Do You Believe in Playing “Hard to Get”?
07.20.17
Photo by Werner OTTO/ullstein bildvia Getty Images; collage by Emily Zirimis

The philosophy of “playing hard to get” has been instilled in me since birth — partially because, without it, my birth might never have occurred.

Per the story my parents have rehashed for years, hard to get was the domino that tipped their relationship from dating into engagement. My mom, very much in love with my dad, told him she was moving home to Virginia. It wasn’t true of course, she merely hoped it would compel him to ask for her hand in marriage posthaste, to get her to stick around. Romance at its finest! I was born two years later, and my parents are still happily married to this day.

My mom has been a hard to get devotee since the tender age of 16, when she developed her first crush on a boy who would always wait until the last minute to ask her to hang out. Every afternoon, she would pull up a stool and wait by the phone for him to call. One day, her grandmother couldn’t take it anymore. “Next time he calls last minute, you’re going to very sweetly tell him you already have plans,” she said. My mom balked.

Nevertheless, the next time he called, my mother begrudgingly played coy and turned down his invitation. The following day, the boy sent her a dozen roses. He never called last minute again.

“It made me think that my grandmother had some sort of mystical wisdom,” my mom told me. That same wisdom, as it turns out, has been propagated as the gold standard of dating advice for centuries.

When I told Jennifer Wright, author of It Ended Badly: Thirteen of the Worst Breakups In History, that I was curious about the historical origins of this approach to courtship, she quipped, “If you think about it, Anne Boleyn is kind of the original queen (literally) of the hard-to-get strategy, because she initially refused to become Henry VIII’s mistress.”

Touché.

But why such a counterintuitive strategy? If you like someone, why purposefully act as if you don’t in order to get them to like you back? The mind game of playing hard to get is so widely reinforced in popular culture that I feel a little ridiculous even asking these questions, but I think they’re worth probing. Boiled down to its most primitive logic, playing hard to get seems to have three intended outcomes:

1. Increase your perceived value by appearing “scarce”
2. Test the interest and commitment of a potential partner
3. Establishing a coy, flirtatious repartee

I’ve many times employed the hard to get strategy myself, although I’m not sure how effectively. It’s difficult to say with complete assurance. For example, are my current boyfriend and I together because I played hard to get? He did, after all, initiate most of the milestones in our relationship (he asked me out on dates, said “I love you” first, started the conversation about defining our relationship). Or are we together because we live in the same city, our personalities are compatible and we ended up liking and loving each other the same amount at the same time?

I don’t know. It’s uncomfortable admitting I “played the game,” because it makes me feel like I perpetuated an archaic, perhaps sexist, system by sitting on my hands and letting a guy take the lead. Then again, I’m passive by nature — my personality is conducive to hanging back a little — I don’t think gender alone dictated our roles.

“Playing hard to get is…hard, but it works,” said Paul, age 24. “I waited five dates before I let my current boyfriend so much as kiss me because I wasn’t convinced he liked me as much as I liked him, and in the back of my mind I was weirdly trying to keep him interested in me. We joke now that if nothing had happened by the sixth date, the relationship would have been dead in the water.”

In terms of how the hard to get choreography plays out between two men, he observed, “In my personal experience, the dynamic is always a bit off. It’s like getting thrown in a pool without floaties and being expected to know how to do a perfect backstroke. Who pays for dinner? Who buys the drinks on the first date? The ‘thrill of the chase’ is initially appealing but someone has to give in and send the first Tinder message eventually, which I did.”

Interestingly, when I asked three straight male friends (all of whom are my age — 25) how they felt about the philosophy of playing hard to get, all of them were rather dismissive of it.

“I personally dislike the American courting process where men are expected to initiate conversation on dating apps, arrange the date and ultimately pay,” said Julian. “It’s a two-sided affair to which both parties have agreed, and the norms need to be more egalitarian. Gender norms aside, I also dislike textual marination and the other ‘hard to get’ techniques. People should be open and honest. We need to drop the schoolyard shtick.”

Tim agreed with Julian, at least in part: “There is something very attractive when a woman takes the initiative to reach out and organize dates,” he said. “I’d be lying if I said I don’t fall for the hard to get move sometimes, but the appeal is usually short-lived. Once you get past the thrill of the chase, you realize that you aren’t actually attracted to the sort of person who plays games like that.”

“I don’t play hard to get myself,” said Clay. “Definitely not on purpose, at least. I don’t really mind when people do — they can be interesting or not either way — but you can always tell. I think the outcome isn’t dictated by someone playing hard to get with me, but rather how I’m already feeling about them and the relationship. It’s never going to be a put-off, but it’s not always going to be a successful strategy either.”

When I asked a handful of female peers what they thought, my friend Eliza (age 25) beelined to the biggest potential pitfall of playing hard to get: “I believe it can be effective, but I’ve also had the problem where I play so hard to get that it seems like I’m disinterested even though I’m not.”

Pippa, also age 25, agreed that playing hard to get only works if you don’t take it too far. “You can’t get too bogged down by the so-called rules, i.e. don’t ever text a boy first, don’t kiss until he’s asked you out, etc. When I had my first relationship in college, I was proud of myself for never texting him first — for a YEAR. How?! He ended up ghosting me. Suddenly, abiding by the rules made me feel powerless instead of powerful. It took me a long time before I realized that playing hard to get shouldn’t deny you agency — it should be a mechanism for prioritizing your life and your schedule.”

Katherine says that, in her experience, the pitfalls of hard to get are exacerbated when the players are both women. “Imagine the time and effort you and your friends put into concocting a plan of approach to get a guy to chase you,” she said. “Now imagine there’s two sides strategizing head-to-head, both playing hard to get, both wanting the chase. Girls either play hard to get until someone calls it quits, or you both wind up thinking the other person hates you and nothing ever happens.”

In conducting my research for this story, I was amazed by how passionate people were about the topic. Everyone had an opinion or a story. I began to wonder if this was a purely cultural phenomenon. Might it be biological too?

In a 2014 study, researchers conducted two experiments to determine when playing hard to get successfully increased romantic attraction. In the first experiment, men were asked to read a hypothetical story about a date or meet a real woman in a speed dating situation. The women they read about in the story, or met on the date, behaved in either a positive, interested manner (i.e. easy to get), or in a detached and aloof manner (i.e. hard to get). The second experiment was folded into the speed-dating component of the first: some of the male participants were set up with women for whom they’d already expressed some interest, and some of them were set up with randomly-assigned women.

At the end of the experiment — and take this with a heteronormative grain of salt — researchers concluded that individuals who played “easy to get” were seen as more likable, while individuals who played “hard to get” were seen as more desirable. Participants who were set up with women they were already interested in, found the hard-to-get woman more desirable, but participants who were set up with random women found the easy-to-get woman more desirable. That is to say, playing hard to get magnified desire if it already existed in the first place — but it wasn’t able to create desire from scratch.

Curious what a relationship expert would have to say, I spoke with Monica Parikh, dating coach and founder of School of Love NYC. “I don’t believe in mind games,” she told me. “But I do advocate developing a confident and detached style of dating.” When I asked her what she meant by detached, she said, “Detachment is the most important (and difficult) skill to master in dating. You move from a mindset of ‘Pick me!’ to ‘Are you good enough for me?,’ and you move from being chosen (passive) to being the chooser (active).”

When she put it that way, something clicked. Maybe hard to get is best defined not as a sneaky strategy to feign disinterest, but as a manifestation of confidence and self-respect — and it ought to be deployed accordingly.

What do you think? Am I simplifying? Do you believe in playing hard to get?

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  • Alexandra Porter

    “Detachment is the most important (and difficult) skill to master in
    dating. You move from a mindset of ‘Pick me!’ to ‘Are you good enough
    for me?,’ and you move from being chosen (passive) to being the chooser
    (active).”

    YES. Hit the nail on the head.

  • Lindsay D

    I always say, don’t “play” hard to get. Be hard to get. Having your own life and interests when you start dating is attractive for men and women.

    • Ashley Hamilton

      I like this.

    • tmm16

      Love this!

    • Amelia

      THIS. THIIIIS.

    • Harling Ross

      great distinction

    • AAA

      Yes – beat me to it.

    • Ciccollina

      Amen sister. You shouldn’t be putting too much pressure on a guy to fill your schedule.

  • Abby

    I’ve always been my full, slightly clingy self in every relationship I’ve ever been in, including in very early stages, because I don’t want to be with someone who can’t handle my need for their attention! Lucky for me my husband is also kind of clingy, so I get my attention whenever I want.

    • Harling Ross

      hahah i love that

  • kate

    The worst is when you’re being ignored or possibly blown off by a guy and he’s too busy not paying attention to you to notice you’re “playing hard to get.” It’s exhausting and not worth it. I guess this is where I’m supposed to add “just be you,” but as a 40 year old still struggling with all this (I’m a very later bloomer in life), my advice is probably crap. Do as I say, not as I do.

    • Micah Lpez

      I always say better alone than in bad company !!

      • kate

        It’s what I try to remind myself, but it’s hard past a certain age. 😉

  • Rachel

    I love the idea of being the chooser instead of being chosen. I’ve tried playing hard to get in the past but that’s really not who I am since I invest a lot in relationships so it never really worked. In my previous relationship I felt like the guy was actually playing hard to get and was very disinterested in making plans and texting first. After that I definitely starting thinking “is he good enough for ME?” whenever I met a guy, which led to a a great relationship where we are on equal ground.

  • I think the problem comes from this exaggerated understanding of what playing hard to get entails. I always understood it as not being clingy and giving too much of yourself too fast. If you’re free and want to hang out, do it. If you’re not, don’t go out of your way to be accommodating (at least until after several dates). Stick to “getting to know you” topics until you’re a couple of weeks in.

    Being aloof and closed off has never worked for me. But being friendly, yet not always available has. You are you’re own person first. It’s what makes you worth getting. A new guy (or gal) doesn’t just automatically trump that.

    And it makes me laugh when heterosexual men are asked if this works. No one is going to admit that they like being manipulated.

    • Abby

      I can’t say I’ve heard a lot of young men use the phrase “textual marination” either haha. But yeah, it’s all about self-worth. I think “hard to get” is for a lot of us girls just a way to not appear desperate(?). But men are hunters (so they like to claim). They like chasing things. So they’re more like Jack Russell terriers.

      • Rachel

        Hahaha jack russell terriers

      • Laughing for “Jack Russels terriers”!

  • tmm16

    I don’t. Healthy relationships don’t involve games, so why start a possible relationship with games? Ya feel? Then again, I’m single and have been for a while so maybe my method of honesty doesn’t work.

    Also, turning the tables, if a guy seems too hard to get or doesn’t initiate plans with me, I just assume he isn’t interested and move on. Making me question things is such a big turn-off and so is indecisiveness. I’ve had men say, “Definitely! Would love to get together again” then I never hear from them.

    I also feel like most times when others “play games,” it’s mostly just indecisiveness from the other person, for whatever reason. At the end of the day, communication is key.

    • Micah Lpez

      I agree with you, I just don’t understand how people can form meaningful relationships with people if you’re constantly wondering how they feel about you. It’s seems exhausting & I would’t worry about being single for long, being single allows to be selective of you allow in your life, you’re more likely to have more long lasting romantic relationships that short flings ( unless that what your into).

    • Pterodactyl111

      Yes yes yes. Communication is so key. Playing the “who can (pretend) care the least” game is a recipe for heartache.

  • aronnoco

    This comes from an exclusively heterosexual dating experience, so it may be one-sided, but one of the main things that bothers me about the ‘playing hard to get’ ethos being ingrained in American dating culture is that some heterosexual men tend to assume that women are ALWAYS doing it. I’ve had several presumably friendly encounters with male classmates (happened lots in college) and peers end with them asking me out and then getting v bitter and persistent when I refused. And I’ve heard the same story from other women.

    Lots of blame gets spread around for women ‘leading men on’ because there’s a standing assumption that women have to passively show interest, if at all, and that men have to be the decisive actors. Toxic gender roles at their finest.

    • Jeanie

      What a great point!

    • Charlie

      This is so true!

  • Shevaun

    When I first started dating my husband I was very inexperienced and felt sort of insecure because he didn’t text me first/didn’t always respond in a timely manner. I thought he was playing hard to get, or that he didn’t like me as much as i liked him. So I would talk to my friend (who was also very inexperienced so a case of the blind leading the blind) and we would decide that I just wouldn’t text him first for a day, to see what happened. I suppose that is a way of playing “hard to get”, or at least testing the waters to see what sort of interest was there. When I told him about that a year or so later he was like “I DIDNT EVEN KNOW I’M JUST BAD AT TEXTING!” which has been true for the 7 years we’ve been together. If I had been more open with him, or had like just written his lack of text-etiquette off as being a bad texter (our in-person communication was always great) and not disinterest then I would have been a lot less stressed.

  • Mia

    I think it depends on your end game.

    Hard-to-get has gotten me a lot of impermanent relations. Some were weeks long, some years long, some fun, some love lessons, but none were going to last because deep down they were not what I wanted.

    These days, “I love the idea of being the chooser instead of being chosen” (or the hard-to-get), like Rachel above. When I became the chooser, I found the man I wanted, and, readers, I married him!

  • Eliza

    Playing hard to get has never made sense to me. I’m sure it works for people, but I guess I’ve never really considered approaching a relationship that way. I think it’s because my parents were always “playing games” in their relationship (yes, even though they were already married). They had some issues with communication, and I know that’s not the same thing, but when you’re a kid it definitely all *seems* the same. Why say/do something if you don’t mean it? Personally, I find that building any kind of relationship is a lot easier when you’re honest and open and act like yourself from the start. It also helps to manage expectations (and especially infatuation) when you don’t even know the person yet.

    I’m definitely not saying that if someone plays hard to get their relationship is automatically bs or anything…but I find it very reassuring to know that if something *does* go wrong, it’s because there was a problem with the relationship, and not because there was a problem with the way we communicated about the relationship.

    I’m also not sure I agree with the “Are you good enough for me?” mindset. You should always be playing the active role in your own life. So when it comes to a relationship, shouldn’t it be two people actively asking, “Are we good for each other?”

  • Cate

    I always say: straight men invented the concept of “playing hard to get” so they’d have an excuse to keep bothering women who clearly aren’t interested.

  • rolaroid

    Fuck no. This is a ploy, a game people play to make the other person look desperate. It’s nasty. It’s true that it’s attractive, but people who do this actively, I can’t think any good of them. If you like someone, just like them, that’s it, express it, stop being so afraid of being vulnerable.

  • Nope. I used to do that when I dated assholes that never wanted to seem too available or whatever. Then I met my current boyfriend. We started dating after going to a party together. We spent that weekend together, then the next, then the next, etc etc. I really liked him and I wanted to spend time with him, so I did. It always felt very natural. It’s our 6 year anniversary next weekend 🙂

  • Wally Flower

    Grandma did it and it worked. Mom did it and it worked. Mom and grandma actually whisper it as a kind of secret magic. It is the same human response that happens at a live auction over any “object.” Men don’t realize how much women study how to get what they want. It is right in front of them on the faces of the magazines next to the candy bars at check out. But they don’t get it. It remains a secret.

  • Helen

    It’s never been my jam, I always do the date asking and always make the first move. If a man seems disinterested or suspiciously busy nearly all the time I naturally assume he’s not interested and I trot along.

  • In Italy we say “in amor vince chi fugge” which means “in love the one who runs away wins” and I think it’s true. I think that if you play hard to get but you’re flirtatious enough to keep a man interested, you hardly go wrong. Also, I once read a book which was totally enlightening and there was written than if you “give yourself” very soon, a man will initially thinks that you couldn’t resist him, then he will think that you always do it and will start to see you as easy. Oh gosh, it’s so complicated!

  • ApocalypsoFacto

    I dunno. It worked for me.

    I was friends with this guy, there were lots of deep conversations and bonding and some flirting, but he would not make a move.

    Then he had to move away to take a job after graduation. He asked me if I was going to come visit him and I said “maybe in a few months, if I have time.” Totally trying to play it cool as my heart was breaking thinking he would move away, meet some other girl, and I would never see him again.

    That night he called and asked me to come over and said he realized he was in love with me…the thought of not seeing me for months made him panicky and sad and that helped him figure out his feelings.

    We’ve been together 20 years next month, married for 18.

    So there’s my story. Sometimes I think *not* being the “hey, I’m always here for you! I’m right here! Seriously, if you need anything, I’m here!” does make you a more attractive relationship prospect because the other person knows you are independent and also not willing to put up with a bunch of nonsense. There’s power in having boundaries.

  • Jeanie

    I don’t play games or say the opposite of what I mean. With that said, I DID turn my now husband down the first time he asked me out 😂. I meant it at the time though.

  • Mun

    I think it depends on the guy. If he tells you that he doesn’t want you to play hard to get, you should really just respect that.

  • Peter

    I was on my second date with this guy I met on Tinder, a demure and delicate flower of a man, we were in our maybe third hour of conversation and drinks and I thought it was going well, but I really couldn’t gauge his level of interest based his body language, so, as we walked to our third bar, we paused at the top of a bridge with the city lights twinkling around, and I, never one to play hard to get and generally straightforward, said “Do you wanna make out?”

    And he was so mortified by my brazenness that we never ended up talking after that date. He told me he’d have preferred I leaned in for it rather than asked, which I think would have been kind of awkward and aggressive because I wasn’t picking up those vibes from him.

    I think, because gay men don’t really date with this huge historical and cultural expectation for what the dynamic should be, it’s kind of a free-for-all where we can determine how we interact based on who we are rather than what people think or expect, which I love.

  • Asli Ozyurek

    Yes, I totally agree!! I met a guy at a house party and I am totally all about him, I wish I could go all out but I am keeping my cool and playing hard to get. This drives him crazy and I love it. 💪🏼😩💯