I can hear it in my mom’s voice when she tells people how I met my boyfriend. She uses what linguists call “upspeak,” a voice pattern often associated with inferiority. Essentially, she feels ashamed to tell people that I met Luke* “on an app.” She tries so hard to make it sound normal to her and her social circle. But to some people, dating apps are not normal, not fine, and plain old embarrassing.
It’s no surprise that baby boomers like my mom see a stigma when it comes to dating apps. But it’s also the case with with a decent number of Gen Z-ers and millennials, even though we’re the ones using them the most. According to the Pew Research Center, 18-to 24-year-olds have have tripled their dating app usage since 2013 (and that’s likely increased since this data is from 2016, the latest for which it’s available). So why are some of us still ashamed to share our stories?
Big Little Lies
Leah LeFebvre, Ph.D., an assistant professor of communication at the University of Alabama who studies the intersection between interpersonal communication and technology, has seen couples (including happy ones) lie about how they met in the studies she conducts.
Take Gina* and Justin*, a married couple in their early 30s who live in San Francisco and connected on an app four years ago. “The first night we decided we weren’t going to tell people how we met,” Gina says. “Somehow it came up and I said, ‘I can never tell my friends’ and he said, ‘Oh, I’m telling people we met at the gym,’ and we agreed to tell people that we met through friends.”
Over time, the lie eroded and some people found out. Justin says he still lies about it, while Gina is more inclined to tell the truth if asked directly. Still, Justin fears others won’t take his relationship seriously, despite the fact that he’s married.
And he’s not alone in that thinking. Research shows that people — at least people who haven’t used apps to date — don’t think relationships that start on apps will last. Almost half of them think these relationships are less successful, according to a recent poll.
Stephanie T. Tong, Ph.D., associate professor of communication at Wayne State University who researches the intersection of interpersonal communication and new media, says a lot of the stigma corresponds with users’ motivations for online dating. Those seeking to meet new people or looking for a long-term relationship are more likely to be met with social approval than those simply looking for validation. “Short of asking people to disclose why they use Tinder, it’s unlikely that there are any recognizable ways to detect people’s goals,” Tong says. And for the uninitiated, a blanket assumption that everyone is online dating for the so-called wrong reasons can negatively affect their image of the practice.
Game, Set, Match
The well-informed have a different perspective. Sixty-two percent of those who have online dated say relationships that begin online are just as likely to unfold well as those that don’t. Kayla*, a 23-year-old New Yorker and recent college graduate, is among them.
“When my boyfriend and I made it official, I didn’t know what to tell my parents or not-as-close friends about how we’d met. I had a weird sense of shame that people would think I couldn’t meet someone IRL,” she says. “That idea of putting effort into something that’s ‘supposed’ to happen organically, according to movies and social media, can make it feel like you are ‘less than’ if you use the internet to find a connection.” This is the rom-com effect — the stereotypical and unrealistic idea of how things should unfold — in full force. Worst of all, romantic comedies have trained us to view romance and relationships as not requiring effort. Clearly that’s just not true, as anyone who’s been in any kind of relationship, romantic or otherwise, can tell you.
“I’ve realized that this is the way we do things now, and ‘trying’ isn’t something to be ashamed of at all. I honestly think it’s just as, if not more, romantic because both people put in the effort to want to meet someone,” Kayla says. After months of telling people how he and her partner met, “on an app” became just as normal as “at a bar” or “through friends.”
The New Normal
Online dating is certainly permeating popular culture. Shows like “Insecure” and “Master of None” feature episodes that heavily focus on the tropes of dating apps. Heartthrob Noah Centineo starred in the Netflix’s “The Perfect Date” in which the main character creates his own dating app.
Things aren’t just changing on TV. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 41% of American adults know someone who online dates and 46% know someone who’s entered into a long-term partnership or marriage from online dating. Plus, 80% of those polled who’ve used online dating say it’s a good way to meet people.
It’s a step — and one that Lexi*, a 22-year-old Floridian who just graduated college, hopes accelerates sooner rather than later.
Overall the shift, though subtle, seems to be happening. LeFebvre’s soon-to-be published work found that only 7.2% of 500 people ages 18 to 62 surveyed wanted to keep their dating app usage a secret and a mere 6% associated it with a “hookup culture” stigma. Meanwhile, more than a third had a positive association with dating app use and found it normal.
“It’s almost funny that dating apps get this perception of being stigmatized,” says LeFebvre. “It’s like people who are unfamiliar with the apps make fun of it because they don’t know how they work or that they will work.”
It’s like when a sports team is popular and everyone wants to hate on them. People only hate on them because they’re good. But in the end, they always end up winning.
*Names have been changed to protect innocent daters everywhere.