Editor’s note: the name of a student has been changed, which is denoted with an asterisk.
I’ll admit it. Somewhere in the annals of my iPhone, buried behind pages of restaurant takeout and music subscription apps, I have a Tinder account.
I am the worst kind of Tinder Person. I’m an infiltrator, a Tinder imposter. I only open the app when I am in line at Meijer or waiting for my pasta water to boil, and I seldom use it to actually text or talk to a match. I just appreciate the self-esteem boost of having someone swipe right and like my profile picture, an Internet ghost with the privilege of knowing when someone thinks she is cute, but also with zero obligations to follow up. It’s all in good fun.
But I’d never go on an actual Tinder date. There’s something so shameful about searching the bar for someone you only know as “Brian,” who has brown hair and made a “Pulp Fiction” reference on his profile. With only photos and a short bio section to base attraction off of, there are bound to be some mistakes. I’ve heard some horror stories from my female friends — guys often lie about their age, post misleading photos, have personalities that differ wildly from their polished online profiles. And despite what romantic types might tell you, Tinder is an app designed solely for quick meet-ups and no-strings-attached sex. It’s hard to get to know anybody from a photo and quippy comment.
Every time I match with another user, I hear my grandfather’s recommendation to be a “lady of breeding and substance,” a young woman who only wears pink nail polish and says no to marijuana. With hundreds of years of courtship tradition and gender roles weighing on me, it feels improper to be this forward about wanting sex so badly that you’ll bed a complete stranger.
Apparently, not many college-aged students share my qualms about dating apps. As of late 2014, an estimated 50 million users — half of whom are between the ages of 18 and 24 — have downloaded Tinder. Each of those 50 million uploads a profile picture, short bio and only the most basic of personal information: first name, age, location. Any other user in the area can see your profile and judge your hookup potential based on this information (but mostly the profile picture). Once a couple “matches,” or mutually likes one another’s profiles, they are able to message one another. You know what comes next.
But in an age where mobile dating apps like Tinder, OkCupid and Grindr turn finding a partner into a series of effortless ones, zeroes and dick pics relayed across a 4G network, a girl has to wonder if there is such a thing as real dating anymore. I don’t mean dating as a swipe on a screen and texted plans for a night chilling with Netflix — I mean dating, at a restaurant or at the movies, with a friend of a friend and the promise of a nice afternoon. The kind of dating that little girls fantasize about before they learn what feminism is; the kind of dating that brought most Gen X-ers together, the traditional couplehood that produced countless millennials.
The kind of dating that brings two college kids together by fate. My father got married at 21: He was a year younger than I am now when he made a life-long commitment to a woman he loved. I am 22 years old and can count the number of dates I’ve had on one hand.
Am I falling behind because I’m behind with the times, unwilling to accept new, technology-based paradigms of dating? Is it even possible to go on a real date in 2015, or am I chasing the fairytale fantasy of a prince-type who just doesn’t exist anymore?
Well, I guess there is only one way to find an answer. I’ve got to ask somebody out.
According to a study conducted at Stanford University, 30 percent of straight American couples meet “the old-fashioned way,” through friends. More specifically, 10 percent of straight American spouses meet at work or through co-workers. To get that full old-fashioned experience, I’ve got to ask a co-worker to set me up.
I send a text message to Rob*, my friend, a writer at the student newspaper. I’m his boss, and he’s very charming and easy to talk to, so I assume he will oblige me and send me some names of his cute and funny friends. He’d better, or I will fire him.
“Hey, I have a bizarre question for you!” I message him.
“Finally!” he replies.
I explain my situation: I am writing a piece about dating rituals in the digital age and investigating the viability of old-fashioned dating in a youth culture that is obsessed with efficiency and cool apps. “Do you have a friend who might be down for that? A friend who wouldn’t completely bore me or make bad dad puns?”
I wasn’t kidding when I told Rob that I had a bizarre question. We’re close, but not that close, definitely not at the level where it’s appropriate to text him at 2 p.m. on a Monday and ask him to set me up with his best-looking friends. As I wait for his response and agonize over the gray dots that signify he’s typing a message, I briefly consider asking Rob out. After all, he’s the one I know, the one I work with. Sitting down for coffee with him will be easy, even effortless. But I can’t just ask him. I wait.
“Let me think about it and see if any of my friends bring up really wanting to go on an old-timey date with a journalist,” he replies.
Something tells me that won’t be an easy sell.
It’s Tuesday, and Rob still hasn’t gotten back to me a list of young men who want to go on a date with me. I’m a little worried; I have a draft of my article due the following Monday and I want to get this first date out of the way promptly in case he wants a second one.
However, I feel a bit stuck. If I’m obeying the “traditional rules of dating,” like I am attempting to do with this experiment, I can’t be the one who blatantly asks someone out. According to a friend, men apparently like being the ones to do the asking-out. It’s a huge turn-off if a girl is too forward and doesn’t let the guy do the pursuing: “If he likes you, he’ll man up and ask you out.” This is certainly not true of every man, but I’m worried it’s true of Rob.
I’ve decided to ask Rob to participate in my experiment because he’s one of the most game-for-anything individuals I know: He isn’t afraid to make a fool of himself performing improv and stand-up comedy. Most importantly, he makes me laugh. Our senses of humor are similar, a weird amalgamation of absurd and brainy, but he is funnier than I am.
Rather than approach him in person and face immediate verbal rejection, I decide to embark on another one of my smooth texting conversations. Texting is easy, because the lack of personal affect and body language makes it easier to manipulate how the other person sees you. If you’re just going off a brief Tinder bio and picture, I can be anything and anyone. I can be the brazen, confident girl who asks her co-worker on a date.
“I have another bizarre question for you!” I shout into the 4G unknown. I think he’ll appreciate the callback to my previous ham-fisted introduction. He’ll find it endearing. “Are you free for drinks this Thursday or Saturday?”
The choice of drinks is intentional. I did my homework beforehand — Examiner said that a drinks date is “low pressure” and that “two people seated at a bar can be less intimidating than sitting at a table for two at dinner.” It doesn’t have to be longer than a half hour, and the bourbon might make my conversation skills a little neater.
“Oh man, I’ve got late night rehearsal on Thursday and then a performance on Saturday,” he replies.
He’s not interested. I messed this up. Now I understand why guys can get so nervous asking a girl out. When you’re the person stepping up, you feel at first like you’re the empowered one and the whole situation rests in your hands. But you’re just presenting an idea, and with a simple “no,” they can crush your dreams of picnic lunches and mornings after.
I know enough to realize that “I’m busy” is basically a nice kid’s version of a rejection.
But I won’t give up so easily. With a little coaxing and some strict assurances that I will be “chill about this,” Rob and I eventually come to a conclusion. We’ll meet at Espresso Royale, the most casual coffee shop in town, at 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday. I have class then, but I begrudgingly agree to skip it. We all make sacrifices for love.
Rob asks for clarification on whether “this is for the class thing,” and I reassure him that yes, it’s only for the class thing. I click my phone to lock, willing myself to think about something else, anything other than the fact that I am getting coffee with a cute boy on Wednesday. I’ve got to keep my promise to Rob. I’ll be chill about this.
“Oooooh, I do, I do, I do, I dooooo. Hey! Oooooh, I do, I do, I do, I dooooo.”
I arrive for my 2:30 coffee date with Rob at 2:28, ponytail askew and the “Hamilton” musical soundtrack still blaring from the earbuds around my neck. I’m listening to the song where Eliza sings about falling in love with and marrying a brilliant and handsome man. Cringing at my overeager-ness, I pause the song and look for a table. After a bit of searching, I find a two-top nudged comfortably against a brick wall. If we run into anyone from work, I have the luxury of squashing my face against the mortar so they can’t see I’m on a date with my co-worker.
I’m on a date with my co-worker!
I let another Hamilton song assuage my anxieties. It’s 2:34. Where the fuck is Rob? I peek from behind the wall, looking for a lanky 6’3” guy in a sweater. I’m certain he’ll be wearing a sweater.
At this two-top in Espresso Royale, awaiting a date with a co-worker and friend whom I have occasionally considered as a romantic interest, I’m struck by a wave of nausea. Nerves again. The date feels surprisingly high-pressure despite my level of comfort with Rob; I imagine the cozy coffee shop lights morphing into sweaty interrogation room spotlights and the room full of people disappearing into cinder block walls as soon as he walks in. If he ever walks in.
I look at the clock again. 2:36. I pull my phone from my purse, fingers fumbling to type a text message to my date.
The door jangles — Rob arrives, wearing a cardigan despite the 75-degree November heat. I step up from the wall I’m hiding behind and greet him with an awkward hug.
“ ‘Sup, dude?” he drawls.
“Nah-thuh mah, brah.” He establishes the parameters immediately — we are on this date as friends and nothing more, an attractive guy doing a favor for his female friend who has a good personality. I adjust, letting my electric nerves simmer to a low blue flame. Keep calm. Dude.
I order a black coffee and he a caramel latte, and he kindly offers to pay “for tradition’s sake.” I thank him, and we return to our seats against the wall.
According to a friend, who has been on many more first dates than I have, good topics for conversation include shared pop culture interests and fun childhood anecdotes. Keep things light and simple. Avoid trying too hard, relax — just be cool and fun and sexy. I do my best to follow this advice as I begin the date proper.
Rob and I bitch about our co-workers for 20 minutes.
I’m surprised by how comfortable I feel in conversation with him; I am free to admit which writers sometimes get on my nerves and complain about editorial arguments that I should have won. He listens to my schoolgirl prattling with eye contact and an easy smile; I take notice that his eyes are blue and kind of nice.
Rob checks his watch. “We should probably start talking about something else; I mean, you can’t just write that we were gossiping the entire time.”
“Well, just change the subject! We have that capability, you know,” I raise my eyebrows and return a slow smile. I think I’ve caught myself flirting a little.
The conversation starts to peter out a little as I become self-conscious.
“I can tell from your voice that you’re still insecure about being smart and funny. You know, that’s nothing to be ashamed of,” he reminds me, after I share a particularly heavy childhood anecdote. I feel like I’m on the precipice of making an enormous fool of myself. Maybe I already fell off.
“I feel like I’m on a date with my therapist.”
“That’s what you get with me.”
He breaks eye contact and looks behind me for a beat. “You know, it’s 3:30, I should probably get going.”
I quell my disappointment and respond coolly. “Yeah, for sure, yeah, I should probably do some work too.”
I walk Rob to his next class, an advanced fiction-writing intensive. We exchange small talk for a few minutes, walking side by side as the browning leaves swirl in little tornadoes around our feet. When we reach the marble steps of the marble building his next class is in, I can’t help myself. I lean in.
We hug, and I thank him again for saying yes to my date proposal and for helping me out with the article I’m writing. He says that it’s no problem.
As I walk home alone, I curse myself for all the things that went wrong. I got to the coffee shop too early. I let him pay, which everyone says means it’s a date. I called him “bruh,” which everyone says means it’s not a date. I over-shared, I talked too much about my own past, and made him fight for every word he could squeeze into our conversation. I argued with him. I laughed too hard when he made a masturbation hand gesture. I finished my coffee too early and slurped at the empty cup. I let him break the date off first. I hugged him — twice. I brought up that stupid fucking article I was writing again, positioning the date as a favor he was doing me and not a real date.
I might have had a nice time even if I weren’t on assignment.
I don’t wait around for Rob to call me about a second date. According to a mutual friend, he’s interested in someone else, a girl I know and admire. They’d make an undeniably cute couple.
I feel a tiny pang of disappointment upon hearing this news, but I take a minute to rationalize. Our date was as casual as it gets, probably the closest thing to those offhand dinner dates that characterized my parents’ college experience. We talked; we had a nice time. There was no pressure, no expectation, no steps to be taken. By any definition, it was a real, traditional date, if such a thing ever existed.
On Saturday, I go to a hip whisky bar with a few work friends. I follow the obligatory leather jacket dress code, order the obligatory Buffalo Trace, stand too close to the speakers and sway to a band that sounds like tipsy uncles doing karaoke at a bat mitzvah. I revel in my coolness — my young age, my artsy pals, my status as an unattached, confident lady who can rock a pair of boots with buckles and drink bourbon and ask boys out. As a growly cover of a Taylor Swift song ends, a young man with a ginger beard approaches me.
“So let me guess. Master’s in philosophy? I’m great at guessing these things. I pick up on the clues. Those tortoiseshell glasses, the boots, you’re basically screaming ‘grad school.’ I’m Tony, by the way.”
I smile back at Tony and indulge him in a few minutes’ conversation. He’s not bad looking, and if this was any other night, I might have followed him back to his table and let him buy me another drink. But tonight, I just want to dance to some terrible bat mitzvah music and avoid the circling piranhas swiping at my heels and trying to get my number.
Upon sitting back down at our booth, my friend asks me why I didn’t flirt back with Tony: “This sounds crazy, but he seems like the kind of guy you’d want to settle down with.”
Laughing a little too loud, my cheeks flushed with the warmth of the bourbon, I respond simply.