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Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Nice Guys Finish Last

Scott sat in the restaurant, folding the paper from his straw into all manner of design, waiting for Juliana to show up. She had called, her voice cracking and edgy from the tears she could not conceal, and asked him to meet her in the small faux-1940's diner across the street from the Barnes and Noble where she worked. Scott had been in the middle of writing a paper for his Medieval History class, but would never miss an opportunity to help Juliana.

He was a perfectly forgettable and average student at the high school they both attended. He had played junior-varsity football, and was a member of the National Honor Society, but was otherwise indistinguishable from most of the guys in the senior class. He was considered bright, but not brilliant, and generally got along with most people. His few close friends chided him for his innocent zeal when it came to Juliana, someone he saw as needing to be saved from herself, as well as her 'asshole' boyfriend. His chosen form of rescue was, quite naturally, to date her himself.

Juliana Fletcher was a popular girl in school - she had avoided the role of the clichéd cheerleader, but was active in a number of organizations. She had gained a small measure of local fame by selling a few pictures of the homeless to a national newspaper for a human interest story after a local vagrant was killed by an influential family's rottweiler. The mutt hadn't been put down, or even muzzled, and the paper had wanted to make big deal about the corruption of the local government for their failure to do so. The whole thing sort of went away after, embarrassingly, it was found that the homeless man had been trying to kidnap the dog at the time of the attack, but Juliana's pictures were published in the initial story nonetheless. It was more fame than most small-town Iowans can usually expect.

Scott was just about to get up to call his home answering machine in the desperate hope that she had called with an explanation, when he saw Juliana push through the front doors. Every time he saw her, he felt as if the bottom had dropped out of his heart. There was always a slight pause where the sounds around him seemed to mute out, and his awareness was fully consumed by her; the same feeling one gets immediately preceding blunt trauma. Her eyes registered recognition when she saw him somewhere between sitting and standing, paused almost in midair as if he had a bad stomach cramp – which, in truth, he’d been feeling as his stomach tied itself in knots when she had earlier called, though it wasn’t the reason he was in that position.

She was wearing a collared black shirt with striped pants and a diamond teardrop necklace on a silver chain. She sat down and, after the pleasantries and apologies, she immediately started into the conversation they’d had so many times before. The script was morbidly familiar to Scott, who had been through the motions once a month since their sophomore year.

“He did it again, you know,” Juliana said. “This time it was some community college waif. He said they were ‘practicing’ for their theater class. That fucking asshole.”

This, Scott knew, was where he should break out the accepted bromides about how undeserving her boyfriend was, and how anyone would be lucky to have her. She’d say how sweet he was, and how she deserved ‘a guy like you’ and how she was going to break it off, ‘just as soon as Valentine’s day is over.’

She never would, of course.

With a deep, silent sigh he couldn’t help but ask himself why nice guys like him always finished last, but complete dicks like Juliana’s boyfriend always got the girl…

It’s hard not to find it strange that the above scenario, or one like it, is something which so many guys find themselves in during the course of their maturation. It seems to be a rite of passage, like the first wet dream, which everyone just goes through, to their soul-wretching displeasure. Yet at the same time, it’s such a confusing phenomenon. It’s something which doesn’t seem to make any sense – here’s this girl who you like so much, who you could be so much better to, but who wouldn’t give you the time of day except when she needs an emotional crutch. Yet the bastard who she’s with treats her like shit, he abuses her, he cheats on her, and he totally disrespects her. Why would she do this to you? WHY GOD WHY?

Ladder Theory seems to suggest to us that the reason lies in the relative difficulty of acquisition as well as the novelty and physical attractiveness of the “asshole.” But I think it’s more subtle than that, on a lot of levels. First, I think it’s important to note that the girl almost certainly isn’t as great as you think. Someone who uses you as an occasional ego boost, but who really has no interest in you other than that is clearly not the greatest human being to begin with. If she were really so great, she probably would have traded up long ago. Being nice isn’t the only criteria on which people date other people (it’s probably about a distant sixth), which brings me to the next part: you probably aren’t as great as you think you are.

There’s a great adage which goes like, “For every supermodel out there, there’s a guy who’s sick of [copulating with] her.” This holds true in a lot of situations. There are an incredible number of people out there who are prima facie attractive, but whose novelty simply wears off. While it’s easy to start off a relationship saying that you would be so great and never cheat and would worship this person for the rest of your life, the fact that we are human needs to play into things. If someone really is as great as all that, then it is possible everything will work out: but we imagine qualities in those we desire. The fact that women go after guys who are inaccessible isn’t unique – men are notorious for doing the same thing.

The synthesis of these perceptual issues isn’t trivial. In many young women, there tends to be an unrealistic feeling of inadequacy. Low self-esteem and bad personal image are virtually ubiquitous in high schools and, to a lesser extent, colleges. What this unfortunately seems to do is make it so that women are unwilling to believe in the compliments and professions of love that are showered upon them by ‘nice guys.’ They appreciate them (hence the keeping said nice guys around for the sake of the occasional ego boost), but cannot accept them as completely genuine. On some level, they are expecting the perceived fraud to be revealed. In consequence, they go with the guys who are just openly bastards because it meets the degraded image they have.

The converse is, of course, that guys tend to have an inflated self-image. Many men have a genuine belief in their deserving people who clearly they are not. The ability to rationalize action in many cases is a significant ancillary or contributory factor, but the belief in their own deservedness is the primary one. Guys who are bastards, in many cases, don’t even really think they’ve done anything wrong. Everyone thinks they’re a sweet and caring person. Everyone also thinks they have a sense of humor. This doesn’t always carry as the case.

Of course, all of this even presupposes that some sort of ranking system is even possible within the realm of dating. The very concept of “deserving” another person is something which is kind of hard to rationalize into any coherent meaning. The only real standard is the idea of equality within a relationship, and then the equality of personal utility garnered from it. Sadly, there are cases where the personal utility a person with poor self-image sees themselves as getting from someone who is emotionally abusive is greater than that they think they would draw from a healthy relationship.

Maybe nice guys do finish last, but far more likely is that those who finish last see themselves as nice guys – just as a result of all guys seeing themselves this way. It’s easy to be nice to a girl who doesn’t exist, and not to make mistakes when you haven’t done anything at all.

cranked out at 7:16 PM | |

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