Skip to content

Offline daters often wonder: Is this actually a date?

When Michael sat down at Marissa Piedra’s table at the Half Pint bar in New York City, playful banter ensued. He was confident, certain enough of himself to join a table of young women alone. At the end of the night, Piedra was surprised to find herself giving her real number to Michael. It didn’t happen often.

“He called a few nights later, and we had a really nice time,” Piedra says. “Then I never heard from him again. I wasn’t that into it, but either way, I don’t really know what happened. Maybe it wasn’t even a date.”

Ah, the confusions of dating—especially in a world where the entire experience has changed, thanks to the Internet. No longer do people ask a love interest if they can go out on a “date.” The clarification to that hovering question—“Is this a date or are we going out as friends?”—has been blurred with “hookups” and “hanging out.”

But what has made matters even worse for conventional daters is the proliferation of online-matchmaking sites. It has left people who bypass the world of Internet love with a newfound confusion about what exactly is going on.

Is this a date or what?

People on matchmaking Web sites ask no such questions. The steps are easy: (1) No, I don’t know you. (2) Yes, I find you attractive, and your interests complement mine. (3) Would you like to go on a date? A message is sent, and the sender waits for a reply. As Internet dating sites have become a mainstream device to meet other people, the basic face-to-face of asking someone out has left offline daters feeling a bit awkward.

Sometimes both parties find themselves wondering what’s going on.

“I signed up on Match.com on a whim,” says Kate Lillie, a 25-year-old film-location coordinator. “I did it for fun and entertainment purposes. If something should come out of it, great! If not, that’s fine too. It’s a less confusing way of dating.”

But for those souls still scouting the bars and clubs for a potential love interest or trying to date within their circle of friends, confusion often ensues.

Jeff Burt asked out his current love interest, a friend of a friend at the time, and took her to the Top of the Hub in Boston. She had never been there, and he wanted to impress her with the romantic lounge setting at the top of the Prudential Center. He paid for her dinner. When they went to the movies afterward, he paid for that too.

“I never went in for the kiss. I realized it wasn’t a date because she told me she still lived with her ex-boyfriend after the movie,” says Burt, a 25-year-old insurance salesman from Boston. “So there I am dropping her off at the apartment. She got out of the car to go home to her ‘ex’-boyfriend.”

Paul Ippolito found himself on the other side of the dating dilemma. When the 25-year-old clinical-trials project coordinator asked his nutrition study partner to grab some lunch while in college, she agreed to go. He was hoping for a lighthearted discussion to get to know his friend better.

“It was a little awkward,” Ippolito says. “She was silent most of the time, and I was just trying to chat and enjoy the food. That’s when I realized she thought our lunch get-together was much more serious than I thought it to be.”

Ippolito adds, “It’s a generational thing. We don’t ask each other out on dates the way our parents and grandparents used to. Unless someone explicitly says, ‘Let’s go out on a date,’ then people have no idea what they’re in for these days.”

With dating Web sites, no clarification is needed. One can assume that a person is registering on Match.com, which refers to itself as “the leading online dating resource for singles,” to go on lots of straightforward, nonconfusing dates. Many have realized this fact and look to online dating, rather than the offline, old-fashioned kind. There’s less hassle and more options.

“You may go out with someone you don’t really know and don’t necessarily want to call it a date,” says Tom Meehan, a 24-year-old who recently ended a long-term relationship. “But if you meet the person online, presumably you are going to interact and learn about the other person before you actually meet. Instead of realizing you don’t want to be on a date before the entrée comes, you can come to that realization while in your pajamas at home.”

Meehan doesn’t plan on trying a dating site; he prefers the good old-fashioned awkwardness and perplexities that can grow with every passing minute at the dinner table.

Erin Francis, a 26-year-old artist from Boston, also prefers the old ways of dating and confusion, even though she has experienced uncomfortable encounters before.

When a friend of a friend asked if she wanted to “hang out,” she said yes. They went out for a casual dinner, and she assumed it was no more than a friendship.

“At the end of the night, he leaned in to kiss me, and I had to back up and say, ‘Whoa, what are you doing?’” Francis explains. “It was awful. I felt bad, he felt bad. We were both embarrassed. It was just a mess.”

“It is what it is, though,” Francis says. “If you’re not willing to put your picture on the Internet in hopes of finding love yet, awkward nondate dates are all a part of the game.”

E-mail: mac2276@columbia.edu