Do Vancouver Men Suck?

Natalie, Elise, and Tracey are drinking pinot grigio in the Commune Café at Nelson and Seymour. Tracey, who’s in marketing, wears an electric-blue dress and flicks her bright blond hair over her shoulder. Elise, a tall brunette with a ready laugh who does business development for a firm downtown, is in a classic navy sheath. Natalie is home for a visit from grad school in Ontario; she’s a curvy blond in a flowered dress. (All names are pseudonyms.) In their mid 20s and friends since they went to high school in North Van, they’re attractive, smartly put together, and fit. They hike the Chief, do the Grouse Grind, ski, bike the seawall, and kayak. This evening, they’re participating in another favourite local pastime—dissing Vancouver men.

Together they sketch a composite picture of a passive guy with no plan, uninterested and uninteresting. The males they remember from high school typically still live at home, without much motivation to date, much less to rise in the world. Even those who’ve left their parents’ house, they complain, are laid-back to a fault, too lazy or inept to make small talk in a bar, ask a woman out, make reservations, or dress appropriately. Natalie sums it up: “Guys have lost the idea of what girls want on a date.”

Tracey is tired of spending the evening in a chic Whistler bar with guys dressed “for video games in the basement: baseball caps and baggy T-shirts.” Natalie adds, “They dress down, so they act down.” And what used to be called common courtesy now looks freakishly uncommon. Recently, when a man went to help Tracey with her suitcase, it was so unusual that she thought at first he was stealing it. She says she gets on the bus in six-inch heels, laden with packages, and no man offers her his seat. Elise claims hardly any man her age has ever held a door for her. “Chivalry died years ago,” Tracey says, “and it’s buried six feet under.”

Let’s stop right there. Before we continue, two important grains of salt have to be added to this unappetizing stodge. First, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman, whether she lives in Paris, Hong Kong, or San Francisco, is convinced that the single men in her town are uniquely deficient in the qualities she seeks in a mate. It’s highly likely that as the Vancouver women are lamenting the sorry state of the local males, their Finnish counterparts are doing the same thing with equal energy over breakfast in a Helsinki café.

Second, single people in 2011, particularly millennials, are caught in a difficult moment that’s not limited to Vancouver. The titles of recent books and articles say it all: Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys, by Kay Hymowitz; Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity, by Gary Cross; “The End of Men,” by Hanna Rosin in the Atlantic. Simply put, the post-industrial economy, which rewards higher education, communication skills, and the ability to sit down and concentrate, favours women. They now outperform men in post-secondary education (for every two BAs earned by men, three are earned by women), representation in middle management, and, increasingly, income. Faced with society’s declining interest in physical strength, stamina, and whatever else they might bring to the table, young men are retreating into what Hymowitz calls “pre-adulthood.”

Editor's Choice Comment

Pre-adulthood, which spans a man’s 20s and early 30s, is not a pretty picture. Think of the schlumpy boy-man played by Seth Rogen in Judd Apatow’s 2007 Knocked Up: a stranger to grooming whose main occupation is playing video­games and whose idea of a career path is founding a porn site. The contrast with the movie’s heroine, a focussed and ambitious TV reporter played by Katherine Heigl, is reminiscent of the contrast between Tracey, Natalie, and Elise and their male cohort: dependent, unenterprising, and quite willing to let women take the lead when planning is required. And, just as the Vancouver women complain about the death of manners and courtship, a marketing white paper called Gender Shift: Are Women the New Men? noted the same reaction in women in the U.S., France, and the U.K. Clearly, the disconnect between men and women extends beyond Vancouver.

And yet. Women who’ve moved to Vancouver, or lived in other cities, partnered up with men from elsewhere, or left the city for greener pastures, agree that Vancouver is in a class by itself. When it comes to inert, inattentive men, the ones in Vancouver seem to have written the book. Tracey had a long-time boyfriend from New York, and when his American pals came to visit Vancouver they were mystified by the sartorial slovenliness of the local males. Natalie, the grad student, says the social scene in Ontario is much livelier and the men much friendlier; all agree that the rare man who approaches them in a bar or club is almost always from out of town. I talked with more than 20 women ranging from their 20s to their 60s, and except for the Tracey-Natalie-Elise trio, they did not know each other. Almost uncannily, they sounded the same unhappy notes over and over.

When Kate, a publishing executive, moved to Vancouver at 36, at first she assumed she’d lost her appeal or become “too old” to interest men. Also, that she had mysteriously landed in a place where strong men saw no reason to help a smallish woman with a heavy suitcase or balky door. Business took her to Calgary, New York, and Toronto, and she discovered that men in those places were still eager to send over a round of drinks to women in a bar, chat her up in public places, and in general treat her like an attractive woman. “Done properly, flirtation is about graciousness,” she says, “about making the other person feel good.” Quite aside from flirtation, there’s a simple consideration for people who may need our help, male or female, that she misses in Vancouver. She tells the story of heaving her suitcase out of a cab in front of a New York City hotel when a man talking on a cellphone, without breaking stride, picked up the bag, carried it to the top of the stairs, and only interrupted his phone call to wish her a good day. “That kind of thing never happens to me in Vancouver,” she says.

Barbara, a hotelier in her 60s, gave up dating last year as a “bad hobby” and wishes she had done so earlier. She’d been dating, often through the Internet, for more than 25 years, since she divorced in her 30s. Her stories of men who wanted physical and/or financial caretaking (“I’m neither a nurse nor a purse”) include several geriatric dope-smokers and one man who continued to live with his parents into their 90s. Over the years, her failure to find a dynamic, interesting man shifted her priorities-she no longer asked herself if a man was interesting, she just wondered how he would be in bed. “My motto was, ‘I’m in it for a good time, not a long time.’ ” She sometimes thinks that if she’d moved to Toronto after her divorce, she would have found a more congenial scene, with more Jewish men: “Jewish men are not intimidated by strong women.”

Intimidation is one leitmotif of this story. (The other is the Grouse Grind, of which more later.) Four decades younger than Barbara, Alicia, a civil servant in her 20s, also mentions the i-factor. Unlike Barbara, once she realized that standoffish women were scarring tender male egos, she changed her ways. “Vancouver men are a little babyish,” she explains. “You really have to hold their hands during the whole dating thing, telling them that was a really nice date, coaching them through the process. I have to be very careful with my body language to make it clear that I am not going to reject them.” Now she dates much more often but wishes she didn’t have to take all the initiative. She wonders, Will he pay? Should I pay? Will he pick me up? “There’s not a lot of guidance from the guy.” So she takes charge. “But sometimes I just want to go on a date-date.” Originally from Halifax, Marci moved to Vancouver in her early 20s and lived here for 16 years, working in database management. She traces the city’s dating problems to a culture where “masculinity is not celebrated or desired, so the manly men go underground.” Vancouver’s values-the importance of image, self-actualization, enlightenment, and personal fulfilment-are feminine ones, she says. Even the city’s obsession with sports and the outdoors is feminized: it’s mostly about play in a posh, manicured landscape. When you add a plethora of stunningly fit, beautiful, and successful women onto that background (many women I spoke with were impressed with the fabulousness of Vancouver women), men retreat in confusion. Because image is so important, they don’t want to be seen as trying. Women have to tone down their success or competence to assuage a man’s ego, Marci says, and as a result Vancouver has many mismatched couples.

Marci returned to Halifax less than a year ago, and could not be happier. People are chattier in public places; you can strike up a conversation in Canadian Tire while buying windshield wipers. And, most important, men are interested in dating and take the initiative. When she advertised on-line in Vancouver, she might get six or so responses a week, mostly pretty mechanical. She was always looking for one who actually seemed to have read her posting. In Halifax, with a much smaller population, she was overwhelmed by the response: 20 or more in a week, and 8 to 10 would be interesting, actually reading and commenting on her posting.

Jillian came to Vancouver for university from Ontario and stayed because she wanted to grow flowers and not shovel snow. Thirty years later, she runs tech companies, advises on corporate and financing strategies, and serves on numerous boards. She sees what the other women see-a culture where women seem to be doing all the work of courtship. “If you go to a good restaurant in Vancouver with youngish people, the women are dressed to the nines. They have clearly made an effort to be attractive and desirable. But the guys wear baseball caps, a day’s beard, and a shirt that needs laundering. Friends from the U.K. ask, ‘What’s wrong? Is it a virus?’ It’s so visible that one gender makes an effort and the other doesn’t.”

Jillian places at least part of the responsibility on women. They are, she says, complex, demanding creatures who “put out a lot of craziness. Most men want simple answers about how to make women happy; when they get complex messages, many of them lack the emotional tools to cope with it and simply give up.” The mixed messages are what Kay Hymowitz calls “the gender bait-and-switch.” The bait is the fact that men have become used to women who are at least as competent as they are, financially, socially, and sexually. The switch comes when women-suddenly, inexplicably, and irrationally, as men see it-want to leave the level playing field and expect men to bring them roses and court them, if not spread their topcoats over puddles. There are few role models for the men in this balancing act between equality and old-fashioned courtship, Jillian says, any more than for women, and “a lot of people are walking around with different videotapes going in their heads.” Confounded, men retreat into sports and business; some gamble, others hide in the garage or go fishing.

The courtesy gap is related to this. Patterns of micro-behaviour, Jillian believes, are linked to larger issues. “You don’t necessarily link not opening the door to the fact that women are intimidating, but it might well be. Opening the door says, ‘You are important, and I’m taking care of your needs.’ Most men don’t see that they are being boors. They just hear women complaining and that makes them pull more inside themselves, and it’s a downward spiral.” (And on their side, she says, women “have to learn how to turn down the volume.”) Once discourtesy starts, it’s hard to reverse. “Entropy is seductive, and making an effort is harder than not making an effort.”

Ronald Lee has based his career on teaching men to make an effort. As a dating and relationship coach, and the founder, in 2004, of Man Meets Woman: Attraction Coaching for Men, he believes that Vancouver men have to stop “sitting on their hands” and learn how to connect with women, no matter how formidable. For fees ranging from $700 to $4,097, he and an outsourced team of image consultants, fitness, and sex coaches teach men first how to understand themselves and what they want, and then how to approach, talk with, and kiss women. Why do men need such help? Some of the causes Lee cites, such as the lack of role models or the demise of face-to-face savoir-faire in the age of texting and Facebook, aren’t specific to Vancouver. But compared to men in other places, he insists that Vancouverites need to man up “times 10.”

The problem is intense here, he says, for a handful of reasons. Vancouver (lacking the genial bars and clubs of cities such as New York and Toronto) doesn’t have a dating culture; plus, Vancouverites compound the situation by going everywhere in packs rather than pairing off on dates. Asian men, who account for almost half his clientele, have been brought up by their parents to feel shy and unworthy-values that aren’t useful when it comes to dating in North America. And, finally, two familiar chestnuts: there’s something in the Vancouver air that discourages effort (the old Lotusland charge), and most of those intimidating local women are screening out all but the best-looking and richest men.

Almost everyone has a theory, it seems. Many people cite the city’s silo mentality, where you socialize in groups formed in high school or earlier, without much interest in new people. As Felicity, a late-30s police officer, explained, “If you grew up on the West Side of Vancouver, most people you meet played soccer with your brother or went to camp with your sister.” Tracey, Elise, and Natalie blame B.C.’s archaic liquor laws, and the mix of residential and commercial neighbourhoods that drives early closings. When Tracey discovered two-for-one happy hours in New York and Seattle (illegal in B.C.), she thought she’d found dating paradise. On the other hand, B.C.’s famous weed culture, where guys smoke dope and then go to a bar, is not good for meeting and dating. Amanda, a writer from Toronto in her early 40s, asks, “What are the main activities here? Dope smoking and yoga. Neither generates much mojo.”

A manager traces the masculinity problem to “Not enough head offices here.” It turns out to be a twist on the Lotusland complaint: “No one who’s ambitious comes to Vancouver.” But surely you don’t need to be a CEO just to date. Uncounted numbers of profoundly unambitious men through history somehow got it together to court, marry and procreate, or we would have been extinct long ago.

Then there’s the vexed question of courtesy, courting, and chivalry. The first two words come from the Old French root that gives us the word for a monarch’s court. Chivalry, also from Old French, refers to a knight’s boon companion, his cheval or horse, and by extension to the whole raft of a knight’s obligations to fair damsels. These Old World notions seem even more than 6,000 miles away from a recently raw frontier town that Jillian calls “a rough-and-tumble resource-based economy where men are men and women are double-breasted.” Oscar Wilde famously wrote that the United States passed from barbarism to decadence without an intervening stage of civilization. Are we to conclude that Vancouver has done something similar? Amanda complains that the city’s youngish men were brought up by hippie parents who scorned conventional manners, but there weren’t enough hippies here, even in the 1960s, to have had such a big effect. What is undeniable is that Vancouver has an anti-formal bias; it is one of the building blocks of the city’s self-image. Formal restaurants lobby not to be classified in the formal category in listings because “casual” is what everyone wants to be. As a result, more and more men see the business of pulling out chairs, helping with coats, and seeing women to their doors as irrelevant, politically incorrect, and possibly insulting.

At first glance, Vancouver’s reputation as a sporty, fit city would seem to ally it with traditional masculine values. But men and women sweating together on a volleyball court or on the Grouse Grind can produce a distinctly unsexy brother-sister vibe. “When you’re on a team with guys,” says Tracey, “you have a team mentality, you want to kill the other team. We don’t look at a guy and think how good he looks in his shorts, we think, ‘Would he better in another position on the court?’ ”

The Grind is such a ubiquitous feature of discussions about dating in Vancouver that it deserves its own paragraph. When women complain about the city’s driven, mindlessly athletic culture, the fact that Nature’s Stairmaster has its own singles night and that people post their Grind time as a vital statistic on Facebook frequently comes up. Felicity tells the story of an exceptionally fit guy asking her on a date, to do the Grind. When she asked how would that be a date, since he would be far ahead of her from the start, he volunteered to put a few copies of the Yellow Pages in his backpack to slow him down, at least at the start, “and then we can meet up at the top.” No thanks, she said. The Grind is the “epitome of Vancouver,” Tracey says. “People in other cities meet at cultural activities; we have made a three-kilometre vertical trail a centre of our dating culture.” The Grind is indeed a metaphor for the single life in Vancouver-daunting, strenuous, semi-natural, and so not romantic.

It looks as if the Case of the Vancouver Male is a perfect storm. Which doesn’t help women when it comes to coping with this unsatisfactory situation, but they have found partial, individual solutions. Barbara bowed out of dating altogether, likening it to eating junk food. Marci is enjoying “the land of manly men,” as she calls Nova Scotia. Alicia is going to more art openings than bars and sporting events; she finds the company more interesting and the art world’s looser ways with liquor laws more conducive to mingling. For sexier, less introverted men, Amanda recommends frequenting the Francophone Centre and Latin dance clubs. Jillian also pairs up with men from elsewhere-“Imports for me.” Her current partner is a Brit who opens doors, doesn’t start eating until she does, orders the wine, and does “the little things that classically make you feel somewhat cosseted, in a way that elevates both of you.” Her advice to single people: “Men need to take more risks and women need to shut up.”

And what about the men? I asked at least a dozen to respond to the charge that Vancouver males were passive and inattentive to simple courtesy. For a long time I got no response, and I could hear women all over the city saying, “I rest my case.” Finally, I got Dan, a doctor in his late 30s, to answer my questions. He’s lived in Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, and Victoria, and he agrees that women here often seem aloof, while men tend to wait for some “invitation” or welcoming body language.

As for the decline of politeness, he sends the ball back where it came from: “I really think it applies to both sexes. Women seem to be unaware of basic dating etiquette: turn your cell off, Lululemon pants are for the gym, and please return my call even if our date didn’t go very well.”

But that’s another story.