The other day, I was sitting at dinner with a few friends when one of them received a text message from a man she’d had drinks with a few times. He was reaching out to ask her to get together again, but she wasn’t interested.
“Looks like it’s time for an EMG,” she said.
“Huh?” I said.
“Empty Magnanimous Gesture,” she responded matter-of-factly. “It’s when you’re trying to avoid seeing someone but you don’t want to be rude by straight-up rejecting them, so instead you make them a counteroffer for a plan you know they won’t be able to — or won’t want to — agree to.”
I laughed at the idea of using this strategy so consciously that it merited an acronym, but I also had to admit it was one I’d probably employed myself on numerous occasions to avoid saying yes to something while still getting credit for making an effort. It didn’t come up in conversation again that night, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Though I’m in a relationship, the prospect of offering up an “EMG” in a dating context is particularly intriguing to me within our current cultural landscape. As dating apps and text messaging make it easier than ever to ask someone out, and the fallout of simply ghosting (hurt feelings, misinterpretation, lack of closure) becomes increasingly more guilt-inducing, are Empty Magnanimous Gestures a viable means of turning someone down gently? And if so, how often are people using them?
“Literally all the time when I was single,” a woman told me via Instagram message. “I have the hardest time just saying ‘no’ or ‘I’m not interested’ because I’m so scared people will take it personally.”
“I do this all the time,” another said. “I know I am the worst because of it but also I feel like it’s… nice.”
“I use them pretty consistently,” a (male) friend told me. “It’s so much better than the alternative — i.e. not responding at all. I used to do that a lot, but then a guy ghosted me and I realized how terrible it was to be on the receiving end!”
The more I learned about deliberate EMGs in the world of dating, the more fascinated I became by the lengths people (myself included) often go to in order to avoid committing to plans whilst still maintaining a semblance of polite interest.
“When I first moved to NYC, an old acquaintance from high school kept asking me out and I responded asking if he was free to get drinks at 11 p.m. on a Wednesday,” one woman told me.
“One time someone asked me on a coffee date and I asked if he wanted to come with my friends and me to a trampoline park the following week instead,” another said. “He refused.”
Of course, to a somewhat amusing extent, EMGs are not a foolproof method of date-dodging. I heard from multiple people who offered up absurd alternative plans under the expectation of being rejected, only to then face the prospect of actually going through with them when the other person agreed.
“I suggested a hike in two-foot-deep snow,” one woman told me. “He was totally down.”
“I asked a girl if she wanted to hang out with me and my weird distant cousin who was visiting from out of town,” another said. “She agreed, and then I had to make up another excuse because I didn’t actually have a weird distant cousin visiting me.”
In other, slightly more positive plot-twists, my research also uncovered a few people whose failed EMGs resulted in long-term relationships:
“A girl I barely knew asked me if I wanted to go to a wedding with her and I said no, suggesting instead that she help me move out of my fourth-floor walk-up into a fifth-floor walk up,” one woman told me. “I was stunned when she said yes. I wasn’t interested in her at all, but I wasn’t going to turn down free help. She took a day off work and helped me move, and we ended up dating for two years.”
“I thought I wasn’t interested in a girl I was seeing, so to put the breaks on our momentum I suggested getting together for an activity she was guaranteed to refuse: cleaning out my parents’ attic,” a man told me. “To my utter shock, she said yes. That was seven years ago. Now we’re married.”
Regardless of their outcome, the frequency with which people offer an EMG instead of a straightforward dismissal raises a number of interesting questions about how dating culture is evolving. As an explanation for why this approach is so common, one person suggested that “maximum credit for minimum effort is always appealing.” It is also, dare I say it, very millennial. It’s a way of having our cake (plan avoidance) and eating it, too (still seeming nice). It’s an indirect symptom of what the New York Times called the “Golden Age of Bailing.” It’s the product of ghosting backlash. It’s a dating tactic tailor-made for the digital era, wherein conversations behind screens can facilitate a more indirect, kinder form of rejection.
While honesty and straightforwardness are undoubtedly preferable means of communication, I can’t help but appreciate the magnanimousness of an Empty Magnanimous Gesture. At their best, the intention behind them is rather heartwarming: to put the ball in the other person’s court with the understanding it won’t be returned. To go the extra mile purely for the sake of protecting someone else’s feelings.
So good ahead, tell me you can’t have dinner and ask me to help you weed your aunt’s garden instead. I promise I’ll say no.
Graphic by Madeline Montoya.