Valentine’s Day is tomorrow, to the delight of some and the great chagrin of others. Because love is fun, but dating can be hard. There’s always an unspoken set of rules and complex etiquette that you’re supposed to innately know. Trying to navigate the murky dating waters can be tricky at best, but the real kicker? These rules are constantly changing. Long gone are the days of the gentleman caller, chaperones, and perfumed love-letters sent via post. Nowadays, dating is more like shopping for a pair of sneakers. You flick through some profile pics, find a decent-looking candidate, do some thorough research through trusted sources like Google and Facebook, and, if you don’t find any glaring red flags, then maybe consider sending a message. Dating norms today are pretty much unrecognizable to those from a century ago. And the evolution is nothing if not fascinating.
For the most part, Traditionalists stuck to—as their name suggests—more traditional social standards and gender norms when it came to dating etiquette. Potential wives and husbands could be found as early as high school, and double-dates at pizza parlors, drive-ins, and bowling alleys created safe havens to get to know would-be suitors. If, after a few group dates, you found a guy or gal that you really liked, there might be a letter jacket exchanged, and you might eventually decide to go steady. Men usually initiated the courting, chose the restaurant, and paid the check (though occasionally a couple might “go dutch” and split the bill). The goal of dating was, by and large, to find a suitable partner to get hitched to. After sealing the deal came the house and the yard and the kids and the car. The classic American dream was alive and well.
Boomers have redefined most everything they’ve touched, and dating norms are no exception. They bucked the more chaste, by-the-book courting habits of their predecessors and embraced a countercultural revolution that was all about sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. Premarital sex was no longer as taboo as it had been, and “free love” became the mantra of their era. With the women’s movement and the introduction of the birth control pill, gender norms started to shift as women were given a level of control over their futures that they’d never seen before. Women weren’t just letting themselves be pursued—they started pursuing as well. The dating pool was much smaller than today, and Boomers turned to their immediate circle for potential dates, whether that be people they met at college, work, or the gym. There was, however, backlash to the free-love movement, and the second wave of Boomers saw a shift back to Traditionalist conservatism as a direct response.
Ah, the 80s, a time when phones were actually used for talking, not texting or stalking your upcoming date’s past. Malls and coffee shops were prime locales for potential partners, and if you were lucky enough to get someone’s phone number, you steeled yourself for the actual conversation (or awkward voicemail) to come. If Xers didn’t have the guts to do the asking in person, they might choose to venture onto AIM for some virtual flirting. There, they could jump into chat rooms and exchange a/s/l (age/sex/location) information with a fellow flirter. Xer skepticism came in handy here since you never knew whether the person typing away on the other side was actually the lovely young lady from Minneapolis they claimed to be or a creepy 65-year-old man from Alaska. Dating for Xers was also a bit scary because of the uptick of paranoia around STDs and the fear left in the wake of the AIDS epidemic. Xer pop-culture icons TLC pinned condoms to their clothing to promote safe sex and the importance of sex ed. It was a topic that was top-of-mind for many.
Technology has revolutionized the way Millennials play the dating game. Though Xers dabbled in virtual dating, Millennials are the first generation to dive in headfirst. The number of dating apps and websites that have sprung up in the past decade are almost too many to list: Match.com, Tinder, OkCupid, Plenty of Fish, and Brenda to name a few. Rather than relying on a first date to discover the likes and dislikes of potential partners, Millennials build out robust profiles where they describe themselves and list their partner preferences upfront (cisgender or gay, bibliophile or film addict, Libertarian or Republican). Then, when they go date “shopping,” they can match up likes and dislikes and rule out immediate disconnects. Whether this works or not is up for debate.
Flirtation and conversation often happen via text, email, or tweet, and Millennials have honed the art of dissecting the meaning behind sentence construction. All caps is never good (stop screaming!), and some of the most crushing blows happen when a period is used in lieu of an exclamation point. Phone calls are made sparingly, and by the time an in-person meeting happens, it’s more of a test for chemistry than anything else. Millennials have been delaying marriage and parenthood and are often criticized for indulging in “hook-up culture” rather than pursuing more serious relationships. It’s hard to say whether or not the virtual dating game has been an influential factor in the delays, but one thing is certain: a good man (or woman) is definitely hard to find.