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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Talking about "talking"

In the social world of Jane Austen’s Regency, young people navigated a complex set of unwritten rules for managing friendship and courtship. Unrelated men and women could correspond only once they were engaged. Calling a friend by her Christian name represented a significant advance in intimacy. Dancing together more than twice at the same ball would raise eyebrows.

Apparently, not much has changed – or so I concluded recently, after my seventeen-year-old niece did her best to educate me about the complex set of unwritten rules that today’s teenagers use to manage friendship and courtship in a world dominated by social media.

I'd been puzzled when she quickly read-then-unread a reply to one of her Instagram DMs, instead of spending the time to peruse it more carefully. Why the rush? Well, she explained, she didn't have time to reply right away, and if she took a longer look, her correspondent would know she’d seen the message and might be offended if she delayed her answer by more than, say, ten minutes.

Still, an exchange of DMs on Insta doesn't necessarily imply much intimacy, she continued -- but suggesting a move to a second platform does, because communicating regularly via Snapchat, iMessage, or Facetime could license you to say you were “talking," which is apparently a big step up from friendship, even though it still involves no actual in-person contact. ("Many relationships end at the talking phase," she clarified for me, in a follow-up email.) Eventually, "talking" might lead on to “dating,” which – I learned to my relief – does still involve real-world interaction.

But you have to be careful about exactly how you indicate a willingness for a real-world meet: suggesting that the two of you “get coffee” denotes only a desire to drink caffeinated beverages, whereas suggesting that you “go to coffee” implies a desire to spend time in each other's company, with possible romantic overtones. (In between these two options is "going for coffee," which conveys a greater level of casualness than the more intentional "to" version.)

And does “dating” mean exclusivity – no “going to coffee” with anyone else? Yes -- except when it doesn’t.

Unwittingly mix up these signals, and feelings could be hurt. Friendships could splinter. Reputations could be damaged.

Holy Marianne Dashwood, Batman!

It all reminded me of why Clueless, the 1995 movie that updates Emma to high school in Beverly Hills, has always been one of my favorite Jane Austen adaptations. The etiquette of high school life, it turns out, is still perhaps our closest equivalent to the unforgiving social code of Regency England.


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