In the break room at work, my friend Wesley and I sit across from each other on our phones. I’m texting Max, a guy I met on Hinge (a dating app that directs you to “like” things on peoples’ profiles to show interest, rather than swiping right or left) and have been out on a few dates with. Wesley is texting Aubrey, someone he just matched with yesterday on Tinder. “How am I supposed to respond to this?” Wesley asks, handing me his phone. The last message received is just one word: “Absolutely.”
“You don’t,” I say, handing his phone back. “Everyone knows that sending a one-word response to a conversation is as good as killing it. If she wants to keep talking, she’ll follow up.” Wesley makes a face like I’d just suggested he drink pickle juice, then puts his phone back in his pocket. A classic serial texter, he’s not the type to leave someone on read.
Wesley and I have only known each other for a few months, but he has become one of my best friends. He risked his life to get me to the airport in the aftermath of a snowstorm and gave me homemade salsa for Christmas; I play wingwoman and offer my best advice and comfort as he navigates his romantic relationships. He is enthusiastic and outgoing, while I am reserved and practical; we balance each other out well.
Wesley and I actually met on Hinge before we started working together. We talked for a week (often about our shared experiences working for the same company, though in different locations), sent each other selfie-videos on Snapchat to prove we were real people, made plans to go out on a date to a local brewery for pizza. He was attentive, and messaged often – sometimes to see how my day was going, questions about myself, photos of plants and pets. This is an objectively good way to date someone online, but I didn’t respond well to it; I needed time to process all of the questions and attention and then translate it into something I could say back. He would respond within five minutes, and the cycle would begin anew. Processing and responding to the barrage of attention quickly became more exhausting than exhilarating, and at the last minute, I got cold feet and canceled everything, blaming my lack of feelings on being so busy with work (untrue) and still being in love with my ex (laughably untrue). Even in rejection, Wesley was still kind – he told me he understood and would be open to friendship instead, if I wanted. Despite this, I deleted my Snapchat app and tried to forget the whole thing ever happened – effectively ghosting him and ending the relationship we had built. It wasn’t my finest hour.
My relationship with Wesley wasn’t the first I’d started (and learned from) over a dating app. Over the course of my twenties so far, Hinge has introduced me to many different people and led to several connections, and even a few lasting relationships.
Another example: I met Richard when I was a senior in college, after we matched on Bumble. He had originally been outside of my filtered deal-breakers (he was nearly five years older than me, which at first seemed too weird), but after I swiped through everybody in our small hometown, Bumble suggested I adjust my expectations.
We hit it off right away. He had recently left his PhD program and returned home, and I was home on winter break. We discovered we had gone to rival high schools and had many similar hometown memories – and we both loved books, politics, traveling, and had similar aspirations of leaving our hometown for good and living a big, beautiful life somewhere else. We had our second date on New Year’s Eve, and by the end of it, I was certain that our relationship would be something special. Even though years have passed since then, I still look back on that night – the excitable crowd around the bar, the dimmed lights, the tiny plastic glasses of champagne, his arm around me– and reminisce about how good it felt to want a moment to last forever. Our relationship was a textbook example of how dating apps like Bumble or Hinge are supposed to work; you use them to meet people you feel attracted to and determine whether or not to pursue a relationship with them. Once you’ve made that decision, the dating app has fulfilled its purpose.
But that purpose is not the only mode of success. You can find solid, healthy, fulfilling love from meeting someone online – which is what ultimately keeps me from giving up on using them altogether. But I’ve learned that even if you don’t find love from a dating-app relationship, that doesn’t mean you can’t gain other beneficial things – friendship, knowledge, or even just experience in getting to know somebody and showcasing yourself. My experience with Wesley, for example, led me to an important realization about myself that I hadn’t made before: I don’t like a lot of attention when I’m just getting to know somebody, or in the early stages of a relationship. I need time and space to analyze my feelings before I dive in headfirst. Eventually, I would also learn that ghosting is often hurtful and unnecessary. These are only a few examples.
Being aware of the pitfalls of online dating is also important; unfortunately, dating apps usually tend to have more negative effects on their users’ emotional and mental health than positive ones. According to a study done by researchers at the University of North Texas, “Tinder users reported having lower levels of satisfaction with their faces and bodies and having lower levels of self-worth than the men and women who did not use Tinder” – which seems a natural response to the constant judgment and comparison that comes with using dating apps. These findings are only exacerbated by the disproportionate ways dating apps harm the mental and emotional wellbeing of users of color, particularly Black people – according to a study published in the Journal of Research in Personality, “when the [users] were Black, Asian, or Hispanic, they were less likely to be swiped right on. Among the largest effect sizes was a lower likelihood of swiping right if the [user] was Black.” People themselves aren’t even the only perpetrators when it comes to racist behavior on these apps – the apps themselves are also guilty of facilitating racism on their platforms through the way they’re set up. According to researchers at Cornell University, “Mobile dating apps that allow users to filter their searches by race – or rely on algorithms that pair up people of the same race – reinforce racial divisions and biases.” The researchers state further that “Letting users search, sort and filter potential partners by race not only allows people to easily act on discriminatory preferences, it stops them from connecting with partners they may not have realized they’d like.” As a result, it’s much harder for people of color to preserve their self-esteem and feelings of self-worth while using dating apps than it is for White people.
I have Mexican and Indigenous ancestry, and often pass for Latina when people glance at my face or my photos. I’ve read countless comments (usually from White men) on how “exotic” my skin looks, or even invasive ones like “Why do you have a White girl’s name if you’re Mexican?” and “So where do you come from, Amiga?” Not to mention the hidden racists who glance at the color of my skin and instantly make a judgment about the type of person I am before rejecting my profile altogether. Combined with the universal feelings of failure that arise when presented with zero matches at the end of the day, I know how easy it is to let the dating app experience wear you down into someone who hates everything about themselves and loses sight of what they’re hoping to get from the experience.
When I first hopped on the dating app scene seven years ago, I was eighteen – a freshman in college. I had just broken up with my high school boyfriend and wanted to know what else was out there in the world for me, if anything. I was insecure about my appearance, unsure of what I wanted, and deeply hurt by the way my past relationship had eroded my self-confidence, my ability to stand up for myself and what I wanted, and my ability to communicate with others. A reset on my love life was deeply needed. So, I downloaded Tinder. My best friend and I took photos of ourselves for my profile all over town – studying at Starbucks, posing in front of trees on campus, candid selfies with wide grins. Seeing myself in a profile and choosing what I got to show helped me feel more in control of myself.
At first, I really wanted to just jump into another relationship – casual dating felt too impersonal. Why would I want to get to know someone if we were only going to go on one date? But the more people I talked to and the more dates I went on, I realized that not every connection I make with a person is going to result in a long-term relationship – and that I didn’t even want it to. I learned to let go of my own expectations of what I always thought I wanted and start to consider other paths in my dating life. Sometimes online dating as a whole became too frustrating – too many men commenting on my appearance, too many men just wanting sex and not wanting to get to know me, too many men who wouldn’t leave me alone – so there have been at least a dozen times where I’ve just deleted the app and walked away for a bit. I’ve noticed that that helps protect my mental and emotional health, too.
It took a few years to actually notice a difference in the way that I carried myself and the things I shared with my dates. Before, I would let people walk all over me, afraid that they would give up on me the moment I pushed back. But one date I went on during my junior year, there was a boy who was a little too handsy. I pushed him away and canceled the rest of the date. He apologized, but the damage had been done, and I didn’t reach out to him again. And I got to walk away knowing that I could protect myself from people who didn’t care about hurting me. Seven years and countless matches, conversations, relationships, fights, and breakups later, I am a lot more comfortable with myself now than I was before. I’m not afraid to put myself out there anymore.
These days, I’ve developed my Hinge profile to the level of being a (self-proclaimed) masterpiece; it is a carefully curated mixture of self-portraits, group shots, and pertinent information about the type of person I am. I use photos that show me at my happiest from angles that make me feel beautiful – instead of focusing on what other people might want to see, I focus on what I want to show. I also use the provided prompts to make it clear that I’m not looking to date people who hate cats, or anyone who voted for Donald Trump – clear boundaries that help prevent me from meeting the wrong people for me. These purposeful acts of self-reflection have helped me preserve my own self-esteem and feel more in control of my dating-app journey.
This is a journey that has been going on-and-off for a while. I don’t feel a sense of urgency around using dating apps, and I don’t consider myself a failure for being halfway through my twenties and not finding “the one” yet – I just keep coming back to my profile and it just keeps working for me. Not working as in finding the love of my life, but in getting me to talk to people, to go on dates, to make connections with people, to learn from this seemingly unending hunt for true love. It is a redefined type of success, but success, nonetheless. And that’s probably the most valuable thing I’ve gotten from my dating app experience so far.
Well, the second most valuable thing.
Two or so months after I left Wesley on read, I found myself being transferred to another work center within my company – coincidentally, the one he happened to work at. On my first day, I was eating lunch in the break room when Wesley walked in. I knew he worked there, and he had seen my name on the schedule, so it wasn’t a surprise to either of us. We exchanged pleasantries, and I apologized for the way things had ended between us. He graciously accepted my apology and went on his way; I kept eating my lunch. Later, he passed by my desk and said, “This isn’t going to be weird, right?”
“No,” I said. “We’re going to be friends.”
Photo by //www.pexels.com/@flora-westbrook?utm_content=attributionCopyText&utm_medium=referral&;utm_source=pexels">Flora Westbrook from Pexels
Kerry-Anne holds a BA in English from Saint Mary's College of California and an MFA in Creative Writing: Nonfiction from Eastern Washington University. She lives in Spokane, Washington with her cat, Charlie. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @kaloughman.