Guidelines governing dating and romance have become more complex than unsolved problems in mathematics.

For example, the “deterministic rendezvous problem,” when discussed by mathematicians, involves symmetry breaking, algorithms and robots. In real life, especially in rural areas where your neighbors recognize your license plate, rendezvous problems can become even more complicated.

Mathematics poses questions concerning amicable numbers, kissing numbers and betrothed numbers. Who among us over age 21 hasn’t faced similar questions regarding the implications of amicability, kissing and betrothal, without even the hope of winning a Nobel? (The betrothed numbers are registered at Bed, Math and Beyond.)

Last week, graduating UConn senior Dylan M. Smith, a math major with a serious enough interest in comedy to win one of my university’s most prestigious fellowships in order to study humor in depth and along mathematical lines, stopped by my office to talk about the current dating climate.

Most students who stop by my office are young women. When they discuss the current dating climate – as if attraction could be mapped by radar and heartbreak predicted like an impending storm – the questions posed by these young women are from their own gender-specific perspectives. Dylan’s questions, just as necessarily, are a reflection of his.

When one of the biggest conversations across American campuses today focuses on what counts as flirtation versus what counts as harassment, serious discussions about these topics are essential. But the questions can sound awkward.

Undaunted by the fact that there were three women in the office – two female students in addition to me – Dylan asked, “So how can I tell what a woman means when she moves away slightly? How can I distinguish between ‘Slow down, but do that again in exactly three minutes’ and ‘I don’t want to do that. Do not attempt to touch me, kiss me or convince me pineapple is good on pizza’?”

The two female students replied in unison: Never order pineapple on a pizza. Who does that?

Clearly there were other important questions. I asked Dylan to email them to me. He offered a caveat – “I’m a good boy and don’t struggle with questions like these that only creeps would ever even think about” – but he nevertheless decided to go along with the assignment “for the sake of my less experienced, creepier peers.”

Dylan wrote, “How can we correctly interpret what another person is trying to communicate? For some, going back to a person’s apartment means, ‘I want to have sex,’ whereas to another person it means, ‘Let’s have coffee.’ For yet another person, what it actually means is, ‘I had to pee so bad and the bar was closed and I knew I couldn’t hold it all the way home.’ How do I navigate using these mixed signals?”

While I am not the kind of adult who thinks young couples need to sit 17 feet apart until after the birth of the third child, I do think folks are going to need to deal with a version of emotional and sexual tollbooths. On a regular basis, somebody is going to need to slow down or stop in order to make sure that this isn’t the best place to exit. “Easy pass” will take on a whole new meaning. If done correctly, this conversation need not have the same effect on a romantic encounter as shining a 500-watt flashlight into somebody’s eyeballs but instead can be flirtatious and veracious at the same time. Doing it correctly means using language and communicating in a way that both parties understand.

Dylan replied with his own set of interpretations for common actions and phrases.

According to Dylan, “Can I buy you a drink?” means “Can I talk to you for a few minutes?” and “Making eye contact and biting his or her lip means that person really wants to kiss you.” I would agree that those are clear, perhaps even universal signals.

I’d also agree that, “Someone who plays Marvin Gaye’s ‘Let’s Get It On’ unironically means he has no idea what he’s doing,” and that the only possible interpretation of “Hey baby, what’s your sign?” is “I’m over 40.”

And this: “no” equals “no.”

There’s no variable in that equation. Dylan was wrong about pineapple on pizza, but he was right about that.

— Hartford Courant

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