Monday, January 29, 2007

Nature of Romance, and Scott Adams' confusion

In his post Baffled by Romance, Scott Adams expresses "confusion, shock and dismay" in making sense of romantic acts narrated by the readers of the Dilbert Blog.

That's easy to understand. You cannot find romance in a single act. Yes, that would be like finding music in a single note.

Romantic acts acquire meaning in context created by other (romantic) acts, to which they are logically related. They are not random, unexpected acts of kindness or love.

Romance comes from anticipation, buildup, playfulness and surprise. Much like music. Flowers every Valentine's day? That's not romantic. But it isn't romantic to simply let the day pass either, because you must keep the beat.

Like in music, romantic sequences often repeat as variations. Recognising them is part of the romance.

Romance must be distinguished from love (an emotional thing) and sex (a physical act). Romance is cerebral. It is about the cryptic message riding on a succession of acts.

It's possible for love, romance and sex to exist independent of each other, although they are most potent when mixed well in a cocktail.

Mammals are always capable of sex, and sometimes maybe love, but romance is uniquely human. Because it requires the ability to recognise and decode a message, a faculty linked to language. And being cerebral, romance happens between intellectually comparable persons, whereas love or sex are not limited this way.

Here's most of Scott's post, with my comments in bullets:

I was surprised to learn that doing household chores qualifies as romantic for most of you. That’s exactly why you should never hire a butler if you strike it rich – the minute that Jeeves starts unloading the dishwasher without being asked, your wife is going to start humping his leg.

  • I'd be equally surprised if difficult ornamentations were beautiful by themselves. Why, you could become a composer by simply stringing together a dozen trills!

Love notes and flowers were often mentioned. But again, I am confused. Hypothetically, if you were to give your spouse a love note and flowers once a week for a year, all it would do is raise the baseline requirement. It wouldn’t be romantic anymore. Indeed, it would appear too easy. So in a sense, the thing that makes flowers and love notes romantic in the first place is… and wait for this pearl of wisdom… all the times that you DON’T give love notes and flowers.

  • Yes. Endlessly repeating a note is not musical. What comes before, maybe silence, and often what comes after, are both important.

I also noticed that a lot of the so-called romantic gestures have a distinct selfish element, i.e. “I took the day off of work to spend it with her,” and my favorite, “surprise sex.” Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems to me that those only qualify as unselfish if you hate spending time with your spouse or if he or she has a passing resemblance to Shrek. Otherwise, you’re just getting something for yourself and your spouse is lucky to be going along for the ride. I’m all for days off and extra sex. But how are they romantic?

  • That's a non sequitur. Why does a romantic act have to be unselfish? Would an anonymous gift of $100 by post, when the recipient isn't in particular need of the money, qualify as supremely romantic because it is unselfish? 

Romance also seems like gender discrimination. The things that women enjoy often take a great deal of work, e.g. “Surprise, honey! I shingled the roof!” Or “I planned a 14-day trip to Spain!” The things that men want are inherently easy, e.g. “I’ll leave you alone so you can watch the game.” Or “Sure, just don’t wake me up.”

  • What is the point? Is something romantic or not determined only by how difficult, or expensive, it is to execute? Part of the appeal in a musical piece may come from how high it is--or rhythmically complex or difficult in some way. But for most part, a piece is beautiful, and derives meaning, from its place in a larger pattern.

Privately, all guys gave me the same advice when I got married: “Set the bar low. Otherwise, you have no chance.” Romance, I’m told, is the delta between your selfish asshole baseline and the occasional deviations from that baseline. That’s why Donald Trump, for example, can’t stay married. As soon as you buy your wife a helicopter, a ski resort, and a staff of servants, you’ve set her up for certain disappointment.

  • You'd be surprised, Scott. The ski resort may make her happy one evening. But don't expect the helicopter to work next evening again. A hug, however, might. There is no formula here. Enjoy Mozart's formula but that won't make you a composer either.

So allow me to say right here that I am the luckiest man in the world for any minute that my beautiful wife is willing to put up with me. The best days of my life started when I met Shelly. I cherish her, and love her, and always will.

  • You probably mean every word here. But face it that this romantic act is no better than somewhat embellished protestations of a teenager. Because Scott, a single romantic act doesn't exist.

In the music between the two of you, at this moment, it may have been the most beautifully expressed sentiment. But say it many times at random, and you'd know what I mean.

(After the tags, I've included several comments from Scott's readers. They illustrate the point.)


Excerpts from comments on Scott's blog"

In general, unexpected increases in or sudden occurrences of "being sweet" are good, and vice versa. What qualifies as sweet obviously varies from couple to couple, between genders, and according to income.

Posted by: Keith | January 22, 2007 at 08:05 AM

*gag* That was funny until then end and then you went and got all soppy on me!!!

Posted by: Zarna | January 20, 2007 at 08:30 PM

the post was funny... i didnt get any point out of it tho.

Posted by: n | January 20, 2007 at 06:14 PM

"Gag me with a spoon.
You'll have to do better than that, dear."
- Shelley Adams

Aha - we get a reply from Shelley Adams.

Posted by: ShirtBloke | January 20, 2007 at 05:39 AM

I know from experience that flowers are nice, Godiva Chocolates are nice, diamonds are nice. I don't know about helicopters.

Posted by: Patty | January 20, 2007 at 02:07 AM

My husband does things that are so random, but so perceptive, they are amazing. He'll stop at the crafts store and buy me several bars of clay, or six different types of glue, or beads, or something else. ... and not just do the things the floral marketers, confectionary industry, and Hallmark Company says we should.

Posted by: Paula | January 19, 2007 at 07:47 PM

The best "surprise" romantic gesture is actually *saying* what you think your partner ought to already know.

Posted by: Cobwebs | January 19, 2007 at 06:32 PM

If there is anyone that is not baffled by romance, they are either clueless or they're lying.

Posted by: Mary | January 19, 2007 at 04:34 PM

She likes it when I wake up early and go to work on time and do productive things like that. For some strange reason, that makes her happier than anything else I do.

Posted by: Shan | January 19, 2007 at 04:07 PM

I find that the romantic things don't have to be unexpected, just heartfelt even if routine. My wife and I have a tradition where I bring her breakfast in bed at least once a weekend.

Posted by: HCIGuy | January 19, 2007 at 02:10 PM

Very funny stuff. Well, romance can come in many forms. Please check out my blog and let me know what you think. Despite it all, I am a romantic at heart!!

Posted by: Rachel | January 19, 2007 at 11:45 AM

So now my dad has to go out every Sunday to get roses for my mother. Not for romance, just to keep a bunch of retired nuns from thinking they are on the brink of divorce. How sweet;)

Posted by: Claire | January 19, 2007 at 11:43 AM

I get a feeling from the post that things which are done once in a blue moon are more or less romantic .. huh ..I don't want to be that kind of romantic. I'd rather set the bar high than worry about the asshole delta.

Posted by: Ashok | January 19, 2007 at 11:29 AM

You're so right about that raising the baseline business. My husband treats me so well that I get cranky when he forgets to change the flowers in the miniature shrine that he built to me. :-)

Posted by: webar | January 19, 2007 at 11:05 AM

I liked the guy who gives his wife something different every Thursday, the one who secretly arranged for his wife to drive a Mercedes on her trip to her friend's wedding, the woman who's writing her husband a sonnett, etc.

I think romance lives in every kind, thoughtful, and creative gesture we do for the ones we love - even dishes. You don't have to be rich or even clever to be romantic - you just have to love someone so much that you think about them at opportune moments of the day.

Posted by: Mason | January 19, 2007 at 10:55 AM

"Do I smell a whiff of sucking up here?"

Posted by: jayward | January 19, 2007 at 10:47 AM

I have to disagree with your comment about things losing value if you do it to often. While it may raise the bar a bit, i think flowers every week is better than flowers once in a while. the surprise factor is not as important as the 'I am willing to do this all the time' factor.

Posted by: Patrick | January 19, 2007 at 10:30 AM

Hmm, I guess this means "mentioned you in my blog" is the 21st century bouquet? :P

Posted by: SpongeJim | January 19, 2007 at 10:27 AM

1. When we get a parking ticket here, it comes in an envelope of sorts. You take the ticket out, pay it, and are left with the sleeve that it came in. Keep the sleeve, plunk your love note in there, then put it under your s/o's wiper one day when you know where they're parked.

2. Send them a pizza from across the country. Domino's, you might be interested to know, will take credit card payment over the phone. So when my g/f (now my wife) was working in the states (I'm in Canada), this one time I called up dominos in the city where she was working and got her favorite pizza delivered to her.

Posted by: dreadsword | January 19, 2007 at 10:14 AM

Awww... that's so sweet! What did you do wrong? Did Shelly read something on your blog that offended her so you decided to write something good? Are you doing this just as insurance so if she does read your blog she'll melt when she reads this and not go any further avoiding any controversy that may come up from an erlier post?

Posted by: Chris Kankiewicz | January 19, 2007 at 10:09 AM

Yeah, well, if you signed off with those sweet words every day as you should have been doing, I'm sure Shelly would be less than dazzled now.

Posted by: Shan | January 19, 2007 at 10:09 AM

The fact is that romantic gestures shouldn't be special events. They should be daily events. They don't have to be flowers, but can even be just a glimmer of desire when they get dressed.

Throw in some more significant gestures on occasion just to mix things up. And they don't have to be anything big.

Posted by: Piotr Reysner | January 19, 2007 at 10:02 AM

At the same time, romance is very much like a fire. If left alone and unattended it will die out. With day-to-day life it does take an effort to keep it alive.

What constitutes romance changes with time. The basics never go out of style (flowers, dinner out, surprise gifts, trips) but other acts can take on new meaning.

Posted by: CLB | January 19, 2007 at 09:58 AM

That one's going to come back to haunt whichever of you files a divorce petition first.

Posted by: Bob | January 19, 2007 at 09:51 AM

No wonder all of my friends think that romance is finally dead. If not romance, then certainly imagination.

Posted by: Krissy | January 19, 2007 at 09:47 AM

According to the blog, every romantic gesture loses its "oomph" over time. If that is your belief, why would it matter if the gesture is "housework" or "half selfish."

Posted by: Joshua | January 19, 2007 at 09:42 AM

I just pulled out my old copy of 'The Dilbert Principle' to have a few laughs, and noticed it was dedicated to Pam.

Posted by: RPK | January 19, 2007 at 09:27 AM

It doesn't take much - well ok maybe it does - listening and hearing what matters is the best way to be romantic.

Posted by: Barbara | January 19, 2007 at 09:27 AM

But the important thing … is that the gesture of breaking the pattern to demonstrate interest that might not be widely recognized is the important part.

Similarly, it's not the act of emptying the dishwasher that's romantic. It's the outward and unexpected recognition, the "unspoken statement" of "you're always doing this, without thanks, and I'm sure you're exhausted.

Posted by: olie | January 19, 2007 at 09:20 AM

Then again, I'm lucky that my wonderful husband is willing to put up with me. And he is lucky that I'm willing to put up with him. And so on. So then - is love nothing more than getting lucky, and putting up with your spouse? Ouch :-)

Posted by: Griff | January 19, 2007 at 09:04 AM

I think you've got us all beat, Scott:

"Hey honey, remember when I injected Botox into my throat just so that I could talk to you?"

Posted by: Lenn | January 19, 2007 at 09:02 AM

Romanticism is a constantly modifying concept that differs between couples. What you will consider romantic now, won't be as romantic in a few years. It is also a scale; things can be more or less romantic, when compared to other items on the scale.

My studies plus other true love stuff,

Posted by: -drew | January 19, 2007 at 09:00 AM

The last 2 lines that you wrote? Now that is romance.

Posted by: Catherine | January 19, 2007 at 08:55 AM

A lot of romance is cliche. The trick is not being too corny.

Posted by: steve | January 19, 2007 at 08:54 AM

Look at other animals. There are several types of birds and mammals that attrack a mate by making a nest or otherwise showing how "handy" they are. Is it such a leap to understand why doing the dishes could be a turn on?

Posted by: Christine | January 19, 2007 at 08:51 AM

…(ever waltz with your wife in the kitchen? hold her hand walking down the street? tell her you love her as you gaze at the moon? it's sometimes the simplest gestures that are romantic...). The only thing I'll argue with you is that luck has nothing to do with love or being happy, it's attitude. Keep it up!

Posted by: Marco | January 19, 2007 at 08:43 AM

You missed the obvious
conclusion. Romance is most
effective when it is the
least predictable. Your
romantic decisions should be
made by a pseudorandom number
generator, to take any
predictability out of it.

Posted by: Mark Thorson | January 19, 2007 at 08:43 AM

The most romantic thing my husband ever did, was insist that I follow a dream of mine, which was to learn the German language in Germany.

Posted by: Julie | January 19, 2007 at 08:41 AM

And yes, I'm a woman who is a sucker for romance. But really even the sweet little things are romantic, especially if they are selfless.

Posted by: Anna Letha | January 19, 2007 at 08:40 AM

In 2005 for Valentine's Day, I made my boyfriend a gift. I sent it to him in Singapore and he received it in his college's office. It was a cookie jar(the one with a spring lid) and I put origami hearts inside. and inside each heart, was a message to be opened on a certain date. there were enough hearts to be opened for two dates in a month for an entire year. the messages were mostly significant and related to whatever special occasion he was having on that day. such as birthdays or exams or holidays or memories..

Here's a link to my post:

Posted by: jayelle | January 19, 2007 at 08:33 AM

let me guess: she reads your blog ;-)

Posted by: notswiss | January 19, 2007 at 08:30 AM

Wow... a 2 day setup for a romantic blog gesture ;) now THAT's putting thought into it.

Posted by: Adam | January 19, 2007 at 08:22 AM

How can you say you will "always" love Shelly? Aren't we mindless meat puppets? Isn't "love" just an illusion created by random firings of neurons? We can't choose to love someone forever. That isn't part of a predetermined life devoid of free will.

Posted by: Rick Bell | January 19, 2007 at 08:16 AM

Gee whiz, don't get mushy on us, Scott. …and now everytime you don't include it in your blogs Shelly will wonder what's wrong!

Posted by: larry horowitz | January 19, 2007 at 08:04 AM


Two With Nature said...

:-) i like. your bulleted comments on scots p.o.v make sense(!). i hope you posted them on his blog too!

Sean Carter said...

Well it was quite interesting going through the post...and there are some interesting stuff as well...well i'd also like you to visit my blog sometime and check out all the cool stuff that i've posted there....and while you're at it do share your thoughts!!!

Anonymous said...

Romance, in my opinion, is not completely distinguishable from love and sex. It must be having elements of emotional leaning as well as sexual attraction, along with the cerebral part; else, solving a mathematical problem or a crossword with its cryptic clues should have been as exciting as romancing. And because everything is already there in the single word, its so heady and potent already...:-)

Sunil Bajpai said...


Romance is a cerebral activity with sex and love as its subject matter. So romance cannot be devoid of either, but is distinguishable from both.

Remember Basic Instinct 2? That's romance.

Thanks for your insightful comment.