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Sorry, girlfriend, he's just not that into you

The phrase no woman wants to hear was an off-hand comment attributed to comedian Greg Behrendt. Then it got legs. And a book. And a movie.

February 04, 2009|Zachary Pinkus-Roth

Comedian Greg Behrendt calls it "that dumb thing I said."

He's referring to the phrase "He's just not that into you." Behrendt's dismissivesness also reflects his ongoing astonishment that this simple, straightforward statement that he first made years ago, this offhanded comment about the male mind and modern relationships has become part of our cultural lexicon, spawning a bestselling book as well as a film featuring an all-star ensemble cast, including Jennifer Aniston, Drew Barrymore, Ginnifer Goodwin and Scarlett Johansson, which hits theaters Friday.

Those six words have become the single person's satori, a clear-eyed, catch-all explanation for anyone wondering why the guy who just took you out on a date never calls.

Here's how it all started. Once upon a time, Behrendt, who started his career in comedy doing improv and stand-up in San Francisco, was the token straight male in the writers room for HBO's hit show "Sex and the City." One day during lunch, a woman started asking everyone why she hadn't heard from a guy after a date. Then Behrendt said it. "We all gasped and started screaming," recalls Liz Tuccillo, one of the writers in the room. "It was an explosive moment because no one had dared say something like that to any of us, ever."

"I simply believed it," Behrendt remembers. He told the women in the room: " 'You guys are on a hit show, you make money, you're hot. What is this dating losers thing?' " Plus, he admits, "I've been those dudes."

Tuccillo convinced Behrendt that they should write a book version together. Jennifer Bergstrom, the book's publisher at Simon Spotlight Entertainment, says that while reading the proposal on the subway, "it took about 30 seconds for it to truly resonate with me." She adds, coyly, "I happened to be single at the time."

Though actor Ron Livingston said it to Cynthia Nixon's Miranda on "Sex and the City," the phrase's tipping point came in September 2004, when the authors promoted the book on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." Women shared their dating sob stories, and Behrendt shot each one down with the same sentence. Winfrey chanted the phrase as if it were a magic spell.

The next day, the shelves cleared. The book spent months on the New York Times bestseller list and reappeared there on Jan. 25 as a paperback. It has also been translated into more than 30 languages.

The phrase's popularity in everyday language is hard to track, but anecdotal evidence suggests that its ubiquity abounds. "When this book came out, I heard a huge increase in women having their girlfriends tell them, 'Rethink this,' " says Lisa Clampitt, a New York matchmaker and co-founder of the Matchmaking Institute. Beforehand, "there was a lot more denial and dancing around it."

Daniel Jones, who edits the Modern Love column in the New York Times, says, "It's worked its way so firmly into the vernacular that when I'm reading essays I'll hear it in my head." Jones says many romantically challenged writers will "go around and around and around, saying, 'What did I do wrong?' They're unaware in their own writing that the person is just not that into them."

So why did the phrase have so much impact?

"It's not a clever phrase," says Ken Kwapis, who directed the film, a romantic comedy that explores the machinations of dating and falling for the wrong people, perfectly timed with a pre-Valentine's Day release. "It's not a play on words. It's very simple. It's like an overheard piece of conversation."

But utility, more than cleverness, is what makes a phrase popular, says Grant Barrett, a lexicographer and the editor of "The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English."

The beauty of the phrase is that it simultaneously suggests both brutal honesty and empathetic familiarity. Each word plays a part. According to Barrett, "into" is crucial, balancing the phrase between blunt and ambiguous. "There is an appropriate amount of vagueness that goes along with matters of the heart," Barrett says.

"That" emphasizes the importance of degree. "While somebody can be into you -- they are showing some signs -- they're not that into you," Behrendt says.

For many, the most controversial word when parsing the phrase is "he's." Aniston told the New York Times Magazine that she wished it began with "she's," because that "would be more empowering."

"It characterizes women as chomping at the bit to get a guy's approval," says Ian Kerner, a sex therapist in New York who wrote a book called "Be Honest -- You're Not That Into Him Either." "In the end he's either into you or not that into you, and it's kind of an offensive and demoralizing statement."

Tuccillo disagrees. "It's completely empowering," she says. "It's sort of like taking away the shame of rejection and owning it, and realizing that you can move on."

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