Editor’s note: To protect people’s privacy, all names in this story have been changed except for those of the three academics quoted.
When I moved to Asheville in 2013, I didn’t know a soul.
Hoping to make friends but not really knowing my way around, I aimlessly wandered downtown at dusk, vaguely intending to just waltz into bars and maybe make a new acquaintance or two.
As I walked around, feeling increasingly anxious, I repeatedly checked Yelp on my phone, looking for prospective stops. Do I want to meet people here? Or here? What would the people be like here?
At Random Asheville Bar No. 1, most were deep in conversation. Rings of bodies — drinks in hand, backs to me — laughing loudly at a friend’s joke, their voices blending into an indistinguishable static.
It’s not socially acceptable to just approach a group of people midconversation and introduce yourself, so I scanned the bar, seeking someone unaccompanied. Not one. Meanwhile, some in the clusters scrolled through messages on phone screens, faces illuminated by white light.
Clearly, the overall approach to dating and relationships has changed wildly in the last century or so — and more recent advancements in technology and gender equality have only accelerated the shift. At the same time, though, smartphones and dating apps didn’t invent the mating game. So, digging below the surface, how much has really changed in the eternal quest for love and romance?
Backing out of the bar, I wound up in a quiet coffee shop — alone, on my phone, texting with friends back home. I was only trying to make friends that evening, not find a date. But the boundaries can get blurry, and in any case, the underlying question remains: How do adults connect these days?
Life after college
“In college, it’s so much easier to meet people,” says Felix Dunning, 29. “You’re all in a shared experience: You have a shared interest in the place where you’re residing, where you’re learning. And as soon as you get out of college it’s like, ‘I have to go somewhere and meet people?’ So trying to figure out ways to interact with new potential partners became much more difficult.”
On top of that, says Ashley Hart, 27, “It’s really hard to meet people out and about, which is weird because Asheville’s such a friendly place. It’s not that I didn’t try; it’s just, I look around in bars and in restaurants and pretty much anywhere I go, and nobody looks up and connects anymore. They’re always on their phones — always texting their friend or seeing where their friends are. There’s like this total disconnect from the social realm.
“I don’t think a lot of people give themselves the opportunity to meet people outside their social groups,” continues Hart. “It’s so easy to be connected to just those people. When I look around and see everyone on their phones, it kind of amazes me. We’re all here; there’s music and drinks. We should all be mingling and hanging out.”
Currents of change
“Did the Internet create this, or was it just a natural product of our changing culture?” asks sociologist Marilyn Chamberlin, who teaches courses focusing on family and relationships at Western Carolina University. “My opinion is that it was something that happened simultaneously. I think we had a lot of changes going on, and the Internet came along at the same time and provided a tool to support those changes.”
Let’s rewind back to early 1900s America: “In certain classes, especially middle and upper class, the family controlled who you got to date,” continues Chamberlin. “There was a whole courtship process.”
Around midcentury, however, “It moved more toward open choice, where people would date who they were interested in. Usually, you were dating people you went to school or to church with, or who were living in your neighborhood. … People were getting married in their early 20s. Family was still fairly important, but it shifted to personal preference.”
And later still, as more women went to work outside the home, those traditional patterns “kind of faded out,” says Chamberlin. Instead, “You’ve got workplace colleagues and friends, making all these connections and introducing yourself to everyone.
“One of the things about, say, the 1960s is that dating, at that point, was still fairly structured,” she notes. “For a person that was younger, the expectation was that you would get married. Dating had a purpose, and that purpose was getting married. Once divorce rates increased, that presented a different kind of challenge.”
Today, says Chamberlin, the average marrying age for women is 28 — the highest it’s ever been — and 29 for men. In the 1950s, on the other hand, those numbers were 20 and 22, respectively. And in the 21st century, both women and men tend to focus more on their careers, their lives, their personal adventures, and less on starting a family at a young age.
“Now, dating is for companionship, for having people that you can go and do things with, for a sexual relationship you deem safe. The purpose of dating changed, and as a result, the market shifted in terms of who’s available,” Chamberlin explains.
Still, how do you meet interesting people when you’re out of school, stuck in a cubicle from 9 to 5, and perhaps not attending any church?
Enter the dating app, which enables you to safely and anonymously browse, from wherever you happen to be, a seemingly endless supply of locals looking to chat up, meet up and/or hook up.
“It almost seems too obvious to mention, but we’ve become so dependent on digital technology — it’s so firmly embedded in our lives,” says Peter Nieckarz, a sociology professor at Western, who teaches courses on pop culture and social change. “Twenty years ago, this wasn’t the case; this has happened really quickly. And when we think about the interactions we have with people — friends, family, acquaintances — if we were to add up the interactions we have face to face versus online, the ratio is growing tremendously in favor of online interactions. So it only makes sense that more and more of our experiences with dating will move to online.”
What makes those apps viable, however, is not just the Internet but the conjunction of a number of technologies, including smartphones, Wi-Fi and GPS. And while dating sites like Match.com launched before the rise of social media, the advent of sites like Facebook and Myspace — where users meet and interact via the Internet for a variety of purposes — helped dissolve the social stigma that initially surrounded online dating. If you doubt this, try downloading Tinder and see how many users are within 5 miles of wherever you happen to be.
“When I first started using these apps, I felt a bit embarrassed about it, but now I am shameless,” jokes Sarah Hausman, 25. “I started using Tinder after a breakup from a five-year relationship. I just wanted to see who all was out there and maybe get a little pick-me-up ego boost. But now, being single for over two years, I still have this app on my phone.”
Hausman says she’s met “a pretty high number of people from the Tinder app. My intentions when meeting people ranged from a potential hookup to a new friend — or maybe, if I’m being honest, just something to make my day a little more interesting.
“I went through a phase where I would see how many dates I could get in a week, with no intention of hooking up — or even developing a friendship with these people,” she reveals. “There is word on the street that Tinder is the hookup app, and sometimes people are expecting that. But for me, it’s usually discussed beforehand what type of expectations I have for a date.”
Lori Horvitz, director of UNC Asheville’s Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies program, says she went straight to the source in an attempt to deconstruct the current scene. “I was actually asking my students what they thought the pros and cons are of dating in the Internet Age,” she reveals. “Some said it’s easier for people to be flaky, and there’s a big emphasis on physical appearance. But others said it’s very empowering, especially for the queer community. In rural North Carolina, it’s difficult to meet people — and when you do, it’s very liberating.
“Before Internet dating, people had to meet each other in bars — and if you lived in a small town, you’d have to go to a small-town bar. So your chance of meeting alcoholics was greater,” she jokes.
But kidding aside, she continues, Internet dating enables members of the rural LGBT community to meet like-minded people and “not feel as isolated or alone. It’s sort of like the world is opened up.”
Brave new world
Not everyone who’s trying to find a date is in their 20s or 30s, though, and older singles may face a somewhat different set of challenges when reconnecting with the dating scene.
Jack Peppard, 66, married out of high school, divorced and then remarried in his early 30s. After his wife died in 2012, Peppard once again re-entered the dating world — this time using a combination of apps, dating sites and, occasionally, getting set up by friends.
“It’s nice to have somebody that you care about,” he observes. “I’m on dating apps because I’m new to the area: I don’t know anybody. And, well, because I might be wanting to spend my life, or at least my time, with somebody else.”
But dating in your 60s is different, he maintains. “The last time I dated was 30 years ago. I did not have to get on a dating site; I met a lot of people through friends: Somebody would hook you up on a blind date. Nowadays, it’s hard to find that person. They’ve either been divorced two, three times or are widowed — and at this age, everyone has a lot of baggage.” On top of that, Peppard continues, “All my friends are now married couples who hang out with other married couples.”
Chamberlin agrees that for older folks, “It is definitely more challenging: It’s a bin market. There’s just not a lot of options available to you.”
Still, the Internet definitely makes it easier for a single 66-year-old to connect with others in the same age group.
“There’s millions of dollars being made trying to provide matches for people … and an explosion of sites to meet people, with specialties by age, by interest or sexuality, or for divorced or widowed people,” she points out. “If they can specialize on that level, it indicates that this has really become very popular.”
Meanwhile, continues Chamberlin, for young and old alike, “Dating has become more competitive. It used to be that you weighed people based on characteristics that you liked and didn’t like.”
On the Internet, however, “All the relationships we have are presentations of how we want people to see us,” she points out. “What do I want this person to know about me? What do I want them not to know about me? They’re presenting themselves as this perfect person, but what’s behind that presentation?”
Self-promotion and outright deception didn’t begin with the Internet, however.
“There’s a lot of showmanship online,” Nieckarz concedes. “But you know what? People always did this. Even in the old days, you go on a date, you’re going to put your best self forward. People have always wanted to manage the impressions that others have of them, and we’ve gotten really good at it with the Internet, because it’s so easy with Facebook and other forms of social media: You have greater control over molding the image you’re projecting.”
Hausman, for one, says she loves Tinder “horror stories” — provided, of course, that no one was hurt or sexually assaulted, but where the principals were just so wildly incompatible. “My worst Tinder experience was a lunch date, and the person was so annoying, in an arrogant way, that I wanted to leave as soon as I sat down. They spoke over me and didn’t let me get a single word in — and then proceeded to tell me how cute it was that I was ‘so shy.’ I immediately got the bill. They offered to walk me to my car and then leaned in for a kiss! I was so taken aback at how oblivious they were.”
This, too, is an experience that may be familiar to people who have gone on a bunch of “blind dates,” regardless of how they got set up. But because the Internet can instantly connect you with innumerable people you might otherwise never meet, it may increase the potential for extreme mismatches.
Pretty as a picture
And despite such bumps in the road, notes Hausman, “I love the concept of dating apps and online dating. … I think people are probably delighted that there’s an easy way to break the ice and get the hard part over with: Do they think I’m cute? Matching with people definitely takes away certain anxieties.” But the fast-paced nature of online interactions, she continues, “also has the potential to create new anxieties that may have not existed before.”
In the online world, Chamberlin observes, “You rely on that instantaneous reaction, and that increases the feeling that everything is centered on you. It’s quick and it’s easy, but at the same time, you kind of leave people hanging. It’s nice to know instantly what someone is thinking of you, but if they don’t answer right away, you think, ‘What does this mean? I haven’t heard from them in two days!’ It can increase the anxiety and the self-centeredness of it all.”
And of course, on picture-heavy dating sites, everyone is judged by the photos they post.
“It becomes problematic if that’s the sole way we’re classifying people,” says Chamberlin. “If you were sitting next to someone in class all the time, you might think that, physically, they’re only OK, but they’re funny and they make interesting comments in class. And you think, ‘Oh, I want to meet that person and get to know them more.’ If all you’re seeing is a picture, it’s a little more shallow.”
“Oh, God, it’s so shallow,” echoes Hart. “We can so easily just filter through all these people — left, right, left, right — without ever stopping and looking at this person and saying, ‘Maybe he’s a very nice person. Maybe he’s superfunny or attractive in other ways. So I think it’s like everyone is subconsciously judging people just based on their looks — looking at someone for a second and deciding whether or not they’re worthy of your time.”
At one point, she notes, “I deleted my Tinder and my Facebook too. I just felt like I was getting bombarded with all of this superficial crap.” A few months later, though, Hart caved and downloaded OkCupid.
“I thought maybe the people there were seeking a deeper connection,” she explains. “But there’s this thing called ‘quick match’ on OkCupid, and you’re doing the same thing — swiping left and right. It’s just so easy and almost like an addiction to keep swiping, keep swiping, keep swiping.”
Face to face
Despite dating apps’ growing popularity, though, most folks interviewed for this article said they still prefer to meet people the old-fashioned way, keeping Tinder, OkCupid and the like as a fallback.
“I think it’s a lot more fruitful to meet people face to face,” notes Dunning. “I have not had much luck using online dating. I’ve used Tinder and OkCupid: I’ve been on a number of first dates but never met any people I was terribly interested in seeing again.” He’d rather “meet friends of friends that you might have something in common with.”
As for simply venturing out and trying to pick someone up, continues Dunning, “I don’t want to go hit on a woman in a bar.” A much better strategy, he believes, is “going somewhere where you’re actually interested in what’s going on, and finding someone you’re like-minded with.”
To that end, a visit to Meetup.com turns up more than 100 Asheville-area groups centered on a particular shared interest.
Even so, though, “It sure would be handy if women would initiate contact more often, or give some sort of indicator that they might be interested. I think one of the biggest turnoffs is when they play hard-to-get. … When I do try to initiate contact, sometimes I get the vibe that they think I’m a serial killer just for trying to talk to them. It would be cool if people would just smile and provide that opening.”
Asheville Speed Dating offers a way around that, scheduling regular gatherings for single people in a specified age range. Participants get seven-minute “dates” with all the potential connections present, and no contact info is exchanged unless both parties subsequently say they’re interested.
But Dunning also cites another sign of the times that may conflict with that idea. “I run into a lot of women in this city that say they’re more interested in an open relationship or friends-with-benefits situation. And I know a lot of women who are put off by the idea of marriage. I feel like that’s probably common in major urban hubs, but I have sort of conflicting feelings about it. … Call me old-school, but I prefer having a shared intimacy with one person.”
The more things change…
Of course, the idea of open relationships isn’t new either.
“In the ’60s and ’70s, you dated a variety of different people at the same time,” says Chamberlin. “You would have dinner with one person this week and go to a movie with someone else the next week. That was a way to kind of feel out potential mates. And I think we changed about 10 years ago: People started to think that, when you say ‘dating,’ it had to be exclusive.”
Inevitably, gender differences also affect how folks approach dating. “Women are much more practical,” she maintains. “It sounds odd, but women take it slower than men do. Men are more idealistic that they’re going to find the one true person right away. But women have figured this out about men, so they’re putting on the brakes.”
Meanwhile, access to birth control “has increased women’s openness to sexual relationships,” says Chamberlin. “Though it hasn’t changed as significantly as people like to think, the whole idea of delaying marriage doesn’t mean you want to delay the intimacy.”
And if women are showing an increased interest in open relationships, she continues, it could be a polite way of letting potential partners know that “‘I’m not just going to be talking with you: I’m going to be talking with three, four, five men on Tinder at the same time,’ and we don’t have a way of saying that other than saying, ‘I want an open relationship.’” In other words, “‘I’m not going to tie myself down to you, in case you turn out to be somebody I’m not all that interested in.’”
For her part, Hausman says that while her feelings about the changes in the dating world are too diverse to even begin to explain, “I’m not a Luddite who thinks kids these days are shallow because they’re always on their damn phones, texting. I think it definitely adds a layer of social complexity and may or may not highlight subtle social nuances that may have already been present.”
Nieckarz, meanwhile, points out that, while “people have a tendency to get lost on their phones when they could be interacting face to face, they may have said the same thing about television, which we’ve had for 60 years now, or the radio or the newspaper, sitting with their face buried in pages of print. It’s easy to critique and have a sort of moral panic about the ‘new media.’ I just think we need to be more aware and mindful about how we use these new technologies.”