Halfway through my first date since the coronavirus shelter-in-place ordinance, my dog started humping a blanket laying on my floor.
I picked up my laptop and turned the webcam towards Peanut, a spayed female shih tzu who looked at me wild-eyed, then stopped out of what I can only hope was embarrassment. My date, who we’ll call Amy, laughed over our Google Hangout, her image blurring briefly due to a poor internet connection.
Everyone has to make lifestyle adjustments due to the pandemic, and single people are no different. The harsh reality is that if you’re single right now, you’re going to be single for a while. Social distancing makes in-person dates nearly impossible, but dating app usage is actually up.
On Tinder, daily messages increased 10-15% week-to-week in mid-March. Bumble reports that since March 12, messaging and videos chats are both up over 20% in San Francisco. Even Seeking.com, a self-described “sugar dating site,” has seen member sign ups increase 74% over the same time period last year.
Bay Area dating coach Jessica Engle didn’t sound surprised to hear about the increased activity. In a quick telephone interview, she cites research that says when potential partners meet in a dangerous situation it increases the chance they will fall in love.
“It may be that this global circumstance actually enables more connections, because people are feeling more vulnerable and are able to open up more and bond over shared difficulties,” she says.
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Online dating is different for everyone, which makes sweeping generalizations difficult. Personally, I’ve used dating apps for a few years with results that ranged from mixed to horrendous. As the coronavirus became a reality here in early March, I started polling women on Tinder, Hinge and Bumble about how the pandemic affects their dating, from the safety of my couch in the Mission.
Those who responded (about half) already had their guards up before the shelter-in-place order. First dates, in person, seemed out of the question. One woman said that multiple men made racist comments about her profile description (“All I ask is that you tell me I’m pretty and feed me soup dumplings”). Several equated COVID-19 to an STD, in that contracting it may have a lasting stigma.
As the pandemic spread and in-person dates became potential misdemeanors, women started mentioning video-chat dating — three words I would normally never have wanted to hear in the same sentence. But most of the women I messaged with seemed bored enough to try it, and after several ghostings, two graciously agreed to be subjects for this story.
To optimize my video dates, I received a few tips from Wayne Elise, contributing author of pick-up artist tome “The Game” and creative director at Charisma Arts.
Smile a lot to overcompensate for lack of human touch (I can do this). Wear blue or purple because it looks better on camera (check). Create a backdrop wall with your toilet paper hoard (negative, unfortunately I cannot spare a square).
Minutes before my first very meta video date, I was still finishing a dish of quarantine pasta. I messaged let’s-call-her-Jade to push back the date 15 minutes, giving the standard fake excuse of bad traffic (with a winky emoji). In three minutes flat, I brushed my teeth, threw on a non-wrinkled t-shirt and set my laptop on a stool with the dignified framing of my bookshelf in the background.
“Speaking of books,” Elise tells me via email, “use some under your laptop to get your camera above your eye level. This will prevent Godzilla video where you look like you’re a hundred feet tall coming to crush their town. Getting your eye level under someone’s gaze is one of my oft-used tricks I use in real life. It makes the other person feel relatively more empowered and helps get them talking.”
We both logged into a Google Hangouts link and I immediately discovered Elise was right about the Godzilla gaze. I adjusted my laptop and offered Jade some wine, which scored a polite laugh. Then I tried to pour myself a glass from a half-full bottle… unsuccessfully. Just below sight of the camera, I awkwardly wrestled with the cork while carrying on a conversation about, what else, grocery shopping.
One of the unexpected positive consequences of the coronavirus is that for the first time in history, a first date didn’t ask about my siblings. The conversational tropes of every first date seemed irrelevant. Instead of talking about routines, we explained how they’ve been disrupted. Everyone’s life is fundamentally different than it was two weeks ago, which makes it more interesting to both hear and talk about, especially with a stranger.
Where you suggest to go on a date says a lot about you, but not nearly as much as what type of couch you own (Jade’s looked like IKEA, Amy’s West Elm). It’s rare to see inside someone’s personal space so early in a relationship, which added another intimacy jump start. My first date spun her computer around on her coffee table to show a view of the Presidio through her window. Later she reached off screen to grab a vinyl record she referenced, adding an element of show and tell. The second date walked her computer into her Pacific Heights kitchen to pour a glass of wine (more adeptly than I had), giving a tour of her whole living space.
Although seeing inside these womens’ homes gave me an insight into their lives, video chat made it harder to tell if I found them attractive (and probably didn’t do me any favors either). People look different in photos than in real life, and it’s same with video.
When I explained this to dating coach Jessica Engle, she saw it as a return to a shift away from hook-up culture and towards more traditional courtship.
“You can’t rely on physical connections at all, so you’re going to be challenged to really build an emotional connection without the pheromones and potential chemistry and physical closeness. In the long run, that might help people build more quality connections,” she says.
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The main advantage of video chat dating was immediately clear: efficiency. I can typically tell within 30 seconds of meeting a Tinder date if I’d like to talk to them for more than a minute, but by then it’s too late. Transportation to a bar plus two cocktails equals three lost hours (and a $50 tab). Each of these video dates lasted about an hour, and I didn’t spend a dime (apologies to my roommate for finishing his wine).
At the end of our conversation, Amy made the interesting observation that she didn’t feel like we had really met yet. I felt the same way, that there was something uncanny about interacting with a two-dimensional version of her, so many things were missing. It didn’t really feel like a date to me.
But Peanut somehow understood what was going on.
My little shih tzu loves me very much and is quite protective of my affection, which is to say, the first time a woman visits my house Peanut will “assert dominance” by thrusting all nine pounds of her body weight against my date’s leg. My dog almost never humps anything in other contexts. How she felt the call to be an anti-wingwoman is beyond me.
Overall the experiences weren’t nearly as awkward as I’d expected. Initially I worried about the self consciousness of watching myself on-screen, but after a few minutes I stopped noticing myself. I enjoyed both dates, but didn’t feel that strong spark with either woman, which seemed mutual.
About an hour into my second date of the night, our conversation/internet connection lulled. Amy remarked that maybe it’s time to end the date, as she noticed me yawning a few times (Note: I do not remember yawning).
We talked for another minute or two, beginning what’s typically the most awkward part of any first date: the goodbye. We hit all the normal pleasantries, she said she’d be open to seeing me again (likely out of boredom or loneliness). But what was most interesting is that in this last minute of conversation, we both moved a little closer to our screens and began the type of meaningless talk that serves solely to build momentum for a kiss. Then we both leaned in and kissed our laptop screens…
Just kidding! We did not kiss our dusty laptop screens, that would be disgustingly cute and also just regular disgusting. We said goodbye and closed the chat, but it did feel like a moment of real intimacy, a chance to feel closer than six feet away from a stranger, even if they were a mile away.
Dan Gentile is a digital editor at SFGATE. Email: Dan.Gentile@sfgate.com | Twitter: @Dannosphere