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Romantic Mixed Messaging: How to Recognize Rejection

In an age of politeness, it is hard to distinguish desire from disinterest.

Vadim Zakharishchev/Shutterstock
Source: Vadim Zakharishchev/Shutterstock

After what you thought was a great Friday night date, you are in a good mood on Saturday, glowing with optimism, marveling about all of the things the two of you had in common: Great conversation, common interests, even discussion of future plans. In fact, you half-expected a call or text today, mentioning the great time you had last night and setting up your next meetup.

And then, radio silence. OK, no contact, no problem. After all, it has not even been 24 hours. But now, it's Thursday, and you have not heard a peep from your Friday night companion. Sure, it was just a first date, but it has been almost a week. No calls, no texts, nothing. Your new romantic interest has officially gone dark. Apparently going out again this weekend is not in the cards.

Or is it?

Post-Date Silence Is Not Golden

For prospective partners in the early days of relationship building, silence is not golden. On the contrary, when a partner with whom you have been actively talking and texting drops off the grid, it speaks volumes — as a passive method of rejection. With the range of communication options available to us, post-first date silence can be deafening.

But here is where optimistic daters hesitate: If the silent partner has not bluntly expressed disinterest, then there is room for interpretation. Maybe she is just busy. Maybe he did send a message, but it got stuck in his outbox, and he is wondering why I have not replied.

But, just as I would argue in court against an unlikely legal argument, are these reasonable interpretations of the silence? Remember: Despite all of our electronic communication options, we still have telephones. And when it is important, we still use them.

Is there something about dating in the electronic age that creates mixed signals and confusion, or is it just a modern manifestation of classic unreciprocated interest?

Going Dark or Being Direct

Both online and off, rejection is moderated by politeness. No one wants to be the bad guy. Sometimes first date sparks don't fly. But in the face of unreciprocated interest, is it easier to go dark than to be direct? Research indicates the answer may depend on the role of one of the social customs most responsible for relational ambiguity — politeness.

After a first date, depending on the relationship between a couple, a brutally honest rejection from the disinterested party can ruin a friendship, cause rifts within a larger mutual social group, and create personal discomfort or guilt. Consequently, the desire to be polite prevents many individuals from ever directly expressing disinterest.

When You Can't Just Say “No Thanks”

Between unacquainted parties, rejection is easier online, where sites like and others have a method of opting out of romantic contact, allowing users to indicate "no thanks" with the press of a button. This is a polite method of declining further communication. But without this option — i.e., in the real world — we need more guidance in crafting our message.

Tong and Walther, in a study entitled "Just say no thanks" (2011), examined the different messaging strategies that heterosexual online daters use to turn down requests for dates.[i] They acknowledge that many dating sites offer a “no thanks” button that allows for a simple, impersonal method of rejecting an unwanted offer. But they recognize that rejecting an unknown suitor is the easy case. The more difficult one is when the parties already know each other. Sure enough, when rejection messages are crafted (as opposed to pushing a button), the wording depends on the amount of social distance between the parties.

People who are acquainted, of course, have less social distance between them than strangers. Tong and Walther's study results indicated that low-social-distance rejecters were more polite, and were more likely to suggest future platonic contact, than high-social-distance daters. This can be confusing, because many people seeking a romantic relationship will optimistically misinterpret any suggestion of future contact as a request for another date.

High-social-distance daters were more likely to use apologies; the authors opined that this was perhaps because they are easier to compose. But even an apology can also be misconstrued as an expression of romantic interest, because it conveys care and concern.

When faced with romantic mixed messaging, considering the social distance between daters can assist in distinguishing desire from disinterest. Polite offers of platonic future contact are often just that — offers of friendship.


[i]Stephanie Tom Tong and Joseph B. Walther, "Just say 'no thanks': Romantic rejection in computer-mediated communication,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 28, no. 4, 2010, 488-506.