Emma, 4,002 miles away.

J: Yeah American stereotypes are all kinda bad lol

E: Hahaha yeah you guys are the laughingstock every time

J:  Harsh

E: I mean there is some good people in there but the news only reports on the crazy Karen

***

“Annoiato in quarantena” — or, in English, “bored in quarantine.” I read this phrase a thousand times when I first used Tinder’s Passport feature to change my location to Italy. 

Back in April, Tinder offered the Passport setting to users for free, allowing people to alter their location in the app to anywhere in the world. This feature was originally designed to allow a user to connect with people before visiting a city —  but in the age of coronavirus and quarantine, Passport has taken on a very different role.

Like most people, I previously used Tinder to find people near me who I could meet in real life. But as the world went into quarantine, in-person relationships became unrealistic. So I tried Passport, out of curiosity, and found something completely unexpected: When the original goal of meeting someone nearby was removed, I started to enjoy the experience far more.

Matching with someone 4,000 miles away lightens the pressure to impress by removing the possibility of meeting each other in real life. There’s no need to be clever, or to use a stale pickup line you found on Twitter. If the conversation doesn’t go well, who cares? You can try things out, have conversations without the looming goal of getting someone’s Snapchat or phone number.

As my attitude toward the app changed, I began to learn a lot. Unexpectedly, I learned more about the global perception of the United States, the dynamics of being a tourist, and about the nature of personal connection in a culturally disconnected moment.

***

International Tinder is a kind of charming dreamscape, where people only appear in their most perfect state. To have a conversation is often to play a guessing game, picking up odd words and phrases and non sequiturs. Whereas local Tinder feels like a competition, with strategy and memorized opening moves, the lack of social pressure in its  global counterpart fosters an air of humor and aloofness.

The language and cultural barriers occasionally ping like a static shock, an often funny reminder of the distance between myself and the people I meet. When virtually traveling to St. Petersburg, I learned that Russians just called it “Peter.” To my surprise, they do not see the humor in referring to a major city by a common first name. They also do not find it funny when you joke about the bromance between Putin and Trump. Maybe my joke was just lost in translation.

There is also a clear preference for using English to converse, so I do not have to leave the comfort of my native language very often. Not once have I been asked to speak Spanish, French, Italian or Russian. The default setting is always English, which means that the conversation is not a typical interaction between a tourist and a local. Technically, I am the visitor, but the dialogue happens on my turf, in my language. 

While Tinder may act as a digital bridge between two countries, the consistent preference for English in conversation makes the setting feel more like an airport bar in the U.S., where the menu lists burgers and fries and there is a Starbucks nextdoor. I can sit and talk with someone from France, but the environment is tailored to fit me, not them.

***

Chloe, 4,237 miles away.

C: I wish one day I will be travelling in the USA

C: Are you already been on France? 

C: I don’t know if that is correct grammar 🙁

I knew what Chloe was trying to say here because I speak English well enough that I can still get the gist, even if some words are out of place. This is a massive advantage for me in a conversation, as we are speaking in my native language rather than one more foreign to me — an advantage that Chloe most likely does not have. I have the comfort of certainty in my voice. 

Even if I’m awkward, I’m still at an advantage because my lack of game might be lost in translation. Because I’m American, I can go into any conversation with someone from, say, Germany and not lose an ounce of confidence in my ability to converse, in my appearance as a complex person with thoughts and ideas and desires. This is where Tinder diverges radically from a normal traveling experience.

I remember going to a McDonalds in Russia once and relying on vague gestures and pointing at photos on the menu to communicate, mortified by the line of people growing behind me. It was embarrassing to feel mute around other people, unable to even order a few chicken nuggets. But all I had to do was look up at the logo on the menu to feel completely comfortable again; this was an American restaurant, a product of my country. The embarrassment at one’s inability to communicate is a common feeling for a tourist, but one that is often nonexistent for Americans when they travel. It is especially absent for Americans swiping abroad on Tinder. 

It makes you feel special to be in that comfortable space, where language, the only thing that really matters in a conversation-based app, is on your side. It alludes to an exceptionalism that is familiar to us Americans. We are taught that we are the ones who started this whole democracy thing. We are the ones who started all those fast food franchises that the world has so lovingly welcomed. We are the ones who are catered to wherever we go.

Yet despite the pervasive ideology of American exceptionalism,  make no mistake — the more you talk to people in other countries on Tinder, the less exceptional you will feel as an American.

***

The breakdown of my national ego started with a few jokes about geography. It may sound dramatic, but it’s true.

Boglárka, 4,623 miles away.

B: Where are you from?

J: I’m from America, you?

B: Hungarian

B: Hungary is in Europe.

And then:

Camila, 4,651 miles away.

J: Where are you from?

C: Argentina and you?

J: Oh cool! I’m American

C: America is a continent, I am from South America (Argentina) and where are you from?

I guess that as far as stereotypes go, geographical ignorance isn’t too bad. It’s more so fuel for banter than fuel for argument; a quirk in the perception of Americans held by the rest of the world. 

But the more I’ve talked to people around the world on Tinder, the more the cute lost-in-translation comments turn into something more serious. People want to know what the real U.S. is like. They want to hear if what they’ve heard on the news is true. They often ask: “Oh, you’re American? What do you think of Trump?”

I’ve come to dread this question, even though it mostly comes from a place of curiosity rather than derision. I’m tempted to be defensive, to try to come up with excuses for myself and my country. I want to say “Wait! We don’t all like him! A lot of us think he’s terrible and have you seen the latest polls cuz it looks like we have a good chance of voting him out in November and then our new vice president will be a woman and a POC and…”

I want to say all those things, but the truth is that they don’t matter. People have their perception of the United States and, in my experience, I cannot change their views through DM’s on a dating app. Lately, when asked about Trump I keep it simple: “Don’t get me started.”

According to Emma in Sweden, The (Swedish) news only reports on the crazy Karens. We export the worst parts of our national character to the rest of the world, leaving behind the good things. 

***

Before the pandemic began I had secured an internship for the summer. I was going to work on trail guides in Iceland, backpacking in July in the Arctic Circle where the sun never fully sets. My job would have been to go to another country, observe its beauty and then help other Americans do the same. 

But soon COVID-19 arrived and my internship was cancelled. Instead of writing trail guides, I ended up travelling around the world in an entirely different manner. On Tinder I met dozens of people from many countries, reaching out to more parts of the world than would likely be possible in a lifetime of travel.

In the age of the coronavirus, we often feel closed in, like new walls are being built around us every day. I found that this was not the case, that there are still plenty of windows through which to converse with our neighbors, near and far. Tinder is one such window.

It is not a perfect meeting ground. The international conventions that often cater to Americans are very much alive on Tinder. But this app breaks things down to their simplest terms: here are a few pictures of a person, here is their bio — now talk to them. But in doing so, Tinder inadvertently exposes the problematic nature of traveling as an American. Maybe someone’s bio is written in Cyrrillic, which I can’t read, so I ask them if they speak English. If they do, maybe they will be limited in what they could say, but that’s fine because mine is fantastic so I’ll be able to piece it together. It took me a while, but eventually I realized that this mentality was shaped by the American exceptionalism that I have grown up with.

My expectation was to be catered to, to connect with people in a way that was comfortable for me with little regard to their comfort. I wanted to explore new countries without ever opening up my own cultural identity to critique, without ever risking the insecurity that foreign visitors and immigrants to the U.S. face every day.

As my summer of travelling on Tinder draws to a close, I find myself wondering what would have happened if I had gone to Iceland for that internship. I likely would have been brash, speaking English freely without worrying if I would be understood. I would have taken in the natural wonders of the country and encouraged the people back home in the U.S. to hop on a plane and do the same. 

I never would have thought about how my national identity placed me at an advantage wherever I went, or how I would have expected special treatment without even realizing it. I would have unwittingly encouraged this behaviour in other American tourists by advertising the beauty of another land as something ready to be seen and consumed without true mindfulness. 

But those things didn’t happen. I went on Tinder instead and, for the first time in my life, saw how I am perceived as a traveller. I realized that I have learned to expect special treatment as an American. I saw how America is viewed by the rest of the world. Somehow, a dating app led me to feel, in a distinctly un-American fashion, like I was embarrassed to be a tourist.

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