In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Why Do Women Tend to Refrain from Romantic Window Shopping?

Why don't men like window shopping?

"You're window shopping, just window shopping,

You're only looking around,

You're not buying, you're just trying,

To find the best deal in town." Hank Williams

Window shopping—that is, browsing through goods with no intent to purchase—is a popular pastime, particularly among women. Romantic window shopping involves browsing through people with no intent to initiate a profound romantic relationship and is more popular among men. Is there any value in the two types of window shopping? And how can the gender difference be explained?

Shopping and window shopping

The greater variety of goods has made shopping a central activity in our lives. Together with the utilitarian function of purchasing merchandise, shopping has also become a hedonic pursuit, an enjoyable experience in and of itself. When a store manages to facilitate both factors, it draws more visitors, many of whom then become potential buyers. The hedonic aspect is an essential component of window shopping; whereas in traditional shopping the major activity is searching, in window shopping browsing is the major activity.

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Shopping is basically an extrinsic activity, the success of which is measured in its efficiency: paying as low a price as possible for superior merchandise. Window shopping is an intrinsic activity; it is an enjoyable, free and relaxing experience. Like other intrinsic activities, it is not a stressful, hurried activity. When people enjoy the activity itself, there is no reason for them to want to terminate it quickly.

The way that we gaze at a cinema screen bears similarities to the way that we gaze at a shop window. Both involve looking and contemplating without the commitment or ability to turn this contemplation into actual deeds. In many cases, both arouse a mixture of emotions such as desire, excitement, anticipation and pleasure, not to mention an awareness of the gap between our reality and our aspirations. In both cases, we gaze through a glass window that gives us tantalizing glimpses of possibilities, but keeps us at a safe distance from actually interacting with what we see.

Romantic window shopping

The romantic realm is more restless than ever before and hence romantic window shopping, involving browsing people with no intent to initiate a profound romantic relationship, has become more common. People like to roam in the romantic realm, wandering from one place to another, while observing and tasting the romantic environment. Every so often they buy something, but most of the time they just browse and imagine the better deal.

Shopping may be compared to romantic dating: both are originally extrinsic, goal-directed activities intended to obtain something, or someone, that you want to possess. A main preparatory activity of dating, like that of shopping, is searching for a suitable "item" (person, merchandise). In order to succeed in the task, the search should be efficient: getting the optimal product while investing the least resources (such as money and time). Like in window shopping, some kinds of dating are intrinsic, having their own value with no intent to "purchase" anyone by making any commitment to the other person.

In regular shopping, a distinction can be made between passive and active window shopping. In passive window shopping, you just look around and may not enter the shop at all, or if you do, you hardly interact with the salesperson. In active window shopping, you enter the shop, touch the merchandise and interact with the shop assistant. Active window shopping is more likely to generate an actual purchase. This distinction can be imported into the romantic realm. Passive romantic window shopping is when you just look at people, either in reality or in pictures. Active romantic window shopping involves interaction, which in additional to browsing, also involves conversations and sometimes even slight gestures or a small measure of tender touching that express potential intimacy.

Flirting is a typical example of active romantic window shopping. It raises the possibility of romance, but remains at a distance from any moves toward a full romantic relationship. Flirting is conducted within a tacit borderline; it is a kind of play in which the participants move closer to the borderline—and sometimes even step across it—and then move back, keeping a comfortable distance. Flirting is a type of dance in which the boundaries of the romantic window shop are not clearly drawn. People may flirt just for the enjoyment of the interaction, with no intention of seeking to develop the interaction to a relationship. However, underlying romantic window shopping there may be an inactive volcano that can become active any moment. Hence, window shopping may become shopping and the subtle romantic dance may become the precursor to tangible sexual intercourse. The Urban Dictionary nicely defines romantic window shopping as follows: "When a man or woman in a relationship flirts with someone else, with no intention of taking it any further than that. It's like looking at a brand new 50" HDTV without the intention of buying it, even though it's still nice to imagine having sex with it."

Romantic window shopping, such as flirting and cyber-love, can be characterized as whetting your appetite outside while eating at home. It casts a romantic spell without requiring much effort or any commitment to be invested in it. A major issue in this regard is whether whetting your appetite outside will not encourage you to eat outside as well. In the same manner that window shopping may lead to an actual purchase without the shopper having planned to do this, romantic window shopping may lead to unplanned romantic activities. Sometimes, being aroused (whether by clothes or by people) makes it difficult for you to remain outside with nothing in your hands.

Superficial activities are not that bad

Window shopping is a superficial intrinsic activity. It improves your mood but does not profoundly develop your essential capacities. The same holds true for romantic window shopping, such as flirting. Flirting is enjoyable, harmless playing and teasing; it has the pleasant magical charm associated with romance, but it lacks profound romance in the long run. It is nibbling on forbidden fruit but not eating it (here).

Superficial activities are not necessarily bad or worthless. We should not aim to be constantly involved with profound activities; sometimes we need to enjoy superficial ones. Superficial activities hold short-term value when pursued in a moderate manner; when we engage in them excessively, they may be harmful. Thus, flirting may help reducing loneliness and boost one’s ego and self-confidence. One survey found that most working women believe that flirting is good for their health and confidence. Indeed, three out of four women report having flirted with a colleague (while 28 percent of them had a sexual relationship with a fellow-worker). Some findings indicate that flirting at the workplace makes people feel more comfortable with each other (Love Online, p. 151).

Moreover, it has been claimed that an important factor in generating profound happiness is the frequency with which people experience occasional superficial, simple pleasures. As David Lykken advices, “A steady diet of simple pleasures will keep you above your set point. Find the small things that you know give you a little high—a good meal, working in the garden, time with friends—and sprinkle your life with them. In the long run, that will leave you happier than some grand achievement that gives you a big lift for a while.”

Window-shopping, whether the conventional type or the romantic equivalent, may be a superficial activity, but it can certainly make us happier. As is often the case, little things can contribute a lot to our sense of well-being (here).

Gender differences

Studies indicate that women are more active shoppers than men are and that they enjoy browsing more; accordingly, they are more involved in window shopping. Most men claim to dislike shopping and browsing. Women view most types of shopping as a leisure experience, which includes eating, drinking in cafes and bars, sightseeing and simply walking around. Although men have increased their participation in the traditional task of shopping, which was previously thought to be the domain of women, they are more likely to be efficient in their activities; they tend to “grab and go,” rather than enjoy the social or therapeutic aspects of shopping (here and here). Accordingly, online shopping, which is super-efficient, is attractive to men. Since it cannot replicate the pleasurable experience of conventional shopping, it is likely to have limited appeal for women (here).

Does this gender difference in window shopping prevail also in romantic window shopping? It would seem that there is a gender difference in romantic window shopping, but it is in the opposite direction: men are more prone to romantic window shopping than women are.

Men's greater involvement in romantic window shopping is evident in both passive romantic window shopping, such as looking at erotic pictures, and in active romantic window shopping, such as flirting.

Men tend more to look at pictures of women or just to watch women. As one married woman said: "I certainly do notice attractive men, but I don't take time out of my day to go and look at them. It seems that guys do this, for example, going to the beach for girl-watching!" It has also been claimed that erotic pictures generate more arousal in men than in women, whereas pictures of romantic couples generate more arousal in women than in men. This may indicate that women are less interested in superficial sexual activities, such as casual sex, than men are.

Gender differences are also found in the active type of romantic window shopping, such as flirting, which is more common among men. One reason for this is that men may not see their flirtations with an attractive woman as threatening their existing relationship, while women tend to do so. Another reason is that women have been socialized to be wary of the advances of attractive men (here). And indeed women are more likely to hurt when romantic boundaries are violated. Moreover, as men tend to take more risks (here), they are more likely to violate the restricted zone of romantic window shopping in order to get the "real" thing. Consider the following statement by Maria, a married woman:

"I do enjoy flirting, but have had a hard time finding a safe zone for this activity. Unless I was doing some real romance, I would generally only flirt with guys who I felt were 'safe,' men that I don't worry would take the flirting more seriously. In my experience with men it's been hard to find that middle ground. Guys are either afraid if I flirt with them (because they think I'm coming on to them and most of my male friends are married), or they start to look at me as if I am a nice juicy pork chop (which frightens me!)."

Men's intrinsic activity of romantic window shopping is more tainted with utilitarian motives than women's romantic window shopping is. When men flirt, they are more likely to move the conversation towards sexual aspects, thereby making it easier to turn the window shopping into actual "hard-core" shopping.

Conclusion

Window shopping and romantic window shopping are superficial, intrinsic activities. They are enjoyable in the short term, but typically do not have a direct profound impact or a long-term outcome. As they improve our sense of well-being, both types of window shopping can have accumulative value in the long run as well.

It seems that women are more prone to window shop than men are, while men are more involved in romantic window shopping. Although these gender differences are decreasing in our cyberspace society, they are still present.

To sum up, it may be enjoyable or even advisable to engage in romantic window shopping, but it is also prudent not to sell or buy cheap.

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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