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I don’t know how to behave on The Apps. (Image: Archi Banal)
I don’t know how to behave on The Apps. (Image: Archi Banal)

InternetNovember 30, 2023

Help Me Hera: The dating apps are messing with my head

I don’t know how to behave on The Apps. (Image: Archi Banal)
I don’t know how to behave on The Apps. (Image: Archi Banal)

Should we be texting and calling between dates? How can I tell if they’re really into me? Is it a crush or a dopamine spike?

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Dear Hera, 

I’m in my mid-20s and for a myriad reasons (devastating break-up, birth control-induced weight gain leading to self-esteem issues, the whole pandemic thing, etc) I haven’t really dated for the past four years. 

After a lot of work on myself and my career, I decided that I’m ready to jump back into the dating game. I’ve quickly realised that all of my peers were spending their early 20s learning how to navigate this space, and I’m feeling a little left behind. 

I’ve gone on a few dates from The Apps and all have gone well so far, but I’m finding the uncertainty of the early stages is really spiking my anxiety and obsessive tendencies, and figuring out what to do after the first or second date is Literally All I Think About.

It’s lame stuff like, should we be texting/calling between dates? How can I tell if they’re really into me, or just saying so to sleep with me? Is it really a crush, or just a dopamine spike from the attention I’m getting? 

It’s not an insecurity issue (I know my value); it’s the actual mechanics of how to go about things. 

Any advice on how to live in the uncertainty of it all, or how to accept that modern dating is just like this, would be greatly received. 


Dating Dunce

A line of fluorescent green card suit symbols – hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades

Dear Dating Dunce,

I get a lot of people in their early twenties writing to me for dating advice. Which is very funny, considering I know less about dating than your average Mennonite pensioner. 

Not only have I been in a relationship for approximately the length of time it takes to become a practising junior surgeon at a reputable hospital, I never really dated. I never dated because I was never single. I modelled my relationship strategy on that of the human centipede, only surfacing briefly between partners to take a quick breath of air, before plunging back into the subterranean world of prestige television and second-hand furniture shopping. 

It wasn’t really intentional. It just seemed to happen that way. Any knowledge I do have is probably years out of date. Dating has changed a lot since I was your age. When I was in my early twenties, dating apps were essentially the province of losers. Not only did people not use them, it was considered suspicious to do so. And then Tinder arrived on the scene, and life changed forever. 

At the risk of sounding like “when I was a kid, I had to walk twenty miles through the snow just to get to the snow,” when I was young, the only way to meet people was either going to some horrible psychedelic folk band and making prolonged eye contact with strangers, or hooking up with one of your friends. These days, the idea of giving the hot guy at the sporting goods outlet store a slip of paper with your phone number on it seems impossibly antiquated and borderline inappropriate, like skinning and eating a wild rabbit. But there was something thrilling about it too. 

Still, every generation has different dating conventions. It wasn’t so long ago you used to have to know how to  dance. I don’t mean to sound nostalgic – there’s something fun about the apps. I love looking through my single friends’ profiles, the sea of human faces like a wall of rotisserie chickens. But I’m also willing to bet some things are still the same. 

You seem nervous about breaking the rules, or coming on too strong. This is one of those timeless worries, that was probably as relevant to mediaeval peasants as it is today. But there’s also no point in overthinking things.  

My advice, as follows: 

  • Dating is just a way to get to know people, and decide whether or not you want to spend more time with them. You don’t have to know whether that feeling is a crush or a dopamine spike. That’s literally what the whole process of dating is for. If you don’t know how you feel, go on a second date. If you still don’t know, go on a third date. Repeat this process until you’re either engaged to be married, or your lack of conviction speaks for itself. 
  • As soon as possible, if you’re interested in someone, take it offline. Don’t hang around chatting on the apps. It’s much easier to tell if you have chemistry with someone by meeting in person, and it saves a lot of time. 
  • As to whether or not someone is pretending to like you in order to sleep with you, I think that these days, most people are sleeping with you to figure out whether they like you. But if you want to avoid feeling used, you can always ask to slow things down. The beautiful thing about dating is you get to set your own boundaries and rules, and if the person you’re dating doesn’t like them, you can simply stop dating them. 

The biggest anxiety, which has haunted every generation since time immemorial, is how to act. When to text. When to play it cool. Whether or not to send a personalised gift basket to their house the next day. I have strong feelings on this subject, and my feelings are:

If they really like you, almost nothing you can do will change that. 

If they’re not into you, almost nothing you can do will change that. 

I think this is a universal truth. So often, we obsess over the little things: worrying that bringing someone flowers or asking them out twice in one week is going to come off as creepy and eager. But the truth is, if you meet someone you really like and they feel the same, it’s almost impossible to fuck it up. Even if you’re just getting to know each other. 

Obviously I’m not advocating you immediately go straight out and get a lower-back tattoo with your date’s name on it. But if you’re really into someone, and the feeling is mutual, you can afford to be as enthusiastic as you like. Not only is it not going to creep them out, taking emotional risks is romantic! It’s hot to act without fear; to put all your cards on the table. 

By the same token, if you’re interested in someone and your eagerness puts them off, they were always going to be on the fence. You can’t trick someone into liking you by pretending to be cooler than you are. It never works, or at least not for long. You’re never going to change someone’s mind by acting hard to get. The best you can hope for is postponing the inevitable. 

Knowing this doesn’t make the process of dating any less nerve-wracking. It doesn’t mean you won’t get hurt. Dating always involves some emotional terror, but the way I look at it, it’s better to be disappointed early on. 

This information is hopefully liberating. You won’t be able to win someone over by micromanaging your every interaction. But you’re also not going to scare the right kind of people away. Romantic bravery is contagious! What’s a better story? Having a modest but respectable amount of dates before deciding to formally enter into a romantic relationship? Or immediately cancelling every other plan, throwing over your family Christmas dinner, going to Kelly Tarlton’s and making out in front of the stingrays until the attendants ask you to leave? 

Not everyone you meet is going to have you racing off to buy tickets to the aquarium. But when you meet that special someone who makes you want to stare at a wall of fish, be brave and tell them! 

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