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On inappropriate acts vs romantic gestures

Once upon a time I was sitting in a tiny greasy bar with a boy, when a rose seller came along. She had a basket full of dozens of roses, each one tied up nicely and ready to be hawked to the nearest soppy romantic.

I growled my customary ‘don’t disturb me in the pub’ growl. The boy looked interested.

Romantic acts

Romantic acts don’t have to be the obvious ones: diamond rings, flowers, breakfast in bed and the like. But these things do have a certain kind of charm, and if you want to impress someone, it might be easier to reach for a bunch of flowers than a deeply personal something-or-other that has the potential to backfire.

I have a deep and sincere admiration for people who perform romantic acts. Those who know exactly when to shower love, and in exactly what quantities, to make someone melt.

But it’s not easy. One person’s romantic gesture is another’s worst nightmare, and the success of the gesture in question all comes down to how well it’s received. I was reminded of this recently when a friend told me a story about a guy she knew: madly in love with one of his friends, he journeyed the two hours it took him by train to turn up at her house. Rather than knocking on the door and sobbing his undying love directly at her, he decided to be a bit more subtle. He knew she was a chess lover, so he left two chess pieces: a king and a queen, on her doorstep, along with a dozen red roses and a letter that explained how he felt.

“Aww,” said I “how romantic.”

“Fuck that,” said she “it’s creepy as all hell.”

The roses and the romance

I hate that this is the case, but it is, and I have no idea why. Romance is a fantastic thing, and I’m sure many of us would love to have more of it in our lives. But it seems like the main thing that makes a difference between a romantic act and an inappropriate one is something the romancer can’t always know: whether your crush actually fancies you.

If they do, you’re a hero. If they don’t, you’re a loser. And possibly a creepy one at that.

I’m going to tell you two different versions of the roses story now.

Version one:

The rose seller approaches me and the boy, and my heart is beating far too quickly, hoping against hope that this shy, nerdy first date doesn’t turn into a mush-riddled disaster. All I know about this guy is his name, his occupation, and a story he’s told me about how his sister once pushed him off a swing. I don’t know him well enough to anticipate whether he’s cheesy enough to think the ‘rose for a pound on a first date’ gambit is a good idea.

He does.

Red-faced, I accept the rose. Later that evening we part, and his post-date text seems unnecessarily gushing. We never see each other again.

Version 2:

The boy grins at the rose seller, and I whisper to him “seriously, dickhead, don’t buy me a rose. I’d only have to carry it home.” He squeezes my leg under the table, looking slyly at me in the way he knows makes me want to lick him. For the last two, three, four years I’ve alternately mocked and raged at him for his lack of romance, his lack of spontaneity.

“How much for a rose?” he asks the lady with the basket. I’m looking away now, too embarrassed to make eye contact and show that, secretly, I actually really want a bloody rose, even if it’s drooping slightly and will end up getting left on the bus. She tells him how much they cost, and there’s a long silence. Ages. Aeons. Millennia pass while I stare at the rings of liquid on the bar and fiddle with the plastic twizzly gin and tonic stick and just wish he’d get on and tell her ‘no’ so that we don’t have to eke out the embarrassment.

Years, or perhaps five seconds, later, he speaks.

“I’ll take the lot.”

And he hands over note after note after note from a wallet that’s rarely opened unless it needs to be. And I walk home arm in arm with my boyfriend of many years, drowning in roses and love.

There’s no right way to do romance

Arguing with my friend over the chess incident made me sad for the boy who’d tried so hard. For his unrequited love and his inability to read the girl’s reaction. Assuming they were both in earnest, no one did anything wrong here: it’s just a misjudged gesture and a mutual tragedy. But from my friend’s point of view, it’s a stupid guy making a desperate play for a girl who’ll never want him.

As she put so succinctly: the difference between creepy and romantic often just comes down to whether they actually fancy you.

I don’t think I want this to be true.


  • I normally tell the seller “She IS a rose. She doesn’t need another.” Haven’t had any complaints about that. But then, haven’t been on a date for a while…

  • I think there’s also something about the attitude with which the gesture is pulled off – as in rose-scenario-deux, the guy seems flirty, casual. A big gesture, but if it had backfired, he might have shrugged, flung the roses in the nearest bin and pulled you into an alleyway for a furtive fumble. In gesture one, it felt – tense, pressured. His seriousness made it worse for the gesture to fail.

    Which is a terrible shame! I don’t like the idea that greater sincerity, greater depth of feeling in a gesture, leads to that feeling of ‘eww, creepy’, while the same gesture done with a shrug and a grin from a person who might care less, can seem so much more alluring. Grarh. But then….is the feeling of ease and familiarity in the second scenario, a good sign that neither person is being rash, that a gesture isn’t being made foolishly…

    Oh, romance is problematic. But ‘creepy’ should probably be done away with until a person makes repeated unwanted attempts. Everyone gets it wrong sometimes, but to fail to get the idea after a few goes is worse.

  • Mike says:

    You make a really important point that’s far more insightful than it might first appear — that a person’s actions can be interpreted in wildly different ways depending on the underlying (and often unknowable) attitudes of the recipient of the action. It’s not just in romantic gestures — it happens in situations like job interviews — but the romantic situations are those where the results are most likely to go spectacularly well or terribly wrong as so much self-esteem is bound up with the action.

    I’ve just finished an MA in Creative Writing, which involved lots of feedback workshops on each others’ writing and I’m also in various writing groups. Invariably, if you’re writing about characters who are attracted to each other in a romantic way, the other writers will pore forensically over the characters’ attitudes, actions, beliefs and so on to try and work out whether the relationship is ‘plausible’ — ‘Oh, she wouldn’t like him as he’s not kind enough to kittens’, etc. Why not accept that the characters can just bloody fancy each other rotten — and that simple fact makes each tolerate all kinds of bad behaviour, humiliation and angst? Just like in real life.

    And because attraction is so illogical, unpredictable and individual, it needs almost to be impossibly good writing to articulate primal desires that are sparked between two characters and not an alternative pairing.

    As your last line says, it’s tough that this is true but it’s a fundamental flaw in the human condition — but it’s a shame people aren’t a tiny bit more honest about it.

  • Matt says:

    As she put so succinctly: the difference between creepy and romantic often just comes down to whether they actually fancy you.

    Yeah, this. And it’s not just romantic gestures, it’s anything at all in that general area. Romantic or sexual interest in general, however expressed, is often taken as being creepy if the other person just plain doesn’t fancy you.

    (Well, okay, I think it’s mostly women who’ll say it’s “creepy”, blokes will generally not use that categorisation unless we’re talking stalker-ish behaviour. But then again it’s not blokes who are getting most of the undesired attention.)

  • Alex says:

    My take would be that romantic is someone doing something nice and not too overblown to make the first move – creepy is doing that every week for a month when the object of your affectations didn’t respond the first time.

  • Lena says:

    I stumbled upon your blog the other day and I’m OBSESSED. I cannot agree enough with your statement that the interpretation of romantic signs all boil down to how much the girl likes the guy. I’ve had plenty of boyfriends whose romantic gestures were interpreted as creepy by me. I had one who wanted to get me a “couple’s ring” after 2 months. My friend thought it was extremely cute, but I freaked out and broke up with him (not over the ring though).

    I really wish that it wasn’t this way, but that’s just how it is. It also matters how nonchalantly the guy does these romantic gestures. If they are super passionate (too gushy) and your feelings are not yet stable, then it can be seen as creepy. However, if he does them in a cute, casual, or flirty way, then they can spark your interest more. At least, that’s how it is with me.

  • Vouus écrivez toujours des pksts passionnants

  • Encore un poste sincèrement captivant

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