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In the 2019 dating world, nobody meets in person anymore

“Ten years ago, it was that random encounter. Now, people don’t want to do the traditional thing. They just want to swipe.”

Jess DeStefano, 28, of South Philly, looks at her phone on South Broad Street last week. Fewer people are meeting potential partners in person, using dating apps instead.
Jess DeStefano, 28, of South Philly, looks at her phone on South Broad Street last week. Fewer people are meeting potential partners in person, using dating apps instead.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Maurice Smith was wandering through the aisles at a Whole Foods last summer when he noticed a guy swiping on his phone. The two locked eyes before the mystery man looked down again.

The guy followed him down a few aisles, swiping, staring at Smith, swiping.

Finally, he spoke: “You’re not on Grindr, are you?”

Apparently, when the man realized Smith couldn’t be found on the location-based dating app, he scoffed and walked away — even though the real deal was standing right in front of him.

This is dating in 2019, when young people have never courted in a world without Tinder, and bars are often dotted with dolled-up singles staring at their phones. Technology has changed how people are introduced, and fewer people meet in public places that were once playgrounds for singles. At the same time, awareness of what is and isn’t sexual harassment has left people cautious about come-ons that were once seen as cute and are now called out as creepy.

“Ten years ago, it was that random encounter,” said Smith, a 37-year-old consultant who lives in Fairmount. “Now, people don’t want to do the traditional thing. They just want to swipe.”

The effect is simple: The meet-cute is dying.

Smith, a podcast host who often talks about dating as a black gay professional on his show, “Category Is…,” is now in a two-year relationship with a man he met on Grindr. He’s had only one real relationship with someone he met in person: Justin Bettis, his podcast cohost. They broke up in 2011.

It’s not that people don’t want to strike up conversations with strangers and fall in rom-com-style love. Bettis, a 31-year-old lawyer who lives in Francisville, said he wants to feel the “magic-making” of a serendipitous meeting. It just hasn’t worked for him yet.

“It’s a lot easier to make a move in a way that society says is acceptable now, which is a message,” said Philadelphia-based matchmaker Erika Kaplan, “rather than making a move by approaching someone in a bar to say hello. It’s just not as common anymore.”

In 2017, more singles met their most recent first date on the internet — 40 percent — than “through a friend” or “at a bar” combined, according to results from the Singles in America survey, a survey of 5,000 people nationwide.

Suzann Pileggi Pawelski, who along with her husband coauthored the book Happy Together, said opportunities for random encounters are fewer today, when groceries can be delivered, you can exercise with an app, and you can telecommute from home. That means less practice in striking up conversations.

Jess DeStefano, a 28-year-old theater production manager who lives in Passyunk Square, uses apps like Tinder and Bumble (its female-centric counterpart) to find most of her dates. The upside is the clarity, she said. No guessing if someone is interested — by matching with you, they indicate they are.

“On Tinder, there’s at least a baseline,” she said. “You know what they’re there for.”

For young people who have spent most of their dating lives courting strangers online, swiping feels easier than approaching the local hottie at the bookstore. Thomas Edwards, a dating coach known as the “Professional Wingman,” said that when singles don’t practice this, they “develop a lack of skill set and more fear of rejection,” he said. “And, honestly, we become lazy.”

Will, a 26-year-old CPA who lives in Fishtown and asked to use only his first name so he could speak freely about his dating experiences, said about 80 percent of the first dates he’s been on since college were with women he met on dating apps. He said it’s not rejection that stops him — it’s about avoiding making the other person uncomfortable in denying him.

And it’s not just digitally native twentysomethings. A single male lawyer in his 50s who asked for anonymity to discuss his dating life said he’s met women both online and in-person. If he’s in a public place, he’ll approach a woman only “if it seems like I’m not invading somebody’s personal space or privacy."

Edwards said the men he coaches are more confused than ever about talking to women. And since the #MeToo movement has empowered women to speak about their experiences with sexual harassment, it’s forced men to reckon with how they talk to women.

“They don’t know where the line is,” said Edwards, who added that he doesn’t want to excuse unacceptable behavior, but said the difference between flirting and harassment can be different for different women. “Is harassment talking to someone in the elevator? It could be for someone.”

Kaplan, vice president of client experience for the matchmaking service Three-Day Rule, said men are "afraid to approach women for fear of being too aggressive or forward.” In turn, women “have been conditioned to be surprised and almost confused or put off when a guy makes a move to say hello at a bar.”

One woman, a community organizer from West Philly who’s in her early 30s and frequently goes out with people she meets on dating apps, said she likes to bring up #MeToo early in conversations with men as a litmus test of respect. She said since the movement took off in 2017, “it’s not like men are any better or different, it’s just they’ve learned more what they are and aren’t supposed to say.”

The woman, who asked to speak anonymously to talk about her exes, said sometimes she “screens” potential dates with a call. She’s tried this a few times, and once averted a date with a guy who was clever on Tinder but “aggressive” on the phone.“I’m really glad I didn’t waste an evening and makeup to talk to him in real life,” she said.

Kaplan said clients in their 40s and older feel comfortable with a call before the first date. Those in their 30s and younger are “totally spooked” by it.

A 69-year-old retired headhunter from Bryn Mawr, who asked for anonymity, says she treats men she meets on Match like she’s meeting them in person. If someone messages her, she always responds (even if she’s not interested) by thanking them for reaching out, commenting something positive, and wishing them luck. She said treating online dating “transactionally” is “commoditizing the people with whom you’re interacting."

“I found a lot of people don’t employ social graces on the internet,” she said.

Social graces can be smoother on apps that allow for more up-front explanation. Amber Auslander, a 20-year-old University of Pennsylvania student who identifies as queer and prefers polyamory (being in multiple relationships with the consent of everyone involved), said OKCupid’s interface has more space to explain preferences than other apps. “Tinder is more like, ‘4/20-friendly, I’m a Pisces,’” she said.

She said dating online takes the guesswork out. Her profile says she prefers polyamory, so someone who matches with her is fine with it. In person, “there’s this disclosure” than can be uncomfortable.

Auslander’s never seriously dated someone she met in person. Ditto for her friend Thyo Pierre-Louis, also a 20-year-old Penn student, who identifies as bigender and uses masculine pronouns. Pierre-Louis said he’s never approached someone for a date in person. “There’s this innate defensiveness,” he said, that can feel like, “Don’t talk to me, stranger.”

On the internet, that doesn’t exist. “It’s a completely different standard of privacy,” he said.

Edwards, the “Professional Wingman,” said easy access to information about potential mates gives people the ability to create the ideal person in a way they can’t at a bar or at Whole Foods — to swipe, Google, and message until they find the perfect match.

“But through the paradox of choice,” he said, “that person doesn’t exist.”