The first time I met someone I matched with online, I had just moved to Los Angeles. I matched with a guy who I found out was Orlando Bloom’s stand-in for the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Twenty minutes into the conversation, it became clear that, as a European with limited time left on his Hollywood visa, he was looking for a wife. He asked me point-blank when I’m hoping to get married. He quickly ended the date when I told him I’ll definitely take my time. I walked back to my car, shocked.
That was my first internet date, courtesy of OkCupid. Since then, much of my adult life has been spent running an unintended experiment on the most successful way to conduct a first date borne from the internet. Here are some key lessons I’ve gathered along the way.
Apps aren’t for making friends
In the three years I lived in LA, I probably went on 20 first dates. On one of these dates, I met a bassoon player who worked with the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles. We clicked, and dated for months. It was a great relationship. He’s now married. And I still value the time we had together as musicians, dating, trying to cut it in that cutthroat scene.
Sometimes the fear I hear from single friends is that dating apps turn looking for a spouse into a numbers game. Sure, it took me 20 dates in LA to find one relationship. But it was a great relationship. And the number of friends I have who are now married to one of those internet first dates continues to grow.
The internet, like most things, is a tool. I use it to find interesting men with whom I can have safe conversations in public. I don’t believe that simultaneously vetting these men for the possibility of becoming my life partner makes that conversation less real. They’re also learning about me. On some level, internet dating facilities genuine, face-to-face interaction between two adults who meet one another to ask, “What if?”
I remember the moment I first looked at a guy and thought, “We could be friends… but I have friends. Lots of friends.” What I’m looking for at this time in my life is a spouse. Making that a priority isn’t demeaning to the men I meet by happenstance or through an app, and I try my best not to take offense, either.
One of the most resonant pieces of advice I ever got about dating was from my high school parish youth group: when you date someone, either you’re going to get married, or you're going to break up. So to some degree, when you are dating, you need to be looking toward the future and the values and interests and hopes you might or might not share.
I’ve realized that the hesitation surrounding dating apps isn’t from the fear of being vetted as much as it is the fear of beginning with these big-picture life questions. The hardest part of meeting someone IRL is that the minute you see them, you know they’re sizing you up as a potential life partner. Which is terrifying — and why many of my single friends keep dating apps at arm’s length. But at some point, we have to acknowledge that if we didn’t meet our spouse in school, a graduate program, at work, or through a friend at a wedding or party, we’re probably going to go from a “hello” to an exploration of romance without a long friendship in between.
Lower the stakes
I’ve learned to arrange dates that have a time limit of under an hour, in a low-key public place, with very little financial investment. (Which, interestingly, follows the guidelines of a famous course on dating for freshmen at Boston College.) I also learned to take some of the pressure off by just dating more. The more dates I went on, the more comfortable I became, and the lower the stakes felt.
I’ve become a fan of meeting in person as soon as possible. It may feel safer to chat for a week or longer before deciding to meet, but more often than not, that just drags out the inevitable and is a frequent waste of time. If you’re going to click in person, you’ll click. If you’re not, texting for a week isn’t going to make the realization less painful. In fact, if someone seems like your soul mate via text, it’s easy to build unrealistic expectations in your head that would be hard for even Orlando Bloom to live up to.
Dating apps are representative of the internet as a whole: they have everything. Some of Tinder’s users are trash bags; some have married my friends. Hinge connects you through Facebook in an attempt to find people who’d run in your circle, and Bumble is set up so women always make the first move. But at the end of the day, you’re dealing with a population as varied as the city in which you live.
This means you can chat with someone who attacks, demeans, or threatens you. You can chat with someone who’s totally putting you on. You can chat with someone who is looking for cheap sex, or who intends to marry in a month. So it’s important to have clearly defined boundaries for yourself — to know what you are about. You want to use these platforms according to your own values, rather than the ethos that comes implicit with them.
Usually, though, you are chatting with someone who’s just as nervous as you — and who also wants to be seen as a real person with real passions and desires.
I have met men who are rude. I have met men who are lovely. I met a man who texted me for months after I told him I didn’t want to meet again. I’ve met men I swore were perfect, who left me wondering what I lacked. I met an acoustic engineer in Denver who is now my go-to guy when I need a professional recording, and we’ve become good friends. I met an ex-NFL player who told me all the medical reasons he doesn’t want his future sons to play football. I went out with an Austrian who explained to me why Viennese millennials distrust religion. I spent a month dating an environmental engineer who took me rock climbing for the first time. Over the past five years, I’ve dated a professional jazz trumpeter, an ICU nurse, the guy who edits Nuggets games for local broadcast, an ex-seminarian, a bass player in a touring rock band, and a firefighter paramedic contracted with the US Army. These are all men who I would never have met otherwise.
I don’t view any of these dates as a waste. They represent hours I’ve spent learning about professions, careers, families, passions, and the human condition. I’ve got some crazy stories, sure, but what I value about these conversations is that I was forced to take someone at face value, and as such, bring my own story to a stranger.
And the more I went out on first dates, the better I got at them. I no longer fret about how much makeup I wear. I have an arsenal of questions to keep a conversation going. I know how to excuse myself after 45 minutes. And I’ve let go of the need to determine if someone is my spouse within the first five minutes. It’s just a conversation. And he’s usually more nervous than I am.
How to date online during a pandemic
Covid has definitely shaken up online dating. There was a massive influx of people to dating apps in the wake of lockdowns. This also means that, for the past two years, people haven't been going out and meeting for dates. In my experience, lockdown has led to a growth of intention. In other words: if I'm going to risk spreading Covid, you better be worth it. This means that conversations before meeting can be more pointed, which can skew helpful or callous. Nowadays, I steel myself for the inevitability of the latter.
Something like a pandemic shifts how we view ourselves, our mortality, our plans, and our priorities. This kind of reflection inevitably impacts how we date, and how we approach the opening moves of dating. With Covid still on the prowl, I look for the vaccination box to be checked before swiping right, and I ask the guy to do a rapid test before we meet. This requires effort on his part and mine, which means we’re already “doing more” before we meet than we did even a few years ago.
This also means that there’s more space to be real about what’s working and what’s not. Life’s too short for me to sit and talk to a guy for an hour whom I know I don’t want to see again. I’m less afraid to say goodbye after 15 minutes. I’ll pay for us both! My time is precious, and I don’t want to waste yours, either.
In the wake of the pandemic, first dates tend to have lower stakes (a walk or a coffee, not an expensive dinner), and men tend to be more honest with me if they’re not interested. I appreciate this. The theatrics of online dating have been watered down, and as the world begins to open up, I think we can all allow ourselves to be real about our needs and our expectations with the people we meet.