The virtual date debate

Love in the time of Covid has moved online, but there are pros and cons. While the connections have increased, deep conversations and quality time seem to be taking a hit

February 12, 2021 03:36 pm | Updated February 18, 2021 04:08 pm IST

Now that India has ‘unlocked’, the question is how have expectations and attitudes changed with regard to dating from pre-pandemic times?

Now that India has ‘unlocked’, the question is how have expectations and attitudes changed with regard to dating from pre-pandemic times?

It was January 2020 and Pavitra L* was ready to quit the world of online dating after three years. “It was stale, seeing the same people on multiple apps,” says the 26-year-old architect from Mumbai, sharing that she “did take frequent breaks, sometimes for months”. Once the Covid-19 lockdown hit in March, however, she was back, ready to swipe right on anyone with whom she felt she could have a conversation. “There’s only so much that you can interact with parents and siblings,” she laughs, adding that friends too were busy adapting to the new work-from-home life.

Dating apps swung into action too. For a month in April, Tinder made its (paid) Passport feature free for everyone; for instance, users in Delhi could chat with someone in Dubai. They also brought their ‘Swipe Night’ — an interactive choose-your-own-adventure experience, where your choices impact who you match with later — to the Indian market for three consecutive weekends. Meanwhile, Bumble tied up with Airbnb for virtual experiences like Turkish Fortune Coffee Reading, while OkCupid suggested online date ideas such as working out together.

Pandemic a leg up for apps?

Since mid-2018, login data had shown that online dating apps were on the decline. US-based marketing research company, eMarketer, found a steady downward trend of their usage. Cut to 2021, and we’re living in a completely different world. While both Bumble and Tinder, India’s top dating platforms, declined to share the total number of users in the country, regulars on the apps say there has been a definite surge.

A recent report in The Hindu noted that “ consumers across the globe spent more than $3 billion on dating apps in 2020, a 15% increase from the previous year ”. While there’s always a notable spike in usage and in-app spending around Valentine’s Day, last year, the numbers remained consistent even after February 14, states app intelligence firm, App Annie. But now that India has ‘unlocked’, the question is how have expectations and attitudes changed with regard to dating from pre-pandemic times?

Simran Mangharam, dating coach and founder of Floh, a platform that connected singles at events, started online coaching last June, when she was forced to put Floh on pause. Now, she has around 300 clients, meeting a maximum of four a day for one-hour sessions that vary from just being a space to talk to giving specific tips for virtual dates such as “hold your coffee cup” a la Will Smith-starrer Hitch .

She has noticed a definite shift, pre-pandemic to now. “With the lockdown, people started introspecting and did a lot of work on themselves. They actually pointed out things that they were doing wrong, that did not get them what they wanted in terms of the person or the relationship. For example, a girl was very stuck on the kind of person she wanted — profession, city. She later told me: ‘I realised that these were barriers I had put up; my parents weren’t saying anything’. Earlier, I used to nudge them to arrive at this conclusion.”

Mangharam adds that a lot of people, men in particular, who were on the fence now want to be in a committed relationship. They ask, ‘How should I go about it? my goal is to get married.’ The pandemic has accelerated the timelines that they’ve given themselves.”

Swipe stories

Bengaluru-based independent researcher Yogesh G (27), like many others, was in a bind during the lockdown. Having been on dating apps like Tinder and Grindr since 2016, and using chat rooms on Yahoo and Imo to make connections, he was no stranger to virtual dating. In a bid to “channel [his] sexual energy”, he got on Blued, a Chinese social networking app for gay men and transpersons. “From April to August, I ended up having video chats with everyone from auto and truck drivers to men with white collar jobs,” he says.

Chennai-based Prashant V, a techie and paid member of multiple dating apps since 2014, says the number of matches he got went up exponentially during the lockdown. “I felt like a lot of people ended up on these apps for lack of anything better to do. It was definitely the best time to get phone numbers and start chatting/video calling outside of the platforms, something people were reluctant to do earlier,” shares the 27-year-old.

A case in point is Rithick Sinha. Boredom drove the 23-year-old engineering student (who moved back home to Lucknow from Pune) to download Tinder, before switching over to Bumble and Hinge. “It was a way to interact with new people, to connect with anybody who you’re not seeing day in and day out. Once you sift out the fake profiles with Angelina Jolie’s pictures, of course,” he says wryly.

Looking for #deep

But what’s missing, according to most people, are deep and spontaneous conversations. “When you’re talking to somebody in person, their answers are less forced and you can make out what their real thoughts are,” says Sinha. He, like many other users we spoke to, prefers going offline with his dates. Despite multiple methods of interaction, including video calls, he feels that intangible concept of ‘chemistry’ between two individuals is hard to decipher when you are seeing a 2D version of a person on screen.

Anupa Samuel (30), a teacher in Bengaluru, agrees. She has used all the dating apps out there (“you name it and I’ve been on it!”) because “I’m always looking for something serious”. Last year, she connected with around 20 women over chat and video calls. “I even had a virtual dinner date. However, it just wasn’t like having a ‘real’ meal with somebody. I wouldn’t do it again. I’m glad that places have opened up and certain people are okay coming out,” she says.

What the apps have to say

Bumble India PR Director, Samarpita Samaddar, however, says their data has a different story to tell when it comes to online interactions. With over 540 million messages exchanged by Indian users in 2020, they interpret the data to show that people are taking more time to get to know each other. “This has led to more virtual communication before the relationship is taken offline,” she says, adding that according to an internal study 78% of users feel the need to build trust before meeting in person, in keeping with the ‘slow dating’ trend of 2021.

Rovan Varghese, a counsellor who works with adults, both single and in relationships, across the gender and sexuality spectrum in Bengaluru, says that the uncertainty of the times could be driving people closer emotionally at a faster rate. “Topics like life goals, philosophies, intimate details regarding one’s successes, failures and disappointments... things that you wouldn’t put forward to someone who was going to be your date tomorrow. People are becoming more vulnerable and putting their real selves up front,” he says.

Pavitra admits that she opened up to her matches last year and had candid conversations about earlier relationships, family, and future plans. Describing it as a cathartic experience — not unlike a confessional — she says, “It was freeing to be able to compare notes with someone going through the exact same thing that I was.” But she feels that conversations have taken a more superficial tone once the lockdown lifted, and the possibility of in-person meetings became a reality once more. (Bumble’s latest study found that almost 73% of single Indians are ready to travel a couple of hours within their city for an in-person with someone they met online.)

Meanwhile, Tinder, where the age group skews younger (Gen Z, ages 18 to 25), shares that the demographic may have a different approach. Rashi Wadhera, Director of Communications, anticipates a couple of trends for 2021. “Today, it would be hard to deny that ‘real life’ is both physical and digital. For Gen Z, online dating is dating. Meeting people on an app is normal. Secondly, members have repurposed what the app offers [to find non-romantic connections].” Their recent survey found that as many as 62% say they have redefined their dating goals, behaviour, or etiquette.

No time to fool around

Going by responses, things haven’t changed significantly for single women, particularly women in their 30s and 40s. Rati* (43), a mental health professional who went back to Delhi from Bengaluru during the lockdown, has been using Bumble for four years and added Hinge in 2019. “I find that even after the pandemic, while men are feeling the pressure to connect, it is not necessarily to find a long-term relationship,” she says. “What I found interesting was that even though there was a lot more interaction, when something serious was explored, there would immediately be panic. The response was similar to what I had heard pre-pandemic.”

Others like Caroline M (31) are looking for love/connections on these apps as a reprieve from matrimonial sites — a whole other ball game, where “it was more like a transaction than trying to find a life partner”. The Tuticorin native, who works as an HR professional in Chennai, says, “Dating apps have given me a way to at least meet people who are like-minded.” Post-pandemic, she spends at least three weeks talking to a person before making plans to meet, whereas earlier that time was shorter. Despite these precautions, she has had unpleasant experiences. This includes one where the person spent the entire date talking about being a feminist, only to later ignore her protests and try to kiss her. “I invariably see the same people on multiple dating apps, and while that does take hope down a few notches, I’m not quite ready to go back to matrimonial sites yet,” she says.

Success stories

For some, companionship have turned into relationships. Yogesh is now in a polyamorous relationship, having met his partner on Grindr. Prashant has been off the apps for close to seven months. “I met my now-girlfriend on Tinder three years ago, and we remained friends. The pandemic kind of escalated things, and we’re dating now,” he says. This speaks to the worldwide trend where isolation had many texting their old flames.

Mangharam can attest to this. “People really reconnected with people from the past; whether it was friends, family or exes. Regarding relationships, it really depends on why things didn’t work out the first time. I would tell them to see how they are feeling because red flags like infidelity are patterns that will not change and, in those cases, they should stay away.” Did anything long term emerge from reconnections? “At least three of my clients are getting married to their exes!” she concludes.

*Names changed on request

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