The Anthropology Of Love
March 25, 2011 9:21 AM   Subscribe

Dating around the world. How does it work?

Apropos of some of the answers to this question, this article from the Guardian, my anthro major past, and the new Israeli in my life, I'm curious about how people outside the USA do the early phases of relationships.

Obviously I'm talking about places where people do this sort of thing. For instance I know that dating is marginal if not taboo in a lot of South Asia. I'd be interested to know about what people in Sub-Saharan Africa, rural Southeast Asia, Polynesia, etc. are into, but honestly I'm mainly talking about urban/affluent industrialized parts of the world. The sorts of people your average American young single person is vaguely likely to run into.

So, guys, how do y'all do it? And what do you think "it" even is? Do you go on dates, per se? How long do you go out before you have sex? Before you'd use the term boyfriend/girlfriend? Do you have some other term for this that is common in your culture?

I don't want this to be too chatfiltery, but personal anecdotes are totally up my alley.
posted by Sara C. to Human Relations (10 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Reminds me of this post by an American ex-pat living in Paris, upon discovering the difference between American and Parisian dating standards. To sum it up:

When I told a group of my French friends here that I went on a first date, one of them immediately asked, “Where is he? Are you in love with him now?” I couldn’t hide the surprise I felt by this question. Was I in love with him? It was one date! How do I know? And, upon answering the question with, “I don’t know” I could tell they all knew it was never going to be. The French, with their quiet confidence and tempestuous and passionate love affairs. Apparently, if it is not love right away, it is not worth anything.
posted by litnerd at 9:52 AM on March 25, 2011 [12 favorites]

Well, here's how I do it:

Meet someone in a social situation.
Hang out more, get to know them better. This is classified as "being friends", not as dating. A lot of internet chatting is probably involved, as well as other arbitrary activities such as gardening or shopping or sports or dog walking.
Mutual flirting occurs.
Mutual flirting escalates until there are sparks flying and the location is convenient for wild sex.
At this point if either party is not looking for monogamy, or has an STD or a spouse they ideally mention this fact.
Subject to satisfactory resolution of above discussions: Wild sex occurs
At this point monogamy and some level of "girlfriend/boyfriend" status is assumed unless otherwise arranged.
After this point the parties in question consider going on date-like activities such as dinner, although they don't refer to the relationship as "dating". It can, however, be called "seeing one another" or "going out with one another".
posted by emilyw at 9:56 AM on March 25, 2011 [5 favorites]

This old thread had lots of discussion of British/European dating customs and how they differ from the US.
posted by John Cohen at 9:57 AM on March 25, 2011

... and the whole process can be headed off by either party at any time, by

- declining invitations to friendly activities
- not participating in flirtation
- carefully avoiding locations where wild sex would be appropriate

The other party is expected to take the hint.
posted by emilyw at 10:01 AM on March 25, 2011

I spent a few months working in the congested armpit that is Jakarta, Indonesia, where I quickly developed a crush on a slightly older coworker, who happened to be a Betawi Muslim. You could have put her picture in the dictionary next to the word "statuesque." Even at my most confident I wouldn't have known where to begin asking her out on a date, or whether the concept of a "date" even made sense in this context -- I was barely capable of talking to American women at this point, much less an extremely attractive one with a completely different language (though she spoke fair English), culture and religion. So it was just my luck that one day, walking through the omnipresent 90 degree heat on our way to lunch, she asked, "Do you think I am cute?"

I suddenly noticed that there was an enormous sponge in my throat. "Y-yes, you're very pretty," I managed.

"Wow! I think you are cute," she said with a grin. And like that, we were dating. "Dating" in this context meant that we spent our time at work flirting hard and our weekends exploring the filthy wonderland that is Jakarta. The evenings we spent together were mostly at her family's tiny house in an urban kampung, under the watchful eye of her father (who was never without an enormous Quran in his lap) and fed by the endless snack parade that was her mother. They were both extremely polite, spoke no English, and since I was naturally terrified of offending someone, I spent those nights smiling at translated questions and stuffing myself with delicious mysteries, then taking a taxi home.

PDA of any kind was Not okay, except in movie theaters. (We saw a lot of movies.) Our other "date"-y activities included wandering around the dozens of enormous, peculiarly uncrowded, and mind-bendingly hideous malls that dotted the city, karaoke, and jumping from moving buses. When we were apart (which was most evenings and all nights) we did a lot of texting. It felt quite a lot like high school.

The words "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" were used from the start, although I'm not sure if that was normal or due to the fact that English didn't have the right word for what we were. A language barrier takes a lot of the subtlety out of flirting -- there's a lot more "your nose is cute, I like your nose" than you would expect from an American relationship, for example.

She was quite adamant on the rule of no sex before marriage, but she was perfectly willing for everything-but, on the few nights that we found ourselves alone. By the time we were at that point, though, I was due to fly back across the Pacific. We said goodbye, knowing that we would never see each other again. A month later she untagged herself from all our pictures on Facebook.
posted by theodolite at 10:51 AM on March 25, 2011 [21 favorites]

(Also: there's a book about the etiquette of adultery around the world, called Lust in Translation, that you might be interested in. I haven't read it.)
posted by theodolite at 10:53 AM on March 25, 2011

The French, with their quiet confidence and tempestuous and passionate love affairs. Apparently, if it is not love right away, it is not worth anything.

Oh look, yet another blog by an expat in Paris with "the French passionate this, the French tempestuous that." Recipe for success as an expat blogger in France: interpret everything according to preconceived stereotypes. Especially the salacious ones. PG-rated romance novels blogs.

/end rant

I've lived in Europe for 14 years now, France for 12 all told. It's only recently that the French started "dating" as we Americans would understand it, i.e. with people they don't already know. And it is still viewed as rather odd to just go out and do something as a couple with someone you've never met before. The vast majority of couples I know here first met at school, at the office, or via a network of friends. So, yes, you do get "are you in love with them?" after a first date because it's more or less assumed that people go on dates with people they already know, are already interested in, have already flirted with on a certain level.

They also tend to take relationships more seriously. Yes, I just said that about France. This is why I've never gotten a book proposal or more than 10 comments on a blog post. Flirting is more where the action happens; I think outside observers tend to see this surface flirtation and assume that the sex behind it must be just as abundant. It's not; flirting publicly is how people suss out possible relationship prospects. Where Americans will go on loads of dates, the French will, well, flirt. People don't "date around"; as mentioned previously, they'll size up someone in their network before going out as a couple. I keep using the wording "as a couple" on purpose, to emphasize how it's viewed. Going out with someone is, in itself, viewed as a preliminary statement of monogamy. There's never any discussion of "are we exclusive"; it's pretty much assumed once you've gone out with someone. The exception is with online dating: people will meet with a group of friends, or if they're older, over coffee. That's not exclusivity, it's just meeting someone. If you go on a "date", though, as in doing an activity together, or having a long meal (dinners in France are minimum an hour), that's the preliminary exclusivity understood by most.

I say "most", because as in any country, there are players. And as in any country, they're usually pretty easy to recognize. Unfortunately, the Breathless American Expat in PAREE!! is so focused on Romance! In!! Paris!!! that they are blinded to the fact that guys who wanna get into your pants are guys who wanna get into your pants, whether they have a hawt French accent or not. So the expat assumes that they're representative of all French men. Nope, the naïveté just makes this sort of romance-tourist-expat the perfectly vulnerable target for them. If you think I'm exaggerating, well, American women have the reputation in France for being incredibly easy lays. I've had to disappoint a few players who later sighed, "and I heard that all I had to do was speak English with an accent!" I was like, "seriously?" They all said they'd heard American women melted under a thick French accent like butter on a hot stove. So, I also kind of feel badly for that blogger mentioned up top, because methinks (and me is pretty sure) that her French friends are not being entirely kind to her...
posted by fraula at 12:50 PM on March 25, 2011 [21 favorites]

Imo there's no widespread "dating culture" in East Asia (I speak mostly for the Chinese areas), at least not to the same extent as N. America. There are no commonly known/accepted rules that I know of, e.g. ">3 dates = exclusive", "dating can be non-monogamous to start with", all concepts I have learnt through Metafilter, having never lived in the US.

Most people tend to start relationships with people in their wider social circle, like friend of friends, colleagues, classmates etc. - usually a mutual attraction should be fairly evident beforehand, and ascertained via flirting, gossip, or friends (Asian guys are VERY scared of rejection!). Then the guy might confess and ask the girl out for a date, and if nothing goes horrendously wrong they will very quickly progress to a monogamous, LTM, bf/gf kind of mode (even if the relationship doesn't last for long). A lot of people end up having only one or two static LTMs and marrying the guy they went out with in uni or something. (Not that they seem to mind or see a big problem with it - "passion"/sexual compatibility is not as prioritised as in the West.) There's just not the "casual dating", "seeing if we like each other/are there sparks" kind of phase that seems to exist in the US. And dating multiple people at the same time would be a big no-no, as it's considered cheating.

In general people are a bit apathetic about dating or even meeting people of the opposite sex - I've known many who simply languish for years in one-sided crushes or are locked into a narrow work->home->work spiral of loneliness, but most don't do anything about it. They merely hope they will serendipitously run into their future husband/wife somehow - assertively pursuing prospects of romance (especially if you're a girl) is looked down on even more than being unwillingly single. So it's a double bind situation really. A lot of women get desperate around 30+ (due to social pressure to marry and procreate) and try speed dating but I think it's still a fringe phenomenon.

It's not that casual sex/relationships don't happen at all - what I've described is maybe the modus operandi of 60-70% of the population, i.e. those who don't frequent bars/nightlife.
posted by monocot at 4:48 PM on March 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Dating and courtships can be radically different even within the USA. I've lived in areas where it was very traditional, getting to know someone before dating, it was unspoken but understood that from the first date it was exclusive, etc.

And I've lived in places where the word dating is almost unused and never means exclusive unless you've overtly defined it that way, and moving in with the SO doesn't mean that you're even dating. You could just be really dedicated friends with benefits.

(In my experience the difference between these two seems to relate directly to population density).

And I could tell sob stories about dating in Japan, but I didn't know what the hell was going on. All I know is that somehow I was dating a woman with whom I had never even held hands with.
posted by Ookseer at 11:47 PM on March 25, 2011

I've lived in sub-Saharan Africa for almost 4 years now. Generally speaking:

1) Dating seems to be a luxury that hasn't made its way into most of poorer Africa. You might occasionally see a couple here or there out at a nicer restaurant that are clearly on a date, but its more the exception, than the rule. There is truly very little PDA to be seen between the sexes on a daily basis - it rather stands out when you do see it, I should say.

2) There are small / medium / large size pockets of expats in the various places I've been (some 15 countries) and the dating pool even in the larger pockets is generally extremely limited and everyone has a pretty good idea of who's doing what with whom.

3) Interracial dating occurs, but on a much smaller scale than interracial bedroom activities outside of the context of a typical dating relationship, as far as I can tell (and not speaking from experience). The income gap here plays in demonstrably.

South Africa is a horse of a different color in this regard.
posted by allkindsoftime at 5:07 AM on March 31, 2011

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