Revisiting: A Dating (Multi)Culture

Every third Saturday of the month I intend to re-post something I wrote for one of my assorted old blogs or tumblogs. What I’m sharing today comes with a bit of backstory, but it explains that itself; what I should say about “A Dating (Multi)Culture” from The Thinking Grounds is that it was one of my attempts to figure out multiculturalism, and less what it is than what it could be.

Source: BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives at

Source: BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives at

A Dating (Multi)Culture

Leah Libresco is kvetching about dating woes at her blog Unequally Yoked, in some conversation with other bloggers. One of these other bloggers, Thomas Umstattd, critiqued the courtship culture he had spent some portion of his life promoting and offered as a substitute a 1950s-style model of casual dating. In this model, people do not go out on a date with the same person twice in a row. If a guy takes you out for ice cream on Monday and you want to take him up on his invitation to the Saturday night dance, you need to get a date with someone else during the week. This way, accepting a date or asking someone out on a date doesn’t imply anything much, and you get to know a number of people in a romance-possible context without feeling like you’re leading them on. After all, if I know my date is seeing another guy two days from now, I can hardly feel entitled to her attentions or affections. What we call “dating” was called “going steady” or “exclusive” back then, and it meant that you’d then only go on dates with that one person. By the time anyone proposed marriage, you had gone on dates with rather a lot of people and had a sense of what you were looking for in a partner.*

Leah quite liked this model and was trying to think of ways to bring it back. Noting that dates with people you met online already had the 1950s implication but had many many other pitfalls, while dates with people you already knew tended to be over-invested with meaning even when it dodges online dating’s pitfalls, she thought Umstattd’s grandma’s 1950s approach might well be the best one.

One of the commenters was leery, however. Cam was concerned that trying to construct a culture with such strict expectations might only work for some members of society:

What’s so wrong with clear, open communication? It’s the best and I think it can be nicely grounded in respect, feminism and all kinds of love. […] If at any point a misunderstanding occurs, this isn’t the end of the world, right? Clear it up, laugh it off, move on with life. I don’t think trying to orchestrate a ‘dating culture’ is the best way to manage expectations among individuals. A ‘dating culture’ can still feature confusion too. Everyone is unique and there are a wide range of identities, approaches to life, sexualities and relationships that are conducive to love and happiness (please keep trying to learn/accept this). A wider culture is needed where all sorts of people can navigate all kinds of relationships safely and happily. That’s why wishing for some sort of ‘dating culture’ isn’t a good idea, the best way to manage expectations is through communication and respect. [emphasis mine]

Even though I had been interested in what Leah and Umstattd were suggesting, I wound up agreeing pretty strongly with Cam that such a culture was not going to be helpful for everyone. Of course, part of Leah’s and Umstattd’s concern with the way dating happens now is that it often doesn’t; people hook up or make out instead, and see what happens from there. Now, no one I know started their current relationship that way, to my knowledge, but prevailing wisdom seems to be that that’s how most relationships start these days, and I don’t have the data to contradict that. Anyway, good-Catholic Leah isn’t interested in hook ups either for herself or as a cultural script, so she’s suggesting something else.

But I agreed with Cam, with some caveats:

I would mostly agree with you, but I’d need to add this caveat: there almost certainly are people who think they work best with one sort of relationship but actually don’t work well with that sort of relationship, and there are almost certainly kinds of relationship that don’t work well for anyone (even when they are all consenting), like the extreme courtship model Umstattd critiques. But allowing people to make those mistakes is a necessary evil (or really just inconvenience, I wager) that comes as a consequence of the far more necessary practice of allowing people to find and pursue the sort of relationship model that does work well for them.Of course I was inclined to agree with Cam, because zer complaint was much like the sort of complaint I myself have made in other arguments. Like I was in those other arguments, Cam was accused of rank relativism, which I pointed out was silly because saying that there are multiple good answers doesn’t mean that all answers are good; good answers may even be in the minority, but still there can be more than one equally good answer. However, I feel like Cam’s suggestion ignores some of the original problem and it ignores that a dating culture of some sort will inevitably exist and the question is merely how explicit it is.

Let’s do those in reverse order. Cam wrote, “That’s why wishing for some sort of ‘dating culture’ isn’t a good idea, the best way to manage expectations is through communication and respect.” But, of course, managing expectations through communication and respect is a dating culture, or part of one. Communication and respect are things that work better if everyone does them, and they are things I certainly would have no problem pushing on other people, within the bounds that they themselves set, of course. By arguing that we should communicate and be respectful and otherwise expect as few particulars as possible from potential dating partners, Cam is in effect “wishing for some sort of ‘dating culture’,” just not the same one as Leah as wishing for.

And I think this is precisely the sort of dating culture we should be pushing for: one which is open about the kind of relationships people might engage in, but which insists that communication and mutual respect manage our expectations about those relationships. However, we have to add one more element in order for it to work: we need participants to know and accept that there are lots of different possible models and that what works for some people won’t work well for everyone. In a sense, it’s like a culture which has multiculturalism baked into it, which has means of handling different scripts or etiquette as part of its scripts and etiquette. What I’ve described is a minimal sort of dating culture, but it’s probably the only acceptable one, where “acceptable” is defined as “not terrible for lots of people.”

However, this proposed dating culture has problems, and some of those problems are the very ones that Leah’s been complaining about. For example, it might be difficult to communicate to people what your expectations are, even if open communication is a norm. Leah can’t possibly be expected to recite her series of posts when she asks a guy out ice-skating or responds to an invitation to the local maple syrup festival. A person’s needs and expectations might be complicated, and it might not seem reasonable or possible to explain them all before going on a date. What would really help is a way of signalling what sort of relationship you’re interested in without having to conduct a screening interview with every applicant.

One of the other commenters—Randy Gritter—and I came to the same conclusion independently: a person could open a coffee shop that deliberately promoted itself as being a location for a particular kind of date (in this case, the kind Leah was proposing). The coffee shop would require an aggressive and canny marketing campaign so that everyone in the target customer base would understand its social role, but if it were to achieve that then everyone in the area would know what an invitation for coffee/tea at that particular coffee shop meant. There’s already a place for this if you’re looking for a hook-up (singles’ bars), but it would be nice to have such venues for many different romantic models. Today Leah proposed a dating service that one might tweak to these ends, and I might also suggest trying to develop and popularize a lexicon. All of these suggestions are intended to manage the same goal: creating options which are easy to communicate, and allowing people to develop, advertise, and communicate new options as needed.

Of course, all of this is already happening, but in a disjointed and often unacknowledged way. Again, there are yenta and dating sites and singles’ bars, and there are multiple models of dating which people struggle to communicate, and there are already campaigns pushing for communication and respect. What is needed is a framework—a dating culture—in which people acknowledge that there are multiple models and which allows people to communicate, or signal, their preferred relationship models (or relationship models they are willing to try, even if they aren’t the preferred option) to others as conveniently as possible. Two people who are romantically interested in one another might still disagree about the sort of relationship they should have because they have different needs and desires, but that’s still currently happening and would happen in the 1950s model or any other possible dating culture, unless there are literally only two options: strangers or married. All I’m asking for is that we salvage the existing mess by making it an explicit system.

And note that I’m being a bit ironic when I say “all I’m asking”; there’s a tiny problem trying to orchestrate a dating culture, or any sort of culture at all, especially when you have no social clout whatsoever.


*Think Archie Comics, if you’ve ever read those. Actually, I think a lot of the ways in which the Betty and Veronica trope plays out today is a strange artifact in which a franchise carries one generation’s cultural expectations through several other generations, and those subsequent generations don’t quite understand what they’re seeing but don’t misunderstand it enough to realize they’re misunderstanding it. I mentioned at Leah’s that Umstattd’s description of 1950s dating is what made those comics finally click into place for me; otherwise, it’s too easy to interpret the Betty-Archie-Veronica thing as a terribly dysfunctional/unstable poly triad.

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