Have you every been texting or iChatting with someone you’re romantically interested in when, much to your dismay, he or she replies with this disconcerting phrase: “We can hang out later, if you want to”? Wait, what? Cue the freakout face. You know the one: think Macaulay Culkin’s character in Home Alone. It’s a face dripping with fright, immeasurable pain and vulnerability. When someone typed this exact phrase to me, I immediately assumed the role of conductor on a train of thought going nowhere good. If I “want to?” But what about you? What do you want to do? Are you saying you don’t really want to hang out, but if I want to then you’ll oblige? Are you implying my presence, our time together, is an obligation? Am I that terrible? Am I getting on your nerves? Is it because I spent too many nights at your apartment? Do I snore? Do I take up too much space in bed? Am I that fat? (it always ends with the fat thing).
These four little words, when left dangling at the end of a sentence like a cancerous limb, can result in a mental breakdown for the person on the receiving end of this inconsiderate conjunction…especially if typed via text message, IM, bbm or Facebook message. There are plenty of phrases uttered throughout the course of courtship that carry immeasurable weight, but “if you want to” might sit at the top, right along with “we need to talk” and “something feels different.”
I know what some of you are thinking: he meant nothing by it; this phrase is one that slipped into our casual discourse years ago without any intention of hurt. But you know what I say to those of you who think that? You have a penis. Or you probably do. Because 99% of men do not weigh their words before they blurt them. Women, on the other hand, are obsessed with weight; we calculate, measure and make split-second hypotheses about the outcome of most of what we say when it comes to dating dialogue. We manipulate sentences like Reagan’s speech-writer to get the results we think we want. Of course this doesn’t always work out, but that’s beside the point. The point is: we think about what we say before we say it. We’d never tell a man he could do something “if he wanted to” unless we had a very specific purpose in mind.
So what do you do when you see this four-letter expression on a screen in front of you, teasing your eyes and toying with your emotion? You have three choices, and each carries a set of consequences that makes none of these options better than the next. You can: X that motherfucker out and go about your day. Forget the inconsiderate asshole who doesn’t weigh his words like you. He should know that this is a “thing;” (type “what does it mean when he says “if you want to” in Google and check for yourself.) Or, you could ask: “Well, do you want to?” This reply, while falling into the dangerous category of answering a question with a question, seems harmless enough in this situation. He (or she, but probably not) will either say yes, or they’ll ask what you mean, and you can explain why this phrase should altogether exit their vocabulary. Or finally, you could pretend it didn’t happen. You’re aware that the phrase has become the norm. That he probably just means yes, he’s down to hang out if you are; he’s just confirming that you want to hang out too.
Or you could scream “SCREW YOU!” like a maniac and stomp on your computer screen. But I don’t recommend it.