Should First Dates Go Virtual…Permanently?

Pandemic-style Zoom dates might have reason to stick around for a while

In terms of nerve-wracking life events, first dates are right up there with job interviews. The pressure of what to wear, what to talk about and how to present yourself as a person who’s just casually pursuing something (whether that’s a romantic relationship or a career) when you’re actually a person who is really f#%ing pursuing something is…intense. Mercifully, the virtual preliminary job interview has been a thing for years now, allowing candidates to secretly sweat it out in the comfort of their own homes. But the idea of the virtual first date has lagged behind, probably because in the pre-lockdown era it was seen as impersonal. How do you gauge chemistry through a screen?

But with our window to the outside world now reduced to the size of our laptops, virtual chats with friends, colleagues and family have kept us from feeling completely disconnected. And for singles stuck inside and not willing to put their dating lives completely on hold, Zoom, FaceTime and the like sit atop a very short list of options. Surprisingly perhaps, this brave new world of virtual dating seems to be functioning fairly well. So well, in fact, that it might be something we should consider continuing well after self-isolation ends.

Ashley, a thirty-something retail associate who’s been locked down at home with her ex while trying to negotiate the dating world and the COVID-19 crisis, says that her virtual dates are something she’d definitely do again even after we’re all released from this coronavirus cage. “There’s no commute, you can have a more relaxed approach to your makeup/outfit/grooming, you’re more likely to be comfortable in your own personal space, and if you hit it off well enough you can plan an IRL second date. Otherwise, if you’re not feeling it, you can escape or find an excuse to end the date much more easily.”

In the very least, a first date done virtually lowers the stakes in terms of the investment in time and emotion, but the biggest benefit, especially for women, is the element of safety—particularly at a time when we’re using semi-anonymous apps (hey, Tinder) to introduce us to potential dates and/or hookups. “I’ve met so many people online (whether it was for dating or not) throughout my life and I’ve been fortunate to have never felt unsafe,” says Ashley. “But I’m thinking more cautiously lately. The one date I went on before lockdown, I made sure to text a friend before and after, and stuck to a neighbourhood bar.”

A first date done through Zoom can change the dynamic in a positive way, says Claire AH, the Hamilton-based owner of the matchmaking and relationship coaching service Friend of a Friend. AH has been recommending virtual dating to her clients throughout lockdown and says she’ll continue to do so even after social restrictions are relaxed, because it ups both the safety and the accessibility factor of a date. “The feeling of like, ‘OK, I am in my space, if I really feel uncomfortable, I can end the chat’ is empowering,” she says. “It’s also cheaper and more accessible. So for people who have a chronic illness or disability, you don’t need to figure out transportation. You don’t need to figure out a place that’s going to be accessible for you. You don’t need to worry about how comfortable you’ll be sitting or walking around for however long.”

And while on-screen dates may not always be the ideal, they definitely have more than one or two things going for them: “I think obviously there are drawbacks to not being in the same space with somebody,” says AH. “You miss a certain type of chemistry. You’re not 100% getting the full sense of someone’s body or someone’s body language. But being in your own space, it makes people feel a little more comfortable…they’re a little more at ease to divulge a little more, which leads to conversations where people get to know each other better.”

Not every COVID-era dater is willing to sacrifice the all-important test to see if sparks fly in real life. “I like to test physical chemistry within the first few dates so that’s why I’m not into meeting new people right now,” says Whitney, a university librarian in her thirties. “Especially if I weren’t immediately visually attracted to them but I liked their personality, it’d be a risk to either give up on them without having the chemistry test, or to keep talking to them for months and then it’s not great when you finally meet in person.” Which is the major issue with dating during a lockdown that has no definitive end date. When will we get to meet up face to face (and body to body)? And what about sex? (Remember sex?)

But people are finding ways to make it work in the meantime—and, again, there are some benefits to trying things out virtually first. “The video sex has been so hot that I think I might have missed my calling as a camgirl,” says Ashley. “It’s felt empowering investing in new sex toys and lingerie and to feel desired and to tell one another what we’d do if we were in the same room. We’ve had a chance to be really open about our likes and dislikes, turn-ons and turn-offs.” Talking about sex can often be difficult for couples, especially new couples, so moving things online, at least to start, can help to break down that barrier and lead to more open conversations about preferences, safety and more.

There is, of course, a different security concern here: “There are a lot of things about online privacy and security that people need to be aware of,” advises AH, so those are definitely things to consider before embarking on  a video sex adventure.

Setting up one or two brief and casual chats is a good way to at least test the virtual dating waters. If that’s where you’re at, AH offers some tips: “The number-one piece of advice is that it’s not that different from an in-person date. A lot of instincts are still valid. It’s a little bit of an adjustment, but it’s not as daunting as people think. Be intentional, show up looking good. One thing people say is, ‘Oh, you don’t have to wear pants.’ Well, we’ve all seen that one news correspondent in a suit jacket and underwear.”

Beyond the potential embarrassment factor, getting ready like you would for an IRL date will help set the mood and make you feel confident. “Just because someone can’t smell your breath doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to not brush your teeth,” says AH. “A lot of these things signify to us, even on a subconscious level, ‘I’m showing up, I’m prepared, I’m feeling my best.’”

To the same end, it’s important to treat virtual dates as more than just a chat. “I would encourage people, especially in this COVID time right now,” AH suggests, “to be a little creative with dates because there is that concern that it will default to being like an interview. Find the ways you can do that over video: Do a cooking demo together. Do a Netflix party. Check out a virtual gallery. Find things that are enjoyable to you and also enjoyable for your date doesn’t have to feel gimmicky. A date can be something that isn’t just a conversation.”