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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