For about four months, I had been getting to know Kennedy. We’d spent nights having long conversations on the phone and in person and had gone out to dinners, movies, and on adventures nearby. We hadn’t yet defined what we were — it had never occurred to me that we had to until one FaceTime call. Kennedy’s roommate, Cory*, who was in the background, casually asked Kennedy if I was “his girl.” Taken aback and looking at him with just as much curiosity as his friend had, I nervously awaited his response. He replied, “No, we’re just talking.”
I didn’t expect Kennedy to call me his girlfriend, but I also didn’t anticipate him minimizing whatever our relationship was to just conversing. While I had tried to keep my expectations at an all-time low over the past few months, his gut-punching response made me realize I hadn’t succeeded. Even though I wanted nothing from him in the beginning, as time went by, I started to crave a bit more — and I thought he did, too. All of the confusion made me wonder why we do this to ourselves. Why is there is a preliminary phase before dating? Is there a fear of commitment? Do people no longer want to date? What the hell is the point of aimlessly talking to someone for months on end?
The term “talking” is mostly used among us teens and 20-somethings, and because we are a big part of the single population, it has become a prominent step in the dating cycle. The talking stage is associated with speaking on the phone, occasionally going on dates, and second guessing whether someone is feeling you or not. The purpose is to weigh your options while enjoying the company of multiple people. It gives you the opportunity to see if someone is equally as interested in you as you are in them. Perhaps you safeguard yourself by getting to know someone’s intentions, goals, and character with the hope of establishing something successful down the line. Only when you get to dating — and using that word — do you become exclusive and intentional with the time and effort you put into a relationship. And there has been a cultural shift in the language we use around the practice.
“It seems as though [Gen Z] wants to get away from the way previous generations thought,” says psychotherapist Janie Francis-Asante, Ph.D. Previous generations focused more on building a foundation through friendship and working toward making a commitment. They had a clear goal in mind, whereas with us, things are less intentional.
Kennesaw State University student Ryan Mouafong, says dating is somewhat of a lost art. “Dating [almost] doesn’t exist anymore. I don’t say I’m dating a girl unless we’re going out and it’s more serious,” he explains.
While calling something dating is equivalent to being in a relationship for Mouafong, Georgia State University student Dobbin Johnson sees things differently. “Talking is what it sounds like: just getting to know someone,” she says. “After the third date or when you start frequently seeing someone, at that point, you’re dating.” And while she believes talking is all good and well, she also has issues with its lack of accountability. In many cases, the talking stage doesn’t take into account the likeliness of catching feelings, a condition I’m intimately familiar with.
Gen Z-ers like options and in college, they’re endless. It’s no wonder that in a sea of what-ifs, we don’t want to give up on seeing who’s out there. There’s also the hesitation of telling someone how you really feel, only to find out they don’t feel the same way. We think we have to have our lives all figured out before we decide to build something with someone else, in no small part due to the picture-perfect social media portrayals of only the best parts of most relationships. What’s left out is how relationships look in their early stages, a time when things are often messy. We see what a good relationship looks like but not how to get to that point, or even when to walk away from a relationship that no longer serves its purpose.
All the talk about the grey area between hooking up and dating sensationalizes the reason we don’t want to be tied down. You can want someone’s company, enjoy their attention and occasional affection, but not want to give whatever you two having going on a title. By calling it “talking,” should things not work out, you have less to lose because you didn’t invest much — if anything — from the start.
You might say my generation has broken up with the traditional definition of dating. We want to have fun with no repercussions and without being told when and who we can have it with. Still, we are hanging out with new people and getting to know them in a romantic capacity. That may be “talking,” but let’s also call it what it often really is: dating.
*Name has been changed.