Several weeks and hundreds of swipes ago, I decided to test out a virtual connection in the real world, as is the growing norm. We agreed to keep it traditional and meet at Comal in Downtown Berkeley for dinner at 7.
I went through the typical pre-date phases: anxiety, followed by sweating, followed by multiple shirt changes, followed by checking and rechecking myself in mirrors, and then a final resignation that she’d just have to accept me for who I am — which meant that I needed to bring some chocolates with me.
I made a stop at my usual clinic of the dark confection. I walked in to survey the morsels behind polished glass, and there, standing before me, was one of the most beautiful slingers of the devil’s throat lozenges I had ever seen.
I was instantly smitten, and when she asked me how many of the hand-crafted candies I was hoping to buy, I had to mentally slap myself to refocus on why I’d walked in (What was I doing there? Who was I?). After I regained my composure and remembered I could use my mouth to articulate words and potentially communicate with this divine being, I found I could make her laugh.
And it was a very memorable laugh: hearty and without a hint of guile. There may have even been an endearing snort in there.
She tied a bow around my bag of chocolates with deft hands, took my money, asked me if I wanted a receipt and said, “Bye.” Then I said, “Bye.”
And that was it.
I walked out, towing my purchase and my memory of her laugh, a dissonance growing between the two where there was once a warm bond.
The rest of the day wasn’t nearly as notable. My actual date turned out to be a pleasant enough person, but there wasn’t much of a spark. The flame evoked by Tinder just wouldn’t catch — not in the way the chocolate-shop girl’s laughter had set the embers inside me glowing.
To this day, I feel that the dating app swindled me out of a genuine connection. Though, to be fair, she was working, and I would never want to make a person feel uncomfortable, especially when she’s trying to get through the work day.
Still, I can’t shake the feeling that there was something there. Something palpable. Yet I ignored that feeling.
I don’t believe in destiny or fate, but I do believe in instinct. And I believe apps such as Tinder and its counterparts have the power to erode our trust in our own instincts.
Most criticisms of humanity’s ever-expanding ways of outsourcing experience will focus primarily on the idea of superficiality. But isn’t much of the “natural” dating experience superficial — at least at first? That said, some forms of superficiality may be better suited for the domain of sex and attraction than others. And in mediating the superficiality of attraction, apps such as Tinder deprive us of something sui generis to human nature.
If you’ve ever watched a dance performance, you know that the human body is capable of grand feats of communication. When it comes to the province of sex and attraction, the importance of body language can’t be downplayed. And this is exactly what dating apps can’t replace.
How do you engineer a virtual proxy for the lip bite, the flip of the hair or a carefully placed hand or smile? What is an “lol” if not ersatz laughter, removed from its visceral resonance, removed from the context of a perfectly delivered remark or an awkward moment?
We lose these messages that may be better at indexing compatibility. We lose the sensory adventure of smell — that home of memory and emotion. We lose gesture, facial expressions and intonation. Our cues of arousal — and, to an extent, how we choose a potential partner — become flat and unidimensional.
Attraction is reduced to the visual domain: You’re only as hot as your photos.
Courtship is distilled to a swipe of a finger and an exchange of messages.
Humor hinges on a strategically placed emoji.
Dating apps have their own criteria for selecting whom you should date and be attracted to, and this may narrow whom and what you pay attention to, despite the ostensibly large pool of candidates.
There’s a formula to online dating: Fill out bio; post flattering pictures; list hobbies and activities; swipe, browse, wink and poke until you match; choose photo to make pertinent comment on; start conversation; maintain connection; meet.
And what about the other side of the coin? What rejection cues are we missing out on?
My friend Adonay related to me an exchange he had on Grindr, where someone messaged him and was completely stonewalled. The static created when someone misses out on bodily cues isn’t only romantically disappointing — it can also be pretty ugly.
“He’s like, ‘Hello? You there?’ ” Adonay recounted. “And I wasn’t responding, and then he’s like, ‘Hey, man, are you there? It’s really discouraging when you don’t say anything.’ And then he’s like, ‘HEY MAN ARE YOU THERE! YOU’RE MAKING THIS WHOLE EXPERIENCE REALLY BAD FOR ME!’ ”
Zion Barrios writes the Monday column on social topics that rarely enter open conversation. You can contact him at [email protected].