Nikki, a 22-year-old journalism student from Minneapolis, is telling me about the worst date she’s ever been on, with a man called Athens she met at college. “He talked about his goals, his week, his career, his meditation, his favorite books, his respect for ‘real’ musicians and how most people pronounce ‘namaste’ wrong,” she says. Nikki waited in vain to be asked a single question about herself while Athens raved about philosophy, monogamy, wanting to live in a van and how acid could lead to a higher sense of self. She waited for him to ask her about herself the entire date. “He texted me the next day about how much fun the date was,” she continues, “and he spelled my name wrong in the text.”
Nikki’s experience is bleakly funny, but it’s far from an anomaly. In the past week, I’ve heard from more than 250 women, men and non-binary people about their experiences with men asking them zero questions on dates. For example, Diana, a 25-year-old New Zealander currently based in Indiana, recently went on a date with the man who fixed her dishwasher. Assuming she was from Australia, he monologued about snakes, Steve Irwin and prison colonies while ordering pork nachos for the two of them (Diana is a vegetarian). After several hours of unidirectional conversation, Diana hadn’t been asked to share a single personal detail. “He didn’t ask me anything,” she tells me. “Like, not one thing. To this day, I’m not sure if he knows my name.”
Some of these men went into excruciating detail about dull topics while their dates sat across from them uninterrogated about their own jobs, dreams, values, favorite TV shows and best jokes. Vanessa, a 49-year-old consultant in Wellington, tells me about a date who treated her to a speech about his new office layout without learning a single detail about her. “He talked about how Bryan at work had got a desk next to the window, which was obviously a travesty,” she says. “Then he explained at length how his phone charger wouldn’t fit the electrical plug on his desk.” I heard from people whose dates — all men — Chromecasted their haircut pictures, performed feeble magic tricks, sang songs, broadcast the date on Instagram, adopted the downward dog position, watched the bar TV or pulled out their phones and began texting; anything but ask a solitary question of their dates in return, most of whom had been sitting like free therapists for hours.
To add insult to injury, many of the women who shared these stories with me said that the men told them later that they felt the dates had gone swimmingly, often asking for a second. This makes sense: being able to speak about oneself freely and without interruption to a patient, attentive audience is a service that usually costs upwards of $150 a session. If some smart, attractive social media editor from Ohio is willing to act as a free therapist for a few hours — and as a semi-relevant aside, almost all of these men refused to pick up the check for dinner — it’s no wonder the same men were lining up for more. As Anna, another woman I spoke to about her zero-question date, puts it: “Of course he thought the date went well. He’d been able to talk about himself uninterrupted for hours, while I looked on bored.”
Most of the people I spoke to about this phenomenon were women, but several gay men and non-binary people had near-identical experiences with romantic prospects who asked them no questions. “That happens so frequently dating other queer or gay men,” Kyle Turner, a 24-year-old freelance writer based in Brooklyn, tells me. “I spend a majority of the time asking them questions and they rarely return the favor, so at a certain point, I either try to slip in things about myself in response or give up.” Several women told me that, at a certain point, they began to treat the lack of reciprocity like a game, waiting in amusement to see how long it might take to be asked something about themselves. “I invented a bad first date drinking game,” Allie, a 27-year-old organizer from the Bay Area, tells me. “See how many sips and songs you can get through before he stops talking.” The date typically ends with Allie drunk, bemused and still a stranger to her date, despite her being treated to pretty much his entire inner world.
When I asked these ignored daters to hazard a guess as to the cause of this self-absorption, I got a variety of responses. Some thought it may have been nerves, while others felt men in general were more likely to view dates as a personal marketing exercise (“Here’s why you should find me attractive”) rather than an opportunity to get to know a romantic prospect. For a professional opinion, I spoke to Elise Franklin, a psychotherapist based in L.A., who tells me that the nerves hypothesis has limited applicability. “Sure, it can definitely be nerves for some,” she says. “I know I ramble when I’m nervous, and that’s common.” However, she says that a more significant explanation for the phenomenon is narcissism; a personality trait more common in men than women. “Narcissists can’t tolerate being told, ‘Your feelings don’t match my feelings,’” she explains. “To them, their feelings are everyone’s feelings — if I feel this way, then you feel this way, and if I’m interested in this, you are too.”
“Narcissism is encouraged in men,” Franklin continues. “Men are discouraged from mirroring their parents, and other members of society in general.” Because of this, she says, men are more likely to end up in the position of the oblivious, raving dater than women are. “Women are, in general, expected to be people pleasers,” she says. “We’ve learned our worth through social currency, and we’ve been the understanding ear for centuries.” She points out that her own listening profession, therapy, is dominated by women — the American Psychological Association found that there were 2.1 female psychologists for every male, and in less professionalized roles such as counseling, the gender gap is even larger.
Is this really such a gendered phenomenon, though? Aren’t women just as capable of being bloviating, self-absorbed bores? Yes, but with the significant proviso that social attitudes to gender mean that narcissism is tolerated in men but punished in women — an argument made by Jeffrey Kluger in his 2014 book The Narcissist Next Door, and confirmed in part by studies that show men interrupt women more than the reverse and that listener bias means even when men and women are speaking equal amounts, women are perceived as speaking 55 percent more and men 45 percent less.
As far as I’m aware, there’s no statistically significant data on this topic, and it’s a phenomenon that receives little media attention or academic inquiry. But my Twitter DMs and Gmail inbox are swollen with hundreds of anecdotes, all of which make one thing clear: There’s no shortage of men more willing to wax lyrical about snowboarding, Mad Men, Socrates, their own penises, Amnesty International, mushrooms, foot fetishes, monogamy and war — and to sing songs, strike yoga poses, share the contents of their entire camera rolls and perform magic tricks — than to ask the flesh-and-blood women and men they’re presently on a date with a single question about themselves.
The kicker? Most of them walk away thinking they nailed it.