a fairly nice restaurant and a trudge back to Holborn Tube station, have they loved it enough to do an encore? It’s that question…

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Photograph: Alicia Canter; James Drew Turner, both for the Guardian

Note: All the comments I make are based on the answers the Guardian chooses to publish, which may have been changed by a journalist to make for better copy. The participants in the date are aware editing of answers may happen, I assume, and know these answers will appear in the public arena.  This isn’t about me thinking these two people are bad people – I don’t know them. I am sure, in real life, they’re great. I’m critiquing the answers, not the people themselves. If you are the couple in this date, please do not take this personally; I don’t see the date in advance so my reactions are my first ones. I’m sure Steve’s shirt was charming and that the two of them will tweet happily ever after If you want to give your side of the story,  get in touch and I will happily publish any rebuttal or comments you might have. 

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    1. Thank you for your support. I must say, as mentioned in the disclaimer, please don’t judge either of us based on some heavily edited answers. I am much more palatable in small doses.

  1. For me a cuddle is a pretty involved and intimate sort of a thing. I cuddle after sex. I cuddle on the way to sex. A hug is the sort of thing that happens at the tube with someone pleasant who I wish well, but don’t need to see again.

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