Single and ready to mingle

On dating in the 21st century 


This is the first in a series of posts on dating in the Internet age. These are my observations.

The interviewer asked me again: “Would you feel like you hadn’t accomplished something if you never got married?” I stared back at her. “Put another way,” she sighed, “do you consider marriage an act of achievement, and if you didn’t get married, how would that make you feel?”

I was participating in a study on single-hood and courtship for a sociology PhD’s dissertation, and I could feel my interviewer was trying to get at something. It would not be the answer she was looking for: “Marriage,” I said, “is the last thing on my mind.”

The fact that I am a single 20 something more focused on career than marriage is hardly surprising. Millennials, we are told, are stressed out, narcissistic career-hoppers postponing marriage, and some say adulthood. We make up the much maligned “hook-up culture” that doesn’t know how to date (and only have ourselves and technology to blame), and apparently even need courses on courtship. If you believe the news, we are a highly ambitious, self-involved generation — and a lump of coal sits where our heart should be, too.

To say the above is hyperbolic would be an understatement. (And note how few of these articles are actually written by Millennials.) It’s not that my generation is incapable of forming permanent bonds; it’s just that permanence isn’t priority. We are nomadic in career, life, and love — until of course, we’re not. Courtship isn’t dead, we just don’t all want it.

Part of my interviewer’s point was that secretly (instinctively?), we feel a little guilty about this: remnants of societal expectations of traditional pairing off remain, and so we still build our lives around finding a life mate. This is said to be particularly true of women, though according to my interviewer my reaction was far more “typically male” than “typically female”—something about society still expecting women to get married and raise a family, but I tuned out after “children.”

I don’t deny that yes, a life mate sounds lovely. But if I were to rank my life priorities right now, you wouldn’t find marriage at the top of my list. (Also not top of mind: anything that requires a ten-year plan. It’s just not my M.O.) Dating, however — dating that’s just a touch less serious than everything else in my life —dating I think about quite a bit.

“Lightweight” was how I described it to a boy I was dating recently: “I am too life-distracted right now to handle anything more than ‘lightweight.’”

I really don’t. (Actual OkCupid message.)

I only truly started dating in earnest fairly recently. (College, high school, stints living abroad — those don’t quite seem to count.) Part of it was timing (I rarely felt I had time for it); part of it was prioritization (it never occurred to me to make more time for it). When I moved to San Francisco I called myself an active dater, when like a good type A in a new city I set a goal for myself of going on one date a week. (I won’t tell you about my friends’ plans, but let’s just say some were far more aggressive.)

Though I’ve since peeled back on the 1 date/week commitment, the trial run served its purpose. Mutual attraction or not, every encounter was an opportunity to learn something new about a person, which in turn taught me something about myself (and yes, sometimes about technology and how photos can lie).

Despite all those articles bemoaning the dating scene today, I’ll say it: I like dating in the Internet age. I don’t mind that it’s messy and unruly and sometimes confusing to navigate because surprise! So is life in general. And I’m 100% sure that dating in a different age would still be confusing — I bet our parents and their parents’ parents stirred up some pretty silly courtship rituals, too.

I think it’s fun to share stories with a person that a minute ago was a complete stranger—face-to-face, or in a message. I like learning about people and what makes them tick, and I am happy to learn about and get to know them via text, over the Internet, or through whatever other channel seems most natural to them. I think how we communicate in person is already fascinating; add on the www and that to me makes it even more exciting. How we relate to each other, how we flirt, how we date — it’s all changing so fast it’s like the Wild Wild West out here for Millennials. Personally, I relish that. I like dating with all its ambiguities online and off.

Now, either mine is not the prevailing sentiment or a lot of the coverage on Millennials and dating misses this point. (At the very least, rarely do articles on dating in the 21st century seem to quote people like me— but surely I’m not the only one who feels this way.) In the series that follows, I’ll share my own observations on dating, and how we Millennials are navigating the single life, online and off.

What this series won’t be:

  • A report card or analysis of what Millennials are and aren’t “getting” or doing right when it comes to courtship
  • A look back at the golden good ole days of dating — because let’s be honest, we weren’t around for those, if indeed they do exist
  • A discussion of technology and its impact on our capacity to connect with others
  • A diatribe on dating in the Internet age
  • A celebration of dating in the Internet age—let’s not get ahead of ourselves now either

Instead I’ll recount the simple things I’ve learned about how and why we date, across platforms and in person. Because while my intent while dating wasn’t to act as an anthropologist studying male and female courtship in the age of technology, I couldn’t help noticing a few mating patterns along the way. I have learned a lot about myself through dating, and about others, including my friends — and just how open to interpretation dating in the 21st century is.

More on that, here and here.

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