There’s a specific blend of nervous excitement that accompanies the run-up to a first date.
Back in the time before COVID-19, that nervousness happened in the rush of getting ready to go out. It might feel like a lifetime ago now, but I would always get a jolt of butterflies as I swept makeup brushes across my face, or surveyed which outfit to make my grand entrance in.
Try as I might, I just can’t muster that same rush at the prospect of a virtual date — which is basically a date that happens over video call rather than in person.
Like almost every aspect of our lives, dating has changed drastically in recent months. With this new version of dating, a whole host of unfamiliar emotions have arrived. Those feelings include intense panic, frustration, and sadness if major life plans like finding a partner and starting a family have been put on hold for the time being. You might be feeling a newfound yearning for human touch, or perhaps a longing to be hugged because of a neurological phenomenon called ‘skin hunger’ that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic. Loneliness and feelings of isolation have been heightened for people living alone.
There’s also an emerging sense of FOMO — a fear that you’re missing out on meeting someone if you’re not going on virtual dates, a feeling that you’re being left behind in the old world of dating. There’s no denying virtual dating is on the rise — April saw a 573 percent increase in OkCupid daters in the UK reporting that they’ve been on a virtual date compared to March, according to figures emailed to Mashable. But, what if the idea of meeting your Hinge match over Zoom fills you with fear and trepidation? And what if virtual dates are definitely not your cup of tea?
As someone navigating the world with anxiety, I find online dating challenging and stressful at the very best of times. The prospect of video-calling someone I scarcely know brings a new set of unknowns for my anxiety to sink its teeth into. For others, the hesitancy to delve into virtual dates stems from judging romantic attraction through a screen.
Vic Clarke is single, living alone, and really missing other people’s company. But she really doesn’t want to do virtual dates. “I rely very much on gut feeling when I meet people,” says Clarke. “I’ve made wonderful friends online, including a very close group of about 10 other women over the last decade, but I have a real hesitancy around judging romantic attraction through a screen.” She’s taking some time out of dating right now because simply living through a pandemic is stressful enough. “Trying to do my job and stay in contact with friends when you can’t just bump into them on the street/in town/at work seems to be enough,” she said. Despite her aversion to virtual dates, Clarke is still experiencing FOMO. “I do wonder if I’m missing out though, since I would otherwise meet new people out and about or through friends and social contact is obviously so limited at the moment.”
Nicola Slawson — founder of The Single Supplement, a newsletter for single women — says she’s dreading a Bumble match suggesting a virtual date. Slawson is finding that awkward silences in conversations are magnified when she’s on Zoom calls for non-dating purposes. “The added thing for me is I’m living with my parents at the moment and the walls are incredibly thin. I find it awkward enough when doing the weekly pub quiz my friends and I do so it would only be heightened for a date,” she explained. “The other factor is that it would be another evening spent staring at a screen and I am trying to limit the evenings I do that so I don’t get Zoom fatigue.” (This is a real thing by the way.)
“When this all started I found the idea of a remote romance really appealing but I have remembered that I’m actually much better at meeting guys in real life and I think I come across much better in person so it all feels a bit frustrating at the moment,” she added. Slawson said she’s also finding that she’s losing interest in her online matches really quickly because dating feels “a bit pointless given how long it could take for real life to resume.”
Francesca Specter, host of the Alonement podcast, told me she’s been on a couple of online dates and has found them an enjoyable diversion from the tedium of lockdown. But she also has some reservations about the viability of this medium as a way of developing a connection with someone. “When you’re in the Groundhog Day of lockdown, it’s actually quite nice to break up the boredom by ‘meeting’ someone new, romantically or otherwise.” Specter caveats that while a first date over Zoom is nice, it “doesn’t replace the real thing” and it’s difficult to build any real momentum. “It’s also almost impossible to flirt via Zoom, or to assess whether something is a ‘friend zone’ or has romantic potential — and there’s no goodnight kiss moment to be able to assess,” she adds. “Plus, we’ve all been there when we meet a Tinder date and, although they look like their photos, they’re just not attractive to us in real life. Zoom is only a slight step up.”
“The whole thing just feels too much like being on Google Hangout with a client overseas.”
Ally Sinyard, meanwhile, tried a virtual date and told me she has “absolutely no interest” in revisiting it. “The whole thing just feels too much like being on Google Hangout with a client overseas,” she says. “I can’t build a rapport or intimate connection with someone unless it’s IRL, I don’t think.”
So, what was it exactly about Sinyard’s first virtual date that was so off-putting? “I dressed up and set the scene and he very much did not haha his housemate was even in the same room,” she explained. “Then of course there’s the whole issue of accidentally talking over each other because you can’t quite tell when the other person has finished speaking.”
Despite this lack of desire to go back to virtual dating, Sinyard does feel a tremendous amount of pressure to keep dating. “There’s probably some psychological element where we’re all craving intimacy because we’re all so isolated,” she said. “And yet… let me be single with my untweezed eyebrows and bad roots and just mainline Normal People into my veins please.”
Melissa Hobley, global chief marketing officer at OkCupid, said in a statement emailed to Mashable that virtual dating is “ushering in a new era of ‘slow dating,’ with singles looking to build emotional connections before physical ones.” It’s not for everyone, though. “For some however, we know the transition from simply chatting via text to an actual ‘virtual’ date can seem scary, with questions like ‘what should I wear?’, ‘where in the house should I take the video call?’ and ‘what do I talk about?’ running through their minds,” said Hobley.
WATCH: How to go on a virtual date during the coronavirus pandemic
If you’re feeling like you want to give virtual dating a go, check out Mashable reporter Anna Iovine’s guide to making your virtual date not suck. Hobley from OkCupid suggested a few tips for dealing with pre-virtual date nerves, like calling a friend beforehand to put your mind at ease and to get yourself into the right frame of mind. Planning your exit is always a good idea for dates, Hobley suggested. Mashable’s tech team has a guide for that too, with these non-awkward ways to leave a Zoom hangout. Simply having a phone call (real or fake) you need to make afterwards can give you an easy way out if things don’t go well.
If virtual dating isn’t your cup of tea, that’s totally fine. Right now, it’s not something I feel up for — but that might change in the future. But there are alternatives — you could try voice noting, or a good old-fashioned phone call if you feel like it. If you’re up for trying a slower approach to dating, but don’t fancy virtual dates, keeping in touch over WhatsApp can be a great way to gradually get to know someone in a non-intimidating way. If you’re really interested in that person, let them know you’d like to go on an IRL date in the future.
Dating is supposed to be fun. No one should feel forced and pressured into doing something they’re not comfortable with. Listen to your own needs and act accordingly.