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Expert-Tested Ways to Put the Romance Back into Dating (Apps)

February 14, 2019
by Krissy Eliot & Leah Worthington

Some would argue that romantic relationships have never been free. Whether courting a woman with a bouquet or sweetening the dowry with an extra goat, humans have been trading goods in service of love for centuries. What’s different in 2019, however, is that shopping for love no longer applies to just flowers and farm animals: Digital technology allows us to shop for people, say UC Berkeley experts, and the price for doing so may be higher than we can afford.

Are we doomed to a life of algorithmically programmed love, mindlessly swiping on potential mates and always waiting for the next best app, the next best match?

Dating apps, or dating services, have caused people to develop what Arlie Hochschild, famed Berkeley sociologist and social psychologist, calls a “marketing orientation” toward finding love. Instead of meeting organically, she says, we’re “shopping” for love with curated, often superficial, lists of characteristics—and in doing so, we “depersonalize” our relationships right from the beginning.

“Well, that’s pretty scary,” says Hochschild, author of several books including The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times, an exploration of the shifting boundary between market and intimate life. “If your shopping orientation takes over, that implies emotional detachment. Oh, I’ll take this apple and not that apple. So that’s a problem. If you go into it with detachment, you’re going to come out with detachment.”

Eric Klinenberg, Cal grad, NYU sociologist, and co-author of the best-selling book Modern Romance, agrees that dating apps can result in unintentional objectification. The overwhelming number of people on the market, says Klinenberg, causes chronic FOMO (fear of missing out), so that when we’re with one person, we’re always wondering if we could swipe right to someone bigger, better, faster, less annoying. This phenomenon creates unrealistic expectations about what dating is like in real life—where we’re more complicated than our pithy bio and clutch camera angles seem to suggest.

“We tend to idealize missed possibilities, and we tend to downgrade the actual living human being in front of us because they’re not our ideal. It turns out that all of us are flawed,” Klinenberg says. “Too many people who date online make the comparison between an actual, living, inevitably flawed human being with a fantasy of a perfect person who exists on their screen and is maybe only a swipe away.”

Dog in robe with popcorn
Pablopiqasso / Hingepartner Meme

Plus, he adds, it makes it easier to treat people like crap without the fear of seeing their reaction face-to-face.

So, are we doomed to a life of algorithmically programmed love, mindlessly swiping on potential mates and always waiting for the next best app, the next best match?

Hochschild and Klinenberg say no, not necessarily. Both agree that dating services can be a really effective way (and for some communities, the only way) to meet people. But if algorithms are only as good as the people who make them, then dating apps are only as good as the people who use them. So, before you download that new (highly questionable) dating app-trivia game mashup, check out our advice, from conversations with the experts, on how to be a better person and reclaim romance this Valentine’s Day.

1. Get off the app and into the world.

Perhaps the most confusing part of a dating service is its name. The word “dating” wrongly suggests that the app or website is where the dating will happen when, in fact, it’s really more of a meeting service. A place to connect with like-minded individuals and then get off the app and back into the real world. Or at least it should be.

The problem is, like Instagram and online shopping, dating apps are fun.

“These apps have gamified dating,” Klinenberg says. “And we all know games can be quite addicting.”

Dating services are a little counterintuitive—unlike real games, the point of playing is to stop playing.

He tells the story of a woman who was so addicted that, on her way to meet someone she’d matched with on Tinder, she went on Tinder to swipe through other potentials. And it might not be as uncommon as you think.

The trick is to spend as little time on your phone or computer as possible—or to use apps that encourage you to meet. Because it’s almost impossible to know how you’ll feel about someone until you’re actually face-to-face.

“There’s a growing number of apps that try to make it easier for people to meet in real life,” says Klinenberg. “We need to go more efficiently from pointless banter to meeting. That’s a key mistake: too much online and not enough time dating. It should be more like an introduction service—and in that way it’s more healthy.”

Think of it this way: Dating services are a little counterintuitive—unlike real games, the point of playing is to stop playing.

2. Say no to coffee.

“Don’t go on boring-ass first dates. You’re never gonna fall in love over a resume exchange at Starbucks. Do something you’ve always wanted to. Have a little adventure,” Klinenberg says. “Remember: every time you meet someone it’s an opportunity to do something new, fun, and interesting. Expand your horizons. And to do your best to get something out of the experience of being single and being social.”

Hochschild suggests going to events thrown by the local community, so you can meet people casually and see how they act in the wild. This keeps you from discussing boilerplate stuff like how long they’ve had their current job or their favorite color. Invite them to a community potluck to see if they bring homemade apple pie, or cop out and show up with dip.

When you meet on an app, it can be an impersonal, transactional experience. But by planning more exciting dates that meet your and your partner’s interests, you can “re-personalize” the experience and make it meaningful regardless of the outcome.

“People can take charge, create new meanings, and separate themselves from this store-bought way of finding each other,” Hochschild says.

3. Be a good person.

When meeting someone live and in person, we are more likely to feel compelled to behave with decency, says Klinenberg, but when hiding behind a dating app, we might not be so kind.

Our future lies in learning to treat each other better, says Klinenberg.

“When interacting with bubbles on a screen, people have a tendency to act out and express the worst that humanity has to offer. They decide very quickly they’re not interested in someone based on something superficial. And once they do, they have a tendency to get very rude very fast,” Klinenberg says.

Or worse. Things can get unsavory really fast—especially for women.

“We’re already seeing the rise of dating apps [like Bumble] that try to solve the problem of nasty, aggressive and offensive behavior of creepy men by giving women exclusive power to initiate interactions,” Klinenberg says. “I think that’s a really good thing for women who feel harassed.”

“The best option is to be more humane no matter how you’re meeting someone. Generous and self-aware,” he says. Good romantic interactions require “maturity, wisdom, humility, and self knowledge … Our future lies in learning to treat each other better.”

4. “Don’t swipe left too quickly.”

We tend to think that having more options means having more freedom.

But as Klinenberg suggested earlier, having too many options can become a handicap. Not only do people become overwhelmed by possibilities, but they often “regret the choice they did make” by comparing it to the hypothetical ideal of all the choices they didn’t make. Which makes it really hard to give anything, or anyone, a fair chance.

Especially, he says, because we often don’t know what we’re looking for, a weakness that dating services take advantage of.

Woman on phone

While doing research for his book, Klinenberg recalls meeting people who would swipe through Tinder, not just before, but during dates. Because if a date isn’t meeting expectations, what’s to stop you from sneaking off the to bathroom to look for something better?

Here’s the thing, Klinenberg says, “All single people in the history of dating have been disappointed most of the time. The history of dating is full of, dominated by bad dates.”

His advice? Give people a chance.

“It’s like the Flo Rida theory of acquired likability through repetition,” he says, a term coined in Modern Romance.

“People are basically like Flo Rida songs,” he explained in an interview with Nautilus. “At first you’re like, Nah, it’s not that great. But then if you listen over and over again, the song is great. You realize: This person is amazing.”

5. Choose services that match your needs.

There are a bunch of dating apps out there that serve different purposes, and not all of them are for everyone. eHarmony, for example, matches users based on personality–so if you’re only on the prowl for a Fabio impersonator, maybe Tinder is the better app for you. HER and Grindr are geared toward the LGBTQ community, Hinge is for people only looking for serious relationships, and on Bumble, only women are allowed to initiate interactions (so men aren’t allowed to storm each woman’s inbox with pictures of their penises). There’s even an app called Hater, where you can bond over things you despise.

By choosing the right app for your needs, you’ll likely face less disappointment and waste less time, says Klinenberg.

Still, he adds, finding a good person to be with can be like finding a needle in a haystack, even if you choose the “perfect app” for your romantic needs.

“The problem with the search for love is not that our apps aren’t good enough. It’s hard to find the right person, especially when you’re looking for the perfect person.”

6. Set reasonable expectations.

“Instead of a good enough partner, people are looking for a soulmate,” Klinenberg says, “deep and profound. And they don’t want to settle for anything less than that. A soulmate is very hard to find.”

Some people hope that every date will result in passionate love because Hollywood and Hallmark paint pretty pictures of romance. But even with all of the app-tools at our disposal, expectations like these can lead to disappointment.

“The odds are that a first date is not going to work out,” Klinenberg says. “Part of finding the right partner is being honest with yourself [about what you want].”

Hochschild agrees that romance is often overly romanticized, and relationships generally don’t play out the ways we fantasize they will.

“There’s something wrong in the culture of love. I think the prevailing concept of how you fall in love is that two separate individuals … meet, come together, fall in love, and sail off in the sunset. I think love is nothing like that,” Hochschild says.“When you’re that engaged in each others’ lives and you’re nowhere near where you want to go but each one is helping the other become who they want to be—that is love.”

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