What is dating and how does it work?
December 7, 2005 5:22 PM   Subscribe

As suggested here: What is "dating", and how does it work?

Before you assume that I must be a martian, let me explain. I'm British. And here, the whole dating thing just doesn't seem to happen. In my experience (as in my own + friends' + general observance), if two people are together, they're together. Sure, people get drunk or whatever and kiss people. But if they meet up after that, I think they tend to be what you refer to as "exclusive" as in not going on dates with/kissing anyone else.

I do admit that I am only 18, and therefore my experience of relationships generally is somewhat limited. However, from what I've gleaned from American teenage films and the like, American teenagers do the whole dating thing. So even if I'm just too young and British adults do date, why do British teenagers not?

Further questions: Say you're dating Tom, Dick and Harry. What does this consist of? Do you just go for meals/to the cinema/whatever with them? Do you kiss them? Do you do more than kiss them? Do you text/email Tom saying "I'm really looking forward to seeing you again xxx" and then immediately send the same text to Dick? (Harry has fallen out of favour).

Basically I just don't get how the whole shebang works. So, MeFites of North America, enlighten me! Detailed explanation, anecdotes/personal experience, whatever, it's all good.
posted by Lotto to Human Relations (48 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I think maybe just the terminology is different.
posted by thirteenkiller at 5:25 PM on December 7, 2005

Dating= seeing eachother in a "more than friends" capacity

next step...

Boyfriend/Girlfriend=seeing ONLY eachother in a romantic way

next step...


and finally...


Sex/kissing/everything else may happen at any of these stages, depending on age/culture/circumstances/feelings. However, I would think most people confine sex to at leat the B/G and beyond stages.
posted by skjønn at 5:34 PM on December 7, 2005 [1 favorite]

I wrote this up in the other question - moving it here...

Part of it is that I think you are young - and things change as you get a bit older and the "stakes" get a little higher. As a caveat to what I'm writing - I have lived in and around San Francisco my entire life - my experience may be relative to the liberal social norms to which I've always been accustomed.
In my world - you meet someone and you have to suss them out - determine if they are worth your time - during that time you may also happen to meet others - and want to spend some time with them as well to see if perhaps they are better suited to you as a partner. One drunken night at a bar and a dinner a few nights later doesn't seem like you would have enough information to make a decision about committing yourself to them. You might make out with one or all of them. You may even have sex with all of them - but until you have a conversation - the assumption is that you are not the only one.
During this time - you are "dating" (as in spending one on one time in at least a potentially romantic way) more than one person. At some point - one of these people may prove to be worthy of your love and devotion - you have a little chat about exclusivity - and you politely and with as much kindness as possible let the other people you have been spending time with know that you've met someone with whom you think you have a future and it would be inappropriate for the two of you to spend any more time together.
Is it impossible for you to conceive of being attracted to and enjoy the company of more than one person? At some point - you or one of these people may ask if you are exclusive. Sometimes it works out - sometimes it doesn't. The point is to not lock yourself into a committed relationship until you are really sure thats what you want and that you are well suited.
I've been married awhile now - so I'm a bit out of practice on all this - but from what I've seen in my single friends - this still seems to be the way things seem to work around here.
posted by Wolfie at 5:43 PM on December 7, 2005 [4 favorites]

And I explained myself in the other thread already but why is it "dating" even if you do whatever together or even live together?

It just seems silly to me, I don't know exactly why actually now that I think of it. And it is not just the Charles/Camilla type "dating" sillyness, it's the fact that in the States (that I've seen) you may call your SO a boyfriend/girlfriend but still call the act of being exclusive "dating" no matter what.

This is something I've never understood and would like a semantical/cultural/whatever explanation. It's been bugging me for a long time.
posted by keijo at 5:44 PM on December 7, 2005

There's "going out" (in quotes so you'll know which I mean) and then there's dating. I think it's necessary to distinguish between the two.

"Going out" is common from kindergarten through high school (ages 5 through 18, depending). Kids hang out together, get crushes on each other, and then one asks the other if they want to "go out." "Going out" is not actually an invitation to go somewhere; it's a recognition of their changed status. In kindergarten, there may be no change in the relationship when the declaration is made, or maybe the boy will be sure to line up next to the girl, or they'll be buddies under the buddy system. In high school, the couple may have gone out (meaning "actually gone somewhere") either with groups or alone together before "going out." The change may be, but isn't necessarily, marked by the guy giving the girl his jacket or ring, and/or by the girl starting to "put out." This "going out" is definitely monogamous. It is entered into the collective unconscious -- anyone moderately social will be able to tell you who Ashley's "going out with" at the moment.

Then there's dating. This may be common in high school, depending on where you live, but it should be the norm by college and beyond. Dating isn't quite the same as playing the field. Playing the field, you're going out and seeing who you run into and what it leads to (and you may have some back-up bootycalls/fuckbuddies).

In dating, you've narrowed the field down to Tom, Dick, and Harry (or more guys, or two guys, or whatever). You like Tom's hair and Harry's dick, but Harry tends to burp at the table, and Dick's a little too much of a mother's boy. They may not be exactly right for you, but you're not ditching them yet -- because what if, the day after you dump the other two, Tom tells you that his whole life he's secretly wanted a girl just like you to pretend she was his daughter? You're hedging your bets.

Dating isn't necessarily monogamous, and "what you do" can range the spectrum from hand-holding (in theory, I guess) to no-holds-barred sex with any or all of them. Note: Blah blah blah full disclosure about risk is important in sexual relationships.

In dating, everyone is supposed to know what's going on: You're not necessarily being monogamous (if you are, it's probably because you happen to be only dating one guy at the moment), but chances are Tom's dating Melissa and Jessica, and Harry's had his eye on Jen, and it could be that Dick's thinking about going monogamous with Marissa. You don't know those girls' names, necessarily, or whether Tom goes out with Melissa or Jessica on Friday nights, but until you have that important conversation, you should definitely assume that nobody's monogamous. In practice, lots of drama comes from people being unclear about their roles in other people's lives.

I see dating as being very event-oriented. If you haven't seen Dick in two weeks, unless there are very extenuating circumstances (business trip, maybe death flu), you aren't really dating him. It's okay to head to the museum with Harry on Thursday and go out dancing with Tom on Saturday night.

One major litmus test for dating is illness. You have a horrible, miserable head cold and are feeling hideous, and you're curled up on the couch thinking about dying. If you're dating someone, he doesn't have to rent a video, come over, and make you chicken noodle soup -- in fact, he doesn't have to talk to you until you're better and can go out again. But if he wants to get more serious about your relationship, this is exactly the time to pull out those moves.

I'm 19; I grew up in ruralish New England and am now living in Manhattan, if any of that gives you a sense of background.
posted by booksandlibretti at 5:47 PM on December 7, 2005 [4 favorites]

I've never gotten the dating multiple people thing either, and I really don't know anyone who does it, aside from that man tramp Archie Andrews.

My impression of it is that it's an activity suited to people over 30 or so, because there's a lot more emotional control/objectivity that comes with maturity, one that allows a more dispassionate(Wrong word) mindset when dealing with relationships.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 5:51 PM on December 7, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'm Canadian, and I'm just as baffled. I've never been on anything I could think of as a conventional 'date' in my life, and I don't understand how people can go out for an evening with someone where they occupy some kind of liminal status with each other-- friends who are auditioning each other for a bigger role? Dinner and possibly sex with unspoken expectations, but doing the same thing with a rotating cast before settling with one person (which seems to be the aim)? Beats me. Anytime I've gone out with someone, it's always been as the precursor to a relationship. I just don't see the point of the "dating" thing, and never have. How can you be "more than friends", but not involved? It's odd.

On the other hand, I think this may be a generational thing; I grew up in 70s, when even the word "date" was considered hopelessly old-fashioned, and the very concept reeked of the Fifties. Nobody went on "dates". You got together, then you were a couple or you weren't, for a shorter time or a longer one. I still have trouble saying the word with a straight face, I'm afraid.
posted by jokeefe at 5:52 PM on December 7, 2005 [1 favorite]

So it sounds like it's just a cultural thing that varies a lot within the U.S. as well? Like Lotto said, in the UK it seems far more simpler. You either are just fuckbuddies for the night or for longer when you are "seeing somebody" and refer to the SO as a boyfriend/girlfriend until the relationship is somewhat more established as in engagement or marriage.

I'm wondering, maybe there could be some ways of researching what the origins and reasons for this usage are? I'm sorry for hijacking the thread but this has just bugged me for a while for some reason.
posted by keijo at 5:52 PM on December 7, 2005

it's the fact that in the States (that I've seen) you may call your SO a boyfriend/girlfriend but still call the act of being exclusive "dating" no matter what.

I've found -- at least in my experience -- that the phrase "dating" gradually starts to fade once the relationship has moved to boyfriend/girlfriend (i.e., exclusive) stage. Not immediately, of course -- maybe not even necessarily within the first year, mostly depending on age and/or how serious/committed/long-term the relationship has become.

For example, I still say at this point that I'm dating my boyfriend, but we've only been together for six months. If we're still together in a year or so, I'd likely just say that we're together. In other words, I think the term "dating" has a sell-by date (as it were), even for exclusive relationships.
posted by scody at 5:52 PM on December 7, 2005 [1 favorite]

"Dating" means different things to different people. What you describe [and to some extent what skjonn talks about] is one extreme - "going on dates" with a lot of people who you may or may not know well to see if there's the sort of attraction which might make a long term relationship possible. On the other hand, plenty of people just find themselves in a relationship with a friend without ever having gone on a formal date. [They may still say that they are "dating" each other, however, which confuses things.] I tend to think that the role of dating in American culture is a little bit overplayed. It certainly happens, but it's by no means a universal experience. As skjonn says, varying levels of sexual activity may or may not be involved.

[I'm sure that plenty of people will come along and attest to the fact that dating is part of American culture, but it's certainly not the case that everyone does the nonexclusive ask-her-out, kiss-on-the-third-date, etc. thing that you're asking about. I know very few people who've been on a date, let alone used that as their main method of getting into relationships.]
posted by ubersturm at 5:55 PM on December 7, 2005 [1 favorite]

I guess you nailed it ubersturm, in a way. But I guess everybody knows what the conventional defiinition of a "date" is. But dating is different, and what it means to be dating in the common North American usage.
posted by keijo at 6:01 PM on December 7, 2005

But dating is different, and what it means to be dating in the common North American usage.

It's like porn -- we can't define it, but we know it when we see it!
posted by scody at 6:15 PM on December 7, 2005 [1 favorite]

"I'm dating" typically means that one is playing the field, going out and engaging in activities with one or more different potential partners. "On the market," so to speak. Some of these activities may be formal "dates," by which I mean you set them up in advance, not that they are necessarily dressy occasions; some may be more casual, like "Hey, my boss just gave me two tickets to tonight's Mariners game; want to go?"

"I'm dating Dick/Jane" means that one has chosen a single partner for now and is probably being sexually monogamous, or nearly so -- and if not, they are being careful to make sure their intended doesn't find out -- but the relationship is still in its tentative early stages. The couple may still engage in pre-planned activities as they are still feeling each other out.

"I'm with Dick/Jane" means that the relationship is stable and intended to be long-term. There are more evenings in, typically, and fewer preplanned activities; couples may simply assume they will be with each other on certain nights, rather than having to ask each week, but they may still plan outings for special occasions. Sexual monogamy is expected. "I'm seeing Dick/Jane" is much the same, although it may be a little more tentative.
posted by kindall at 6:21 PM on December 7, 2005 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Lots of interesting answers here, I'm off to bed now but I intend to read thoroughly and respond in the morning.
posted by Lotto at 6:23 PM on December 7, 2005

booksandlibretti nails it!
posted by lohmannn at 6:29 PM on December 7, 2005

In my experience (29,f,USA), "dating" is a word used to be tentative or dismissive about the seriousness of a relationship, though it is oftentimes employed after the relationship is over (regardless of however serious it might have been at the time). The degree to which the relationship is sexual can be ambiguous. Formal "dates" may or may not be involved. Also referred to as "hanging out" and comes after the stage sometimes called, "talking".

In my social circles, "together" is the word used for serious relationships (sexy sex relationships where the words "boyfriend/girlfriend" get dropped a lot). For example, my friend could ask me whether a certain pair were "together", and I might respond, "I don't know, I think they're dating, but I don't know how serious it is." Along these same lines, it is more permissable to talk trash about someone that your friend is dating, and generally unacceptable to diss their boyfriend.
posted by unknowncommand at 6:35 PM on December 7, 2005 [1 favorite]

or exactly what kindall said.
posted by unknowncommand at 6:36 PM on December 7, 2005

Lotto, for context, I'm a little older, have had serious good and bad relationships, good and bad and real bad breakups, and made some mistakes. For context, I'm rather conservative.

Dating, going out, hanging out, whatever. People use the terms differently to mean different things, and often they use them to be intentionally unclear, or to allow themselves some wiggle-room. The important thing is to be clear and honest, not just honest -- unless you're looking for trouble or hurt.

Either way, it's common that at least one party assumes "we're dating" means exclusively. Girlfriend/boyfriend is probably more clear. I think the word "exclusive" or just spelling out your intentions is best.

Experience has taught me that it's easier to maintain control of yourself and where you are in a relationship if you're more reserved, physically. There's more room to leave things at a good-friend level. You and/or the person you're dating have less chance of getting the wrong idea. You have more options -- you can move forward or back things off.

Good luck, guard your heart, and be careful.
posted by mumeishi at 6:54 PM on December 7, 2005 [2 favorites]

Another Canadian here...when I was growing up (I'm 35 now), if you were with someone it was either a one night stand or it was boyfriend-girlfriend. There was nothing else.
posted by Kickstart70 at 7:18 PM on December 7, 2005

I'm really glad someone asked this question. I'm from the UK too, and the concept of dating multiple people is just as strange to me. How interesting that Canadians and (from experience) Australians follow the UK pattern. It's obviously a Commonwealth-vs-USA thing like "pound" and "hash".

Follow-up question: if it's socially acceptable for a guy to date Anna on Monday, Bella on Tuesday and Cordelia on Wednesday, is it acceptable for him to say to Anna "I'm busy tomorrow, I'm on a date with Bella"?

If he makes out with Bella on Tuesday, will Bella be offended if she comes across him making out just as passionately with Cordelia on Wednesday, or is that not a problem?
posted by AmbroseChapel at 7:57 PM on December 7, 2005

From the US here, and while I have "dated" and "gone on dates" and know other's who do/did, I've always found "dating" as in the activity (dinner & and a movie what-have you) as well as the dating of more than one person at a time to be far more common in movies and tv than in actual real life. I used to think something was wrong because I never "had dates" or was "asked on dates" until I talked about it with other people from the real world, they didn't either but recognized the activity. "Dating" while it does exist in the real world is far more common as a plot device in movies and such.
posted by dipolemoment at 8:02 PM on December 7, 2005 [1 favorite]

Actually, from my perspective "dating" is sort of a concept that exists and can be discussed by never actually happens. People start hanging out, then they start "going out" as booksandlibretti described (perfectly, I might add) and then there's boyfriend girlfriend. If someone says they're "dating someone" that's the same as "going out" with someone or are their boyfriend/girlfriend.

If someone says they're "dating" as opposed to "dating so-and-so" that means hanging out with a lot of guys and (maybe) going on dates with them. Men are never "dating" really. "A date" would be much more formal then just 'hanging out'.

Most the term is a hold-over from times when people were expected to 'court' each other, and seek out relationships in a much more formal way.
posted by delmoi at 8:07 PM on December 7, 2005

I was kind of under the impression that dating and being boyfriend/girlfriend was the same thing...but that's probably because I'm a Canuck (seems to be common sentiment in the Commonwealth, as AmbroseChapel mentioned)...
posted by johnsmith415 at 8:07 PM on December 7, 2005

Follow-up question: if it's socially acceptable for a guy to date Anna on Monday, Bella on Tuesday and Cordelia on Wednesday, is it acceptable for him to say to Anna "I'm busy tomorrow, I'm on a date with Bella"?

Only if he's a super-pimp.
posted by delmoi at 8:08 PM on December 7, 2005

AmbroseChapel, in my experience, he wouldn't say "Sorry, I'll be out with Bella." He'd probably say "Ooh, sorry, I'm busy tomorrow -- are you free Thursday, or Saturday?"

In your second scenario, well, that's where the drama comes in. In theory, everyone is supposed to have an idea of what's going on -- Bella should be perfectly clear on whether or not they're at the monogamous stage -- but in practice, lots of drama comes from people being unclear about their roles. It depends on Bella, but she probably will not be happy about it, and in any case I really think the guy would consider it a pretty major faux pas.

Another follow-up, this one for all you people who don't date in the way I described: How do you know if you're interested enough in someone to want to be together exclusively? You meet someone at a bar; you hit it off, but don't sleep together (for pick-a-reason) -- and the next day, you call her and say, "So, want to be monogamous?"
posted by booksandlibretti at 8:08 PM on December 7, 2005

I don't really date, and I'm American. I find the whole thing sort of distasteful and contrived. I tend to just meet people through friends or at parties. If there's mutual attraction involved then hanging out generally leads to hooking up. I think this works as long as you're in school or a similar social structure; I think it tends to be more difficult when you're older and don't have a central social axis in your life. I associate dating with something people in their thirties do, maybe late twenties. Uh oh, I am in my late twenties now.

I am noticing this trend where people who are obviously in a boyfriend/girlfriend type relationship don't want to call it that, maybe because they want to leave things open at least theoretically, maybe they don't like the heteronormative patriarchal blah blah blah of those words, maybe because they're immature, I don't know. I also don't know if this is a general trend or if it's just my friends.
I tried this once but it didn't really work for me; even though I said we were free to see other people, I was still spending a lot of time with the girl and I didn't really feel like seeing other people and it didn't feel right to do so. I could sense she felt the same way and after a couple months we stopped trying to fool ourselves and became... boyfriend and girlfriend. The end.
posted by speicus at 8:13 PM on December 7, 2005 [1 favorite]

marked by the guy giving the girl his jacket or ring,

People still do this? You say you're 19?
posted by kenko at 8:27 PM on December 7, 2005

Kenko, no. As I said, that's part of "going out" -- which is definitely over by the end of high school, if it hasn't ended already. I'm 19 and a sophomore in college, and even in high school, I didn't do that. But other people sure did.
posted by booksandlibretti at 8:40 PM on December 7, 2005

But dating is different, and what it means to be dating in the common North American usage.

It's like porn -- we can't define it, but we know it when we see it!

Scody makes a good point. Ideally, a date would resemble porn. It hardly works out that way, though, so be prepared to get back early and fall asleep on your couch watching Sports Center, as your roommate bugs you for details and then goofs on you.
posted by horsewithnoname at 9:16 PM on December 7, 2005 [1 favorite]

I find it intersting how many people say they've never been on a date. As far as I know, a "date" is merely pre-planned one-on-one hanging out. That is, you can't invite anyone else along and the point is sussing the other one out for more. I'd say the web personals have made dates come back into fashion, since that's how you get to know a stranger.

And like most Americans, I am confused how the Commonwealth folks don't have an in-between stage. I mean, you must, somehow, right?
posted by dame at 9:52 PM on December 7, 2005 [1 favorite]

I think we Commonwealth people just don't bother creating what seems to be an unnecessary category of "being in a relationship"...it's not that we don't "date" as Americans, etc. understand it, but we just don't call it that. (Canadians also say that they're going to use the "washroom" as opposed to the "toilet", but that doesn't mean that we're actually doing something different...I hope)
posted by johnsmith415 at 10:21 PM on December 7, 2005

booksandlibretti, I meant, I was surprised people still did that in high school. I thought that was strictly in the realm of nostalgia.

I, of course, have never been on any dates or gone out with anyone, so I am ignorant of the customs.
posted by kenko at 12:24 AM on December 8, 2005

booksandlibretti: How do you know if you're interested enough in someone to want to be together exclusively? You meet someone at a bar; you hit it off, but don't sleep together (for pick-a-reason) -- and the next day, you call her and say, "So, want to be monogamous?"

It's possible to meet more than once before deciding, you know. In my experience, I've had dates with girls, going to the cinema or into town or whatever several times before making it clear that I'd like things to be exclusive, or deciding that things wouldn't work out. This is certainly how it works with my friends as well, at least. Since I tend to meet potential girlfriends through mutual friends or suchlike, normally there's a good opportunity to get to know them even before 'dating'.

Of course, this doesn't sound terribly different from the US - but there are two differences. Firstly, it would be really weird for me to 'date' a girl for more than a few weeks, let alone a few months - what's the point of dragging things out for that long? Surely after you've met them that many times, you can decide whether you like them? And it's not as if you're getting married, you can always break up later.

Secondly, people do date multiple people simultaneously in the UK, although it's not widespread. I noticed it happening when I was at university a few years ago, and its appearance seemed to have coincided with the rise of online dating websites. Online dating has made it easier because there's much less chance that the girls will know about each other's existence through third parties. The fact is, most people (that I know) frown on someone dating multiple girls simultaneously; it just seems a bit excessive, hurried, and vaguely dishonorable, like you're deceiving the other girls. And what's the rush?
posted by adrianhon at 1:33 AM on December 8, 2005

Hiya, I'm from England and I disagree with your summary of British dating habits. I think that things happen the way you described until you leave school, because being in a couple is a lot less serious at that age. Once you get older, the time-lapse between going on dates and getting together with someone becomes larger.

I'm 24 and am dating. To me, 'dating' is more serious than the very casual US definition, but less serious than being in a couple. So, I could go on a date with some girl or some boy and it might lead somewhere, but it's certainly not an exclusive act, but at the same time, sex is reasonably on the cards.

I think the difference between US dating and UK dating is how much a 'date' means. As I understand it, in the US, a date with someone is virtually a 'let's get together as friends and go for a drink and see if we like each other', whereas in the UK I'd say that a date is on a slightly more romantic footing by default.
posted by pollystark at 2:05 AM on December 8, 2005

Fair enough - I'm not claiming that this is the only way things happen in the UK - it's just in my experience and in my circle of friends (incidentally, I'm 23). I would agree that there appears to be more romance in UK dating.

Do you disagree with everything I said though, or just the stuff about the transition from dating to coupledom?
posted by adrianhon at 2:31 AM on December 8, 2005

Response by poster: Wolfie: Sure, I can concieve of being attracted to more than one person. I can walk down the street and see 5 guys that I find attractive, but that doesn't mean I want to go out with them. I think that the difference is that I would get to know someone in a totally non-romantic, platonic (though maybe with a little bit of flirting, or maybe not) way first, and then at a point where it's obvious to both of us that we're interested, make a move.

It seems to be that the American approach to relationships is much more cautious, in a way - why do you need to evaluate someone so much before you're monogamous with them? Say I'd met a guy a few times in social situations - at a party, had lunch with a group of friends that included him etc, and we were both attracted to each other.

Either the attractedness would grow and culminate in an evening of drinking, talking and eventually kissing at a party or whatever, or one of us would actually say "do you want to meet up for dinner some time or something?" After either of those had taken place (assuming that the kissing wasn't just a one-off), it'd be assumed by pretty much everyone that we were monogamous. Sure, we wouldn't know each other inside out, but it's not like once you're going out with someone you have to stay that way forever. People break up after 2 weeks and no-one bats an eyelid, wheras I assume if people broke up two weeks after becoming "exclusive" in America it would be more unusual, because you're meant to have sussed each other out by then?

I think my main problem with understanding all this is that by nature I'm a monogamous person. Were I sleeping with one person, he'd be the person I'd want to be sleeping with, and therefore I wouldn't really be interested in anyone else, unless I got to know them really really well and realised they were my soulmate or something.

booksandlibretti: Firstly, I've never heard of anyone from the UK using the terms "monogamous" or "exclusive" in conversation with the other person in question. As for your question - if you called the next day it'd be to say "do you want to have dinner/go for a drink/see this film sometime?" Once you'd done that, and it wasn't a disaster and you were planning on seeing each other again in the same kind of context, you'd be "going out", and therefore monogamous.

Like I said, maybe my age has something to do with it. If so, UK MeFites, at what point would you say things change? Although I'm currently in a long-term (almost 2 years) relationship, I'm in my first year of university, and no single people around me seem to be doing the dating thing.
posted by Lotto at 3:24 AM on December 8, 2005

Previously on AskMeFi: Baffling Things About America, #819: What is a date?
posted by fuzz at 4:29 AM on December 8, 2005

To me (American, 37, grew up in New England) dating is something that is a bit of a holdover from an earlier time when there wasn't as much boy/girl mixing and you needed to differentiate what you did when you hung out with your pals, of the same gender, and what you did when you went out with one person of a different gender. The way it gets confused nowadays is that most people I know have friends of the same and different gender and they have people they are more interested in, of whatever gender. So dating to me represents the sort of courtship period where you are spending time with one person getting to know them in a sort of formalized way. In the 50's-60's this would have meant doing things with full approval of parents, etc. The analog to "going out" was "going steady" where you were basically only seeing one person. Usually this would be the person you were or would become sexually involved with. The mythos was that you only got sexially involved (beyond making out, kissing in cars, whatever) with people you were exclusive with.

Historically the dating concept was not as much about sex. Americans have a reputation as having a hard time being up-front about sex. What sort of sex they're having and who they are having it with, especailly how many people they have had it with. This complicates the dating situation where for some people being sexually involved with three different people at the same time is totally standard, and for others it's totally not. Since there is not a hearty dialogue about sex, these different points of view don't get discussed openly as much as maybe sometimes they should. So, I could be dating two guys and sleeping with both of them for a few weeks, say. However, it might not be suprising to find out that one of those guys thought we were more exclusive just because we were sleeping together. If I wasn't clear -- and sometimes it's hard to have the "this is just for fun" conversation when you have just met someone, or when it wouldn't occur to you to do otherwise -- it's still pretty up in the air, according to the American dating cultural norms I learned growing up. And, to address the Anna, Bella, Cordelia example. Some people are very up front about the fact that they are dating multiple people, others are much less so. I think the illness example nails it. I also think of family introductions. I wouldn't introduce my family to people I was casually dating. I'd think about it once I became exclusive with one person. Realistically, I have rarely dated. I generally go from long-term monogamous relationship to long-term monogamous relationship.

So, I'm a straight gal. If I go out with my guy friends, even one guy friend alone, it's not a date to me. However, there is always the chance that when you go out with a (usually) preferred-gender person for a one-on-one activity, one of you will think its a date and one won't. It's often not clear up front since there is so much gender mixing normally now anyhow. There is a cottage industry built around friends in the US coaching their friends through the "Is this a date?!" "Was that a date?!" "I think this guy thinks that was a date?" "When he asked me to this event, is that a date!?" ambiguities, to say nothing of further complications that arise from people's different sexual mores where one person can feel that if you did a bunch of kissing, that is indicative of relationship interest and someone else can think that sex on a first date is not just normal, it's expected.

So, in short, I don't know people who consider themselves "dating" who live together, for example. The only people I know who consider themselves "dating" who have been together for more than six months are either more old-fashioned, or more play-the-field types who aren't trying to work towards something serious. I'm sure it's different every place in the US somewhat, but to me it's mostly about being able to do the "What sort of relationship is this?" back of the envelope calculations based on what you know about the person (or just ASKING THEM which is harder sometimes than it needs to be) more than understanding the way things work in the US.
posted by jessamyn at 4:50 AM on December 8, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'm a 21 year old living outside of the US for the first time. In the past couple of months here (Europe), I have been completely baffled by what I can only begin to call 'dating culture'. I was asked out on the first official date of my life (as opposed to the last five years of just "hanging out" with boys and then that progressing to boyfriend-girlfriend status, or not) and taken completely by surprise when, at the end of the date, I was basically asked if I was interested in being his girlfriend or not. I understand this was just one (to me, crazy) guy, but since then I, and my other American friends, have had somewhat similar experiences here. Its generally an accepted idea in our group that if you a meet a guy who shows interest, he either wants to take you back to his place for a night and never call you again, or take you back to his place and then invite you to meet his parents the next week. To us Americans this is skipping the most important stage: actually getting to know someone. I guess one could argue that you could get to know someone better once you are in a relationship with them, but personally I want to know beforehand if they are worth being inducted into an important area of my life. My theory is that Americans (and here I can only speak for my generation) are less quick to jump into an official relationship because being in a relationship might hold some more weight for us. Thus the "dating" or "hanging out" or "seeing, but not together"-ness that seems to confuse everyone so much.
posted by liverbisque at 5:35 AM on December 8, 2005

I have to add that I have a definite feeling of "what's the rush?" when meeting/going out/dating new people. My experience here so far (and I do understand that that is less than a year, but all the same) is that its like some big game, and whoever is left at the end without a significant other loses. To me, it just makes the whole process a lot less meaningful. I don't want you to ask me to be your girlfriend just so you can dump me two weeks later. Thats what that whole dating/going out thing is for.

I guess it was just really naive of me, but I was really quite shocked to realize just how great the difference between how Europeans and Americans think about relationships is.
posted by liverbisque at 5:51 AM on December 8, 2005

Dating, as a concept, is useful because it allows for socially acceptable intimacy without rigirous commitment. America is still a pretty conservative culture and so a concept of "dating" is necessary to provide (1) spending time with many different members of the opposite sex in the same short time span (2) it allows you to meet people without dealing with the socially charged burned of being a "couple" (3) it's more respectable than hooking up. Somebody who goes on a lot of dates is socially adept. Somebody who goes through a lot of relationships is a freak. The point being that being a "couple" in America is a big deal.
posted by nixerman at 6:06 AM on December 8, 2005

Somebody who goes on a lot of dates is socially adept. Somebody who goes through a lot of relationships is a freak. The point being that being a "couple" in America is a big deal.

That's not how the lingo works in my social circle, but again I think it's just semantics. In college & high school I never used the term "dating" - seemed very retro (and jackets and rings and that stuff was seriously a joke from the 50's - I'm also truly surprised it is still practiced in some circles) - and even "going out" seemed kind of old-school. We always just said we were "seeing each other". But honestly, it came to just about the same thing.

Nowadays, as a single NYer in my early 30's, I occasionally go on "dates" because I don't have automatic time with people in school etc - sometimes I meet someone in a random situation or online, and the only way to continue 'hanging out' is to make a particular plan to meet for some event or other (even if the event is just a cup of coffee). So it's a date in that it is a preplanned event of spending time together. But as Jessamyn said upthread, then there's the question of whether it's a date date, i.e., are we considering each other for some kind of romantic/potentially serious relationship, or are we just friends, or somewhere in-between? These are decisions to be made, and it's pretty normal for people to not really decide for a few meet-ups, because you're just getting to know the person. But no one I know really leaves that in the air beyond a few weeks or so, and I can only think of one case where someone "dated" more than one person at a time, just because she happened to meet two guys she was interested in simultaneously. She found it awkward and felt obliged to make a choice within those few weeks. If the couple have an open relationship, that's a different dynamic, but there's still the discussion of whether they're primary partners etc. As for people just "playing the field" I don't usually think of that as dating, actually - I just call that hooking up. To me, dating is that first few weeks when both parties are looking for something more serious, but aren't yet sure if it's with one another.
posted by mdn at 8:24 AM on December 8, 2005

...or one of us would actually say "do you want to meet up for dinner some time or something?"

*Baffled* And this is not a "date?"

To answer some of the questions:

What is a date: To me, (at least as someone who grew up in the Midwest United States) a "date" is simply planned recreational alone time between two people of any degree of romantic intimacy. For married people with children, it might involve leaving the kids with a sitter for an evening to go to an adult movie (anything more sophisticated than SpongeBob) and adult dinner (a restaurant that does not serve fries.)

Traditionally, there are some formal courtship rituals involved, some of which may carry on to the current practice. At a minimum, a date is a special activity separate from the daily routine. Some of the other courtship carry-overs include the man paying for dinner and the activity, bringing a gift, and "dressing up." (Anywhere from a good pair of jeans to prom formal.)

Dating and monogamy: depending on the degree of romantic or sexual intimacy, dating multiple people is usually a faux pas and can lead to some sticky social situations. Which of course is why many romantic commedies and dramas have people dating multiple people. Contrary to how Lotto envisions it, most people I know tend to practice serial monogamy, even at the early stages of the relationship.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:54 AM on December 8, 2005

Lotto: but it's not like once you're going out with someone you have to stay that way forever. People break up after 2 weeks and no-one bats an eyelid, wheras I assume if people broke up two weeks after becoming "exclusive" in America it would be more unusual, because you're meant to have sussed each other out by then?

Yeah. I think many Americans would say that "breaking up" after two weeks isn't really breaking up because you were never really a couple, to the extent that in my social group to think you were a couple after two weeks is a sign of being kinda psycho.
posted by dame at 9:46 AM on December 8, 2005

Just thought I should represent for the Canadians who don't think it's a binary thing... many of us are promiscuous liberals too. :)

I agree with the "playing the field" definition. I think you're getting tripped up on the word "dating," it seems like what you're really asking is, what's up with the existence of an apparent gray area between friends and monogamy. It really does depend on culture, and, more than that, particular kind of social scene within a culture. But it will also be different for people in the same scenes.

Basically, to commit to someone right off the bat is stupid, in my opinion. Similarly ridiculous is to say to someone you're not committing to that you're not going to see if there's anyone else you might want to commit to, or ask them to do the same - that's a commitment in itself. So, you "date" (or whatever), with the explicit understanding that that is what you are doing.

Eventually you realize you want to get more serious with someone. This does not necessarily mean you will break off relations with any others, but it can, depending on what you and others involved are comfortable with. (Granted, the status quo is that, yes, you do break other such relations off, or transition them to "just friends," whatever that means).

Whatever goes on, the key is open and honest communication at all times.

The thing is, there aren't hard and fast rules, at le4ast not universally. You do what feels right and makes sense with people you like and trust. They owe you no more or less than has been explicitly understood, and the reverse is also true.
posted by poweredbybeard at 9:59 AM on December 8, 2005

(I said a 'few weeks' of dating upthread, but didn't mean to imply that then you're automatically 'in a relationship' within a month or two - just that around that point people start to assume monogamy, and have talks about their status - and a lot depends on the individuals and their schedules, too. In my experience things either get serious or end around 6-8 months, but will often start being exclusive & consistent around the first month or so)
posted by mdn at 2:27 PM on December 8, 2005

I think I (female, 25, grew up in Michigan) have always been, as KirkJobSluder said, a serial monogamist. At one point, my best friend told me, "You know, it's okay to kiss two boys or three boys or whatever. You can just be dating. You don't have to choose between two guys and you don't have to end up with either of them."

But it never felt right or fair to me to be carrying on with more than one person at a time - not to mention juggling them if they knew each other.

Hopefully I won't have to worry about that again any time soon. :)
posted by srah at 7:01 PM on December 8, 2005

I am American and I don't like/get the whole "dating" concept either. I just "broke up" with a guy who it turns out I was never "with" because he's been seeing someone else all along. After making this admission, he the claimed to be confused and upset about having to pick between the two of us. After a bit of time he hasn't called, so I guess he's picked who he wanted to be exclusive with :(

The whole thing was quite hurtful to me. If I like someone, I want to see where it will go with THEM. How can you really get to know someone if you're focussing on keeping all of your options open? I find dating thing distasteful...you hang out with/make out with different people with no commitment, invariably comparing them to each other until one comes out the winner after passing all sorts of tests? It seems to be a system where men get exactly what they want, which is physical affection (and often more) with no commitment.

I also think that some men will intentionally lead women into thinking that a relationship could go somewhere when actually they know that there's no relationship future. By keeping the status of the relationship open or vague they get to keep their options open. (Maybe women do this too? I know I don't.)

I just don't think any of this sounds or feels very nice. But then again, I'm pretty sensitive.
posted by mintchip at 8:16 PM on January 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

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