Maybe it was because they had met on OkCupid. But when the dark-eyed musician with artfully disheveled hair asked Shani Silver, a social media and blog manager in Philadelphia, out on a "date" one Friday night, she was expecting at least a drink, one on one.
"At 10 p.m., I hadn’t heard from him," said Silver, 30, who wore her favorite skinny black jeans. Finally, at 10:30, he sent a text message. "Hey, I’m at Pub & Kitchen, want to meet up for a drink or whatever?" he wrote, before adding, "I’m here with a bunch of friends from college."
Turned off, she fired back a text message, politely declining. But in retrospect, she might have adjusted her expectations.
"The word ‘date’ should almost be stricken from the dictionary," Silver said. "Dating culture has evolved to a cycle of text messages, each one requiring the code-breaking skills of a Cold War spy to interpret."
"It’s one step below a date, and one step above a high-five," she added.
Dinner at a romantic new bistro? Forget it. Women in their 20s these days are lucky to get a last-minute text to tag along. Raised in the age of "hookup culture," millennials — who are reaching an age where they are starting to think about settling down — are subverting the rules of courtship.
Instead of dinner-and-a-movie, which seems as obsolete as a rotary phone, they rendezvous over phone texts, Facebook posts, instant messages and other "nondates" that are leaving a generation confused about how to land a boyfriend or girlfriend.
"The new date is ‘hanging out,’" said Denise Hewett, 24, an associate television producer in Manhattan, who is developing a show about this frustrating new romantic landscape. As one male friend recently told her: "I don’t like to take girls out. I like to have them join in on what I’m doing — going to an event, a concert."
Blame the much-documented rise of the hookup culture among young people characterized by spontaneous, commitment-free (and often, alcohol-fueled) romantic flings. Many students today have never been on a traditional date, said Donna Freitas, who has taught religion and gender studies at Boston University and Hofstra and is the author of the forthcoming book, "The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy."
Hookups may be fine for college students, but what about after, when they start to build an adult life?
The problem is that "young people today don’t know how to get out of hookup culture," Freitas said. In interviews with students, many graduating seniors did not know the first thing about the basic mechanics of a traditional date. "They’re wondering, ‘If you like someone, how would you walk up to them? What would you say? What words would you use?’" Freitas said.
RELATIONSHIP EXPERTS point to technology as another factor in the upending of dating culture.
Traditional courtship — picking up the telephone and asking someone on a date — required courage, strategic planning and a considerable investment of ego (by telephone, rejection stings). Not so with texting, email, Twitter or other forms of "asynchronous communication," as techies call it. In the context of dating, it removes much of the need for charm; it’s more like dropping a line in the water and hoping for a nibble.
"What does he think I’m doing?" she said. "I’m going to my friend’s house to drink cheap white wine and watch episodes of ‘Dance Moms’ on demand."
Online dating services, which have gained mainstream acceptance, reinforce the hypercasual approach by greatly expanding the number of potential dates. Faced with a never-ending stream of singles to choose from, many feel a sense of "FOMO" (fear of missing out), so they opt for a speed-dating approach — cycle through lots of suitors quickly.
That also means that suitors need to keep dates cheap and casual. A fancy dinner? You’re lucky to get a drink.
"It’s like online job applications, you can target many people simultaneously — it’s like darts on a dart board, eventually one will stick," said Joshua Sky, 26, a branding coordinator in Manhattan, describing the attitudes of many singles in their 20s.
The mass-mailer approach necessitates "cost-cutting, going to bars, meeting for coffee the first time," he added, "because you only want to invest in a mate you’re going to get more out of."
If online dating sites have accelerated that trend, they are also taking advantage of it. New services like Grouper aren’t so much about matchmaking as they are about group dates, bringing together two sets of friends for informal drinks.
THERE’S ANOTHER reason Web-enabled singles are rendering traditional dates obsolete. If the purpose of the first date was to learn about someone’s background, education, politics and cultural tastes, Google and Facebook have taken care of that.
"We’re all Ph.D.s in Internet stalking these days," said Andrea Lavinthal, an author of the 2005 book "The Hookup Handbook." "Online research makes the first date feel unnecessary, because it creates a false sense of intimacy. You think you know all the important stuff, when in reality, all you know is that they watch ‘Homeland.’"
Dodgy economic prospects facing millennials also help torpedo the old, formal dating rituals. Faced with a lingering recession, a stagnant job market and mountains of student debt, many young people — particularly victims of the "mancession" — simply cannot afford to invest in a fancy dinner or show in someone they may or may not click with.Further complicating matters is the changing economic power dynamic between the genders, as reflected by a number of studies in recent years, said Hanna Rosin, author of the recent book "The End of Men."
A much-publicized study by Reach Advisors, a Boston-based market research group, found that the median income for young, single, childless women is higher than it is for men in many of the country’s biggest cities (though men still dominate the highest-income jobs, according to James Chung, the company’s president). Income equality, or superiority, for women muddles the old, male-dominated dating structure.
In a tight economy, where everyone is grinding away to build a career, most men cannot fathom supporting a family until at least 30 or 35, said Lex Edness, 27, a television writer in Los Angeles.
"So it’s a lot easier to meet people on an even playing field, in casual dating," he said. "The stakes are lower."