Busted Halo

Most dating and relationships books, columns and shows won’t go near issues of faith. Author, professor and speaker Dr. Christine B. Whelan assumes faith has some role, and tackles even the toughest questions.

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April 19th, 2010

Reading the Coffee Grounds

Women aren't the only ones wondering whether their date is really "into" them



I recently received this note from long-time Pure Sex, Pure Love reader, Phil, a 26-year-old in Iowa. In a previous column, I’d suggested to readers that simple body language is a good way to tell if someone is interested in you. Phil took that test to the next level and asked: If a woman refuses to let me pay for her coffee on a first date, is she sending me a signal that she’s not interested?

Hi Dr. Whelan,

I think that I have found a variant of the salt shaker test. As you have written in your column, that is when you are on a first date and you put a salt shaker (or something like that) on your date’s side of the table. From what I recall, how they react is suppose to indicate whether they are into you.

If they play with it, they are subconsciously inviting you into their personal space. If they put it back where it was before, they are subconsciously rejecting your intrusion into their space (or something like that).

Anyway, I seem to notice a similar reaction when I offer to pay for my date. Letting me pay would be like them inviting me into their personal space. Rejecting my offer would be like putting the salt shaker back. That’s how it seems anyway.

Maybe I’m too old fashioned for modern dating, but it just seems like there isn’t much potential for a relationship if a girl won’t even accept my offer to pay for her $3 cup of coffee. Am I mistaken about this?

Girls, you think that you’re the only ones who worry about whether he’s “into” you? Think again. Guys are wondering how to interpret your signals, too. And this was such a great question, that I wanted to put it to you, the readers of Pure Sex, Pure Love, for your thoughts and experiences.

“Maybe I’m too old fashioned for modern dating, but it just seems like there isn’t much potential for a relationship if a girl won’t even accept my offer to pay for her $3 cup of coffee. Am I mistaken about this?” — Phil

There can be a number of ways to interpret a woman declining a man’s attempt to pay for her. She could be expressing her ability to pay her own way as a sign of independence and liberation. She might be concerned that having a guy buy her dinner or an expensive meal might lead to an indelicate situation where he feels she owes him something sexually in return. (I experienced this myself in my single days — and lemme tell ya, it’s not a fun conversation.)

At the same time, if it’s just a cup of coffee, these arguments may seem rather stale. Is she really saying, “I don’t want to see you again and don’t want to be beholden to you, even for $3”?

What do you think?

When do you really know someone is not into you? What signal do you use to say “thanks but no thanks”? Should paying your own way be interpreted as one such signal?

And, from Phil’s perspective, if a woman won’t let him buy her coffee, how much should he push to get her to fall for him? Have you ever fallen for someone because they were persistent?

Post your comments below in the comments section and I’ll follow up on this piece with a roundup of comments — and some research you can take into the dating minefield with you.

The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Jill

    I don’t expect men to pay for me for a variety of reasons.

    I haven’t been on many dates at all, but I always offer to pay (I also don’t object if the man does ask to get the bill). I make good money thankfully and I don’t want to set a precedent where what I expect is that the man shoulders the monetary burden. I want someone that cares about me, and while yes, occasionally that means treating me to dinner or coffee, it doesn’t always. Times are tough right now, and I think it’s a lot of pressure to expect the man to pay all the time. If you’re interested in me, ask questions about who I am, gently touch my arm, etc. If I’m interested in you, I’ll do the same. If a guy presumes I’m not interested because I offer to pay, then shame on me for not being more clear with my conversation and actions.

    I agree with Karen that the gesture-for-gesture basis is the way to go. I want to do nice things for the person I’m interested in as much I hope he would for me.

  • Anna

    Personally, I like it when a guy asks to pay for coffee, it shows me that he is interested in me and a gentleman. I am a very independent woman, I pay for a friends coffee occasionally and they return the favor. One does not have to be dollar for dollar in a relationship. I don’t feel I owe a guy anything if he bought me dinner. Of course, if it is a longer relationship, I pay or cook dinner for him or pick up the theater tickets or whatever, a guy should not always have to pay, especially if you are in college or just out and on your first job. But at first I like it when a guy pays, it makes me feel special: he’s taking the time to see me and he’s serious about it because he is paying. Dating should be enjoyable, not stressfu.

    Oh, and Phil, you don’t seem like the coffee-for-sex type, don’t worry about it.

  • Joe

    I like Karen’s perspective. I think it is a balance. If I do invite someone out, I will offer (and tend to) to pay. The date may have a different take and want to contribute.

    I think we read into too many aspects of a meeting or date with another person. Movies, books and TV complicate matters. We have too many opinions and significant analysis on what constitutes a “date.” Hopefully. a positive experience and communication between the parties will determine if the parties are interested in one another.

  • Theresa

    I always told my son to rely upon manners , when unsure. If he asked her out to coffe, he’d pay, but if she insisted on paying for her own, see nothing negative in it. She’s treating you as an equal and that’s respect. If she asked him, he’d still pay his own , allowing her the dignity of saying “halves”. The real message is all about respecting each other as equals but different in needs and abilities. “Out for coffee” with a couple of friends is a neutral zone for “getting to know you”. “Out for coffee” just me and you IS saying “You as an individual have sparked my interest, lets see if it becomes a tiny flame to fan.” When I re-entered the dating scene at age 47, wow what a change from my olden days. A date is the next step up. Have you met someplace? Go halves. Did you go to her home, pick her up,and she’s dependent on you to get home? Isn’t that message enough that she’s interested, but not committed, yet?

    Be glad those who dumped you, did. They were gold diggers, consciously or subconsciously, and looking for a sugar daddy to hook into a commitment.

  • Mary K

    Phil– just to let you know, I didn’t think Dr. Whelan was implying that you wanted to buy the coffee to get sex.

    I’ve been married for a few years now, but when I was single, I had no problem letting a man pay for my meal or anything else, at least at the beginning of the relationship. And I never felt obligated. I don’t know that I ever even thought that the guy might think I owed him something… if I thought he felt that way, I probably wouldn’t have connected it to him paying for dinner. I would have just thought he was a pig who expected something sexual because we had gone on a date, period. In all my serious relationships, further into the relationship we would trade off on paying so that there wasn’t a financial burden on either one of us. I do think that I would use paying for myself as a sign that I was not interested… but then again, I didn’t usually find myself on actual dates with someone in which I wasn’t at least already interested. I hate getting into those back-and-forths of “no, let me pay.” “No, I insist.” “No, you really don’t have to…” and so on.

  • Phil

    I’m the Phil mentioned in the column. Overall, this was a good column. I do want to point out a few things though. First of all, I’m actually 26. That is a minor error about which I have already informed the author.
    Also, I want to stress the point that I am NOT one of those guys just looking to buy a woman coffee(or dinner, etc.) in exchange for sex! I do not believe that Dr. Whelan was trying to imply such a thing about me, but some reader might jump to that conclusion if I don’t refute it(perhaps some still will though). When I say that I am looking for a relationship, that is what I mean. I agree with the church that premarital sex is immoral. It would hardly be “old fashioned” from my perspective to approach dating as some kind of dinner-for-sex(or coffee-for-sex, etc.) scheme. Of course, I can understand that some men may approach dating in just such a way. I just don’t want to be included among them though.
    Anyway, I’m not ironclad about always paying for the date. Maybe it is an outdated idea for the man to always pay. It’s certainly not a moral imperative. In practice, maybe some alternation would work better: the man pays once, then the woman, etc. My email above was just an idea. Maybe some women feel more comfortable letting the man pay for a more substantial date after they feel more comfortable with him. I don’t know.

  • Julia

    When I split the check it’s because we’re just friends. I expect men to pay for dates; I expect that they expect to pay. Of course, I also don’t ask men out, so it only makes sense that if they have asked to take me out to dinner it is their gift to me. I have had to have this conversation with many of my single girlfriends and get them to sit on their wallets for a little while because most men DO interpret the offer to pay as a sign of disinterest, or at least a sign that there is no romantic interest.

  • Matt

    I’m sure it’s not a fun conversation, putting off a suitor who thinks you owe them sex because they bought you a cup of coffee. Explaining politely to someone that they’re frackin’ DERANGED isn’t supposed to be fun. But the fact that you’re in that situation is overwhelming proof that this one is not the right one. Which, if you hadn’t already made the same determination earlier in the date, would I think qualify as extraordinarily useful and valuable information. Well worth the moment of awkwardness, no?

    I had romantic relationships with a few other women before my wife and I got together, and each one had a seperate policy on who-pays-for-what-when. With one girlfriend, we even had a little game…whichever one of us managed to slip our plastic to the waiter first got to pay.

    If a woman doesn’t want the guy to pay, it’s a sign of something. “A sign of what?” you ask? Who knows? Everything that happens on a first date is a sign of SOMETHING or other.

    In Phil’s position, I’d pay more attention to how she said it (including both tone of voice and the selection of phrasing she used — “no, I always pay” is very different than “this one’s on me” which is different in turn than “maybe next time”).

    If you’re otherwise interested, it’s worth exploring the source of the issue over time.

    I’ve never seen it mean that the girl isn’t interested in the guy. (And I’ve paid the full tab for more than a few dates with girls who subsequently decided they didn’t even feel like returning my phone calls, as well as occasionally splitting the check down the middle with the woman I’m now married to, back when we were just pals.) But it does sometimes mean that the girl has Issues(tm) that the guy, if things are going to go further, is going to have to find a way to help her through.

  • Karen

    I would be a Girl Who Pays For Her Own Coffee because I wouldn’t want to be beholden to you, even for $3. But that’s a different thing than not being into you. Picking up the tab, and its supposed/imposed obligations can be fraught, whether you’re on a date or grabbing coffee with a coworker. The reciprocity heuristic is pretty hard-wired into most people, and we see it manipulated (gently enough) in marketing/advertising and (more sinisterly) in scams, abusive behavior and worse. I won’t say that women are any more likely to fall victim to this, but I will say that, for a dating female, the stakes are higher.

    So, I try to separate the two, especially during early dating. I pay my own way, and find ways to get to know you to see how I like you. By the way, I work to stay even on a gesture-for-gesture basis, not strictly dollar-for-dollar. So: you get the movie tickets, I’ll get the popcorn and soda. Please, please do not be “persistent” on paying. It sends the complete opposite message you intend. I’ll even tell you why I’m doing it. One time a date, who was a little offended by my insisting to pay, said, “My sister’s like that – always wants to pay her own way.” I replied with how it makes me feel more comfortable and relaxed…which surprised him and changed the tenor of the whole date for the better.

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