The other week, my cousin mentioned that she had a date later that night.
“How’d you two meet?” I asked. I couldn’t help it, but it also seems par for the course: When it comes to talking about romance, the question is as standard as “So, what do you do?”
“Well,” began my cousin, who works at an optometry office, “He was there for an appointment, and I was helping him check out and everything. When he left, my coworker was surprised that he didn’t ask me out, because we’d been flirting a little.”
My cousin’s coworker was right: An hour later, the guy was sitting in the waiting room so he could ask her out. They’re still dating a few months later, and I can only assume that he’s happy with his new glasses.
The meet-cute is a classic for a reason. Just like you can blame Disney for the timeless expectations of a fairy-tale romance and happily-ever-after, you can blame every rom-com ever (or, alternatively, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan) for the staying power of the meet-cute. “Meet-cutes are a still a staple in romantic comedies, like with Annie meeting Rhodes for the first time when he pulls her over for speeding in ‘Bridesmaids,’ or Audrey meeting her criminal boyfriend at a jukebox while he was on a ‘hit’ in ‘The Spy Who Dumped Me,’ says research scientist Amanda Gesselman, Ph.D., the head of research analytics and methodology core at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University.
But meet-cutes are becoming few and far between — and it’s not just because more and more people are meeting via apps and websites. (To whit: The Pew Research Center found that as of 2016, the number of young adults using dating apps jumped from 10 percent in 2013 to 27 percent.) Beyond dating apps offering new ways to find partners, our overarching internet culture and the consequent siren call of our smartphones also keep people from making eyes across the bar. “We’re decreasing the odds of that really happening because our heads are down all the time,” says Tara Fields, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and the author of “The Love Fix.” After all, when’s the last time you paused your podcast and talked to the dude who sometimes stands next to you on the subway?
But there’s obviously one major downside to meet-cutes: You can’t just make one happen. That’s like trying to game the lottery.
Though they’re becoming rare, there are still perks for the meet-cute beyond having a really cute story to share with your friends, or strangers, or both. A set-up by friends, for instance, can work in your favor in multiple ways. “One advantage to dating someone you’ve met through your social network — as opposed to a dating site — is that your shared friends are likely to already be supportive of your new relationships, and this support tends to predict good outcomes,” says Paul Eastwick, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at UC Davis who studies how people initiate romantic relationships. Another bonus: If your friend is down to share insight or details about her cute coworker you met at happy hour, you have yet another advantage. (The same goes for any warning signs, too.)
Meet-cutes also benefit from their instantaneous nature. “Meet-cutes typically happen in an exciting context where you get a great sense of whether you’re attracted to them, how they interact with other people, their body language toward you, and whether they have a banter or a vibe with you,” explains Gesselman. “All of this allows you to get a feel for their personality and their lives while you build chemistry.” By the time you’ve swapped numbers, you already know that you’ve felt a spark. When you meet someone on an app, the initial banter might be awesome, but whether that spark or chemistry exists is still TBD. That’s not to say it’s not there — the process of determining it just takes a little longer.
But there’s obviously one major downside to meet-cutes: You can’t just make one happen. That’s like trying to game the lottery. And dating apps do offer some of the same benefits as meeting IRL. In fact, some experts think that the difference between the meet-cute versus meeting on an app or online is overstated. “Couples who meet online or through Tinder have the possibility of learning some things about each other before they meet face‐to‐face,” explains Michael Rosenfeld, a professor of sociology at Stanford University who’s conducted research on how couples meet. “The dating game is in part an information gathering game, and meeting online has definite advantages in information gathering.”
Plus, developing mutual friends happens quickly if you’ve hit it off, no matter how you met. “When you meet someone online, one of the first things you often do is you start building relationships with friends of the new partner, so this is often not a major online versus offline difference for long,” says Eastwick.
And while hoping you accidentally bump into someone adorable in a bookstore and strike up a convo is probably a long shot, based on the number of times this has happened to anyone I know — “Oh, I love Jhumpa Lahiri, too!” — a dating app conversely increases the odds of meeting a potential partner just in terms of numbers. “It gives people a large array of partners to choose from, a set of partners they would not have met otherwise,” says Eastwick. Whether those potential partners pans out into an actual relationship is a different story, he says, adding: “But I can’t say whether it is more effective to, say, spend four hours browsing an online dating site or spend four hours at a party with a bunch of people you’ve never met before.”
Maybe that’s why the meet-cute seems to be a rarity these days. After all, think back to the last time you found yourself at a party — or any situation, really — with a bunch of people you’ve never met before. (For me, it was during college, a decade ago.) For those hoping to make more IRL connections, Fields suggests finding an activity that not only appeals to you personally, whether that’s volunteering at a CSA program or taking your dog to a new dog park, but incidentally introduces you to new people beyond your existing social circle. This way, “your heart’s not going to get crushed if you don’t meet someone, because you’re doing something you’re passionate about,” she explains. Plus, when you meet someone doing a shared activity, you already have something in common.
But it would be a mistake to discount dating apps, which can give you the biggest pool of potential partners —and therefore may increase the odds of a relationship just from a numbers perspective. Just know what to expect — and don’t linger on the messaging phase. “Online dating apps do typically involve quite a bit of talking before meeting up,” says Gesselman. “This can help build a good foundation for your attraction, but it does change the process.” At some point, you’ll have to meet face-to-face to determine whether or not there’s any emotional connection — and if you’re going for quantity, that’s a lot of face time.
However, that’s something that may change, especially as technology becomes slicker and more innovative. “We have found in some of our work that different forms of online communication do convey much of the realism of a face‐to‐face interaction, so I think technology can also bridge distances,” says Eastwick. “That being said, it’s surely still important for people to get out of their comfort zones and experience the world together.”
Maybe a combination of the two is the best of both worlds. And anyway, who says meeting via a dating app — and then taking it offline — isn’t cute as hell?