Do you have an "accessory," a man you're taking to every wedding this summer? What about a career booster, who champions your every project at work? Maybe an ex who still calls on your birthday?
You might be single, but you now officially have "a gaggle," according to Jessica Massa, author of The Gaggle: How the Guys You Know Will Help You Find the Love You Want.
From her interviews with several hundred twenty- and thirtysomethings, Ms. Massa discovered many of the women were keeping a small herd of men "occupying both romantic and platonic roles, fulfilling a variety of different needs." She and her business partner, Rebecca Wiegand, claim it's this gaggle that informs a young woman's choices: Is it the hornball she's after, or the "ego booster" – that's the nice guy.
Beyond gaggles, Ms. Massa argues that we've now entered a "post-dating world," in which a "generational embrace of ambiguous interpersonal connections" has replaced dinner and a movie.
"Non-dates" are now the norm, from co-ed picnics in the park and happy hour with co-workers to late-night Skype sessions with the ex who lingers. (If you're lucky, non-dates can produce more traditional unions: "The beginnings of relationships just look different these days," explains Ms. Massa.)
She and Ms. Wiegand, both 29, spoke about the "post-dating" landscape from New York.
Why the goose metaphor?
Jessica Massa: If you go online and Google "gaggle of geese," you get all these YouTube videos of geese aimlessly squawking around with no order. In this post-dating world, there is no order to it anymore. You see these guys trying to figure themselves out, as well as their relationship with you – texting one day, G-chatting another day, inviting you to trivia another day and then not talking to you for two weeks. All of this confused action and intention, as a woman you can let yourself be freaked out by it. Or you can put yourself at the centre of it and cultivate your relationships with them.
Is it a verb too? "I'm not single. I'm gaggling."
JM: For some reason, that always rubs me and Becky the wrong way but people use it all the time with us. We've heard the "gay-gle" for people in the gay community, and "I'm Googling my gaggle," from tech nerds.
Online dating, speed dating, the return of matchmaking – plenty of people still date. They're going to have no idea what you're talking about.
JM: No one I interviewed told me "dating is dead," but they were saying, "I'm not dating. Something must be wrong with me," or "It's complicated." Online dating and matchmaking are only a small piece of the puzzle. If you have your matchmaking date and you're also chatting with some guy in the coffee line, that's your love life as well. The more you can see that traditional dating is only a part of it, the more open to connection you are.
You write that women "must" read romance into ambiguous interactions. What if he doesn't see it that way?
JM: That can definitely happen. It's less about reading romance into it and more about possibility. If there's no spark, cool, but if you are at the park, a conference or happy hour drinks and you feel a bit of a connection, don't assume that's nothing.
Can you really view happy hour drinks with your work crew as a legitimate part of your love life? That seems weird.
JM: It might. I interviewed a guy in Chicago and that's when he first connected with a girl at his office. He'd seen her around, she was "the girl in the green dress." A whole group went out to happy hour and she ended up sitting near him and ordered a good beer. He was impressed, they started chatting, then talking in the office, then started an e-mail chain and ended up dating .
Turning to the "gaggle," what does one actually learn from the "guy who just blew you off," or the "super horny guy ?"
Rebecca Wiegand: The guy who just blew you off is obviously a painful member of the gaggle. The reason he's in the gaggle is because you keep wondering if he'll text you again or what you did wrong. The more you can be reflective about that in a non-neurotic way, the better.
The super horny guy is the guy who's wasted and hitting on you at the bar. You'd never in a million years go out or hook up with him but he thinks you're fine. You should carry that with you, see that as a fun and positive thing.
What about the ex-boyfriend who's still around – isn't that called settling?
JM: Exes fall into two clear camps. There are women who were really, legitimately close to their ex-boyfriends and they've gotten over each other and are in different relationships. It's great to have someone in your life who's known you for that long. Of course, there are women who pretend they're out there exploring other options but are really texting their ex at the end of the night and compare every guy to their ex. That's unhealthy.
Why is the ego booster not also the boyfriend prospect?
JM: Women still want the best relationship of all time; it's a very millennial, entitled way to look at it. The boyfriend prospect, you want to be romantically excited about him. The ego booster is an almost-boyfriend who is treating you well but there are other guys who excite you more.
So the ego booster is the nice guy.
JM: Exactly! We all have people in our lives who, if were smart, we'd recognize as a good partner, but we want to find love.
Why not just stick with the boyfriend prospect? If he's "the one to watch," why bother with the rest?
JM: Having a gaggle actually leads you to a different boyfriend prospect than you would have previously thought of. Also, having a gaggle and a boyfriend prospect helps move it at a pace that makes sense, instead of trying to push things. You're going to the farmer's market with your accessory or talking to your ego booster; it allows you to be saner .
Who do guys have in their gaggles?
JM: It's more based on attraction than a female's gaggle: Is she out of my league; is it only sexual, a short-term investment; am I attracted to the whole package, the girlfriend prospect; am I attacted but it's too intimidating and she's my "(maybe) one." Guys also have their work wife: that's a woman they're not sexually involved with but is their No. 1 support at work.
What happens when all the men in your gaggle marry? Some of them will marry women who weren't at all ambiguous about what they wanted.
JM: We're aware of [the dating books] Why Men Love Bitches and He's Just Not That Into You, which are about not settling for less than you deserve. The gaggle is not about wanting things from guys but being afraid to ask for them. The girl who had 10 ego boosters and is now in a relationship, she knows now that she needs strong love and support.
How did ambiguity come to rule the love lives of 20-and-30-somethings?
JM: One reason absolutely is technology which lets us test waters in more ambiguous ways: you can ask someone on a date or e-mail them a YouTube video and chat about it. Technology lets people test connections and avoid rejection.
Changing gender roles have also made a difference. I'd have guys tell me they work all day with women in an office where they treat them as equals and compete for promotions. Then they walk out of the office and all of sudden they feel like that girl wants them to hold the door open, or to pay. The roles are switching back and forth everyday and men aren't not sure how women want to them to be.
Many people also talked to me about their parents' relationships: divorces or committed marriages that just didn't have the love the kids would have wanted to see. Their children wanted a different framework for their relationships.
In the last chapter, "The Relationship of the Future," you're awestruck by a married couple with two kids. Tradition is still the goal, then.
RW: It's not a desire for tradition so much as a desire for a fulfilling relationship.
JM: This couple had the traditional setup, the lifestyle any woman buying a dating book would want. But when you got inside that relationship, they built it from nothing – from broken homes and broken family relationships. Even if something looks traditional, the inside of it is going to feel different if you go about it in a way that's about the two of you, not about how the wedding looks. They paid $8,000 for their wedding.
Is the gaggle like modern day polyandry?
RW: You can have an enormous, thriving gaggle and not be having sex with anyone. I loved that line from [Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá's book] Sexat Dawn, that humans evolved to have a multitude of complex relationships with other humans.
JM: We're fans of committed monogamous relationship, but the idea that the path there should involve one guy after another who fulfills all your needs – that feels unrealistic. That's not how we think about friends, families or our professional lives. What we are not saying is that you should be sleeping with everybody.
You're both living in NYC, the epicentre of single female insecurity, at least as conveyed by Sex andthe City and now HBO's Girls.
JM: New York is all of this on speed. It's the most intense version of any social trend that could be happening. That's why we wanted to get experiences from all over the country.
Are you dating, non-dating or gaggling?
JM: I am definitely gaggling and non-dating and really enjoying it.
RW: I'm in a committed relationship with a wonderful man, but my pre-condition was I get to keep my gaggle. No hot sex prospects, no boyfriend prospects, but I still have my accessories and ego boosters and we hang out. My boyfriend has his gaggle too. We're upfront about that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.