Green means go, red means stop

You know what the greatest social event of all time is? A traffic light party.

I’d better qualify that, hadn’t I? I mean the greatest social event of all time for single people. Who are the only people that matter at social events, in my opinion – couples only go to those things to lord it over everyone else, as far as I can tell. And then the joke’s on them, because then they tend to get pregnant and never socialise again except for those nightmarish but mercifully short toddler birthday parties they insist on throwing. Although I’ve noticed I don’t get invited to so many of those since I wrote about them for Daily Life. Funny, that.

Anyway, traffic light parties are amazing for one simple reason: you can tell who’s single.

Let me make another quick qualification: anybody who attends a traffic light party in orange deserves to be ejected instantly. Honestly, it’s even lamer than setting your Facebook relationship status to “It’s complicated”. Nobody cares about your tedious psychodramas. Either you’re up for it or you aren’t, and the last thing anybody needs to hear about is why you’re wearing orange because your boyfriend/girlfriend is putting you through hell and why are you even here anyway? Go home and sob on the sofa.

Or it means you’re a jerk who’s revelling in putting someone else through the wringer. Either way, nobody cares or likes you. So there.

So, a traffic light party with only green and red colours would be the greatest social event of all time. Well, there’s a problem there too, because green looks a great deal less attractive than red, so there’s a danger you’ll spend the entire event yearning for forbidden fruit. And why are you even at a traffic light party if you’re in a relationship, anyway? Oh yes, that’s right – smugness.

Perhaps the ultimate traffic light party needs an extra colour, to even up the score against the hot red-wearers. Perhaps it needs the option to wear black if you’re utterly desperate. After all, when traffic lights are broken, they go black, so why can’t we?

Or perhaps you could also wear white if you’re one of those unusual people who really isn’t into dating or sex much and is perfectly happy being single. That’d be both a challenge, and a subtle hint to others not to waste their time.

Or perhaps you could wear yellow if you have a fetish where you – no, that’s disgusting, let’s stop there. Red, green and black are the only acceptable colours at the traffic light party I’m definitely holding and to which you should totally come.

Traffic light parties are great because… okay, they’re not actually great. They’re usually conducted in one’s early 20s and therefore embarrassing and so everyone gets too drunk and it’s ultimately entirely horrible.

But there’s a broader point here. We badly need a system for ascertaining whether people we meet are in relationships. It used to be easy,when people wore wedding and engagement rings, and tended not to cohabit before getting engaged. Sure, just about every other aspect of those systems for relationships were demonstrably inferior to what we have today – but when there’s a ring on it, you know not to waste your time. Or, I suppose, to go for it, if infidelity is your thing – I’m trying not to be judgemental here.

Otherwise, what happens at parties is this. We (and I really mean “I”, but I’m trying to embarrass myself less than usual when I write about this stuff) approach people who seem attractive, try chatting to them, but not in a way that explicitly counts as flirting in case they happen to be in relationships. We never go right out and ask whether they’re single, because that’s embarrassing too; so instead we just converse about any old thing in the hope that they’ll mention a girlfriend or boyfriend if they have one. Nor will they go right out and say “I’m single”, because that’s embarrassing too. Later on, if you’re really lucky, you can ask a mutual friend if they’re available. Wouldn’t it be better if they had a ring?

Over the years, I’ve – sorry, we’ve – okay… I’ve developed an almost uncanny ability to hone in on the unavailable women at a party. Honestly – it’s almost as though I have extra-sensory perception – or perhaps it’s just that women suddenly invent imaginary boyfriends if they suspect I might be interested? On more than one occasion I’ve spent more than an hour – an hour – talking to women before they subtly mentioned their husband, or child, or on occasion, both. Admittedly some of these people have subsequently become good friends, and that’s fine, and perhaps I wouldn’t have even gotten talking to them if I’d known they were unavailable, and instead opted for talking to single women who ultimately rejected me, and it’s better off that I’ve gained wonderful friends through this process.

But couldn’t the system be a bit less ambiguous?

I don’t give Facebook credit for much besides excellence in ongoing privacy abrogation, but they did try to sort this out in their early days. You can set your status to single / married / engaged / in a relationship or the self-involved “it’s complicated”. There’s a “widowed” too, distressingly. But here’s the thing – single people don’t use the system. Because it’s embarrassing to admit to being needy, and we’d like to pretend that we have all sorts of intrigues going on when really we don’t.

And that’s why traffic light parties are a good idea – because they encourage honestly, wrapped up in the idea that it’s all in good fun because it’s fancy dress. Of course it’s not fun, by the way. If you’ve been single for a while, going out and trying to meet people becomes a matter of steely single-mindedness.

So it’s in this spirit that I welcome the news that Prague is setting up special train carriages for single people. It means you can have a traffic light party on the way to work, every single day! And it’d be so easy to start a conversation – in Australia, anyway. You could just talk about how late the train was, and how horrible the carriage was. Simple!

Actually, the idea’s creepy, isn’t it? When I commute, I just want to listen to music and read. And besides, Australians don’t tend to chat up random strangers. And it may, of course, lead to the sexual harassment that some Japanese cities have introduced special women-only carriages to prevent. Because a significant proportion of men are terrible, and so forth.

Probably traffic light parties are terrible as well, and I’m just forgetting because I haven’t been to one in about a decade and a half. They certainly seem terrible the more I think about them. And they don’t account for same-sex relationships either, which probably need a whole separate colour scheme. I got asked if I was gay at a party on Saturday night, and there I was thinking my poor dress sense made the answer perfectly clear.

We aren’t likely to broaden the system of ring-wearing to anyone in a relationship – which would make life easier (and besides, gay marriage seems to be some years away, Kevin Rudd’s recent conversion notwithstanding) – so instead we’re stuck with the system society has devised: where you simply have to talk to people at great length and hope they’ll mention a significant other, if they have one.

But let me make one simple request of everybody who, at a traffic light party, would be wearing wear red. If you get talking to someone at a party, please find a way to mention your partner within the first five minutes. Work it seamlessly into the conversation with something like “That reminds me of something my partner was saying the other day”, or “I must tell my partner about that, s/he will be fascinated”.

It’s kindest to be subtle, but even “By the way, I’m seeing someone, so there’s no point you chatting me up” will be appreciated. Even “Would you please just give up?” ultimately saves time.

There’s a reason traffic lights were introduced in our busiest streets: they make everything run more efficiently and safely. I only wish the same were true of the fraught process of trying to chat people up.

Sorry; I meant to write “we can only wish”. Definitely “we”.

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