Navigating Dating and Dating Apps

See also: Starting a Relationship

The rules of dating have always changed over time, and across different cultures. What was appropriate and acceptable in the 1950s and 1960s, with talk of ‘going steady’ and drive-in movies, was out-of-date by the 1980s and 1990s.

More recently, dating and ‘hook-up’ apps like Tinder have changed the rules again, with their left- and right-swipes enabling rapid reactions in response to attraction, and little need to ‘get to know you’ first.

But have the rules really changed, or is it just the language? Are there some universal issues to consider when dating, however you initially find a potential partner?

This page explores some of these issues, and how to navigate the tricky world of dating in the internet era.

Entering a Minefield?

Many people regard dating as entering something of a social minefield.

This is at least partly true, because there are many ways to trip over, and much can go wrong. Going on a date has always been a slightly daunting experience, because you have very little idea of how it is going to turn out.

  • Will you spend the whole evening chatting or flirting together, and find that it is the start of a beautiful friendship?


  • Will you spend an hour listening to them talking about their collection of plastic ducks/jam-making habits/axe-murdering grandmother, before phoning your friend from the toilet and asking them to call you to give you an ‘urgent’ excuse to leave?

Will they even look as attractive when you meet up for a date?

Whether you came of age in the 1950s or last year, this uncertainty has not changed, and nor is it likely to do so.

Finding a Date

Our page on Starting a Relationship suggests some ways that you could ‘ask someone out’ on a date. All these, however, assume that you have already met that person.

Dating and ‘hook-up’ apps have rather turned that process upside down by enabling you to express an interest in someone whom you have never met, and to meet up if you are both interested.

The point is not the precise method that you use to find a potential date, it is that you need to be mutually interested. If only one of you is interested, a date is not going to happen (and even if you could somehow persuade them, it won’t be a success). Chalk it up to experience, and move on.

No means no

It should not need to be said, but it appears that it can sometimes be necessary:

If you express an interest in someone, and they make it clear that they are not interested (or even are not unambiguously interested), then that should be that.

No thanks means no thanks. No ifs, no buts.

Back off, and leave them alone. Don’t keep asking, because that’s creepy and could be harassment.

Meeting up – where, when and for what?

One of the biggest issues when dating is where to meet, and for how long.

Some thoughts to bear in mind:

  • If you meet for coffee, the time is likely to be limited and you will be able to leave after an hour or so if the date is not going well.

    If you get on well, you can always extend it to lunch/dinner. This is therefore a good option for a first date/meeting. Coffee shops are also relatively public places and therefore safe—and a coffee is not very expensive.

  • If you meet for dinner, you are stuck with that person for the duration of the evening, whether you like them or not.

    You also have to navigate the who pays/how to split the bill conversation, which you may find uncomfortable. Choosing the restaurant can be a challenge: if you go somewhere expensive, there is a certain expectation that the person who suggested it will pay, but starting by saying ‘let’s go somewhere cheap’ can give the impression that you are mean with your money, which none of us likes.

  • If you go out for a walk or meet at a museum, there is also an expectation that you may be there for a while. This might make a nice second date, especially if you have identified a shared interest in Egyptian history/walking by the river/Monet’s painting, but may be a little niche for a first outing.

WARNING! - The Golden Rule of Dating

ALWAYS meet somewhere public and ALWAYS have a ‘get-out clause’.

For example, arrange for a friend to phone you after an hour, so that you can use it as an excuse to leave if you are not enjoying yourself—or, worse, you feel threatened or uncomfortable.

Never rely on your date to see you home, or to the bus stop, and if you feel uncomfortable, just WALK AWAY. If necessary, go to the toilet and leave through the back door, telling the staff what you are doing.

The Etiquette of Cancelling

If something comes up—for example, your mother arrives unexpectedly or you get a better offer—should you formally cancel a date or just not turn up?

Put yourself in your date’s position. He or she will be sitting there waiting for you, feeling a bit awkward and wondering whether everyone is looking sympathetically at them. You wouldn’t like it, so don’t do it to anyone else.

And no, the answer does not depend on whether you’re interested. It is common courtesy to let someone know that you don’t plan to turn up.

You do not have to speak to them—a simple text message or similar will be fine. If you are interested, and want to rearrange, make sure you make that absolutely clear. For example, consider the difference between:

“I’m sorry, something’s come up, I’m going to have to cancel, but let’s rearrange sometime” and

“I’m sorry, something’s come up, I’m going to have to cancel, but I’m really keen to meet up, so could you do next Tuesday or Wednesday instead?”

The first could be (and often is) letting someone down gently, and the second is unambiguously interested.

In dating, as in so much else, clear communication and general politeness will get you a long way (and you may want to visit our pages on Communication Skills and Politeness to remind you about this).

Surviving Dating

If dating can sometimes feel like a minefield, how can you best survive it?

The feeling of disappointment when someone doesn’t turn up, or when you find that someone you really liked wasn’t interested in you, can be really hard to manage. Trying to start a relationship can sometimes feel almost as traumatic as breaking up.

Some skills that will always be useful in coping with the ups and downs of romantic relationships are:

  • Resilience, or ‘bounce-back-ability’, that quality that enables people to ‘meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same’, as Kipling put it.

  • Flexibility or adaptability, an ability to cope with personal change, and rise above it without getting stressed (and you may also find our pages on Stress and Stress Management helpful).

Most of all, remember that it isn’t personal. In other words, the fact that your date has cancelled or does not want to see you again does not reflect badly on you.

Dating is a way to test out potential partners to see if they are suitable—and that goes for both parties. You may have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find one who turns into a prince or princess!

Guide to Personal and Romantic Relationships

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide Personal and Romantic Relationships

Personal and romantic relationships can be difficult to navigate.

Even those who are highly skilled at personal interactions at work can struggle to translate these skills to their home environment. This book is designed to help you do just that: to take your existing interpersonal skills, understand them better, and use them effectively in your personal relationships.

A final word…

Dating rules and etiquette inevitably change over time. What does not change, however, is the importance of consideration for others’ feelings, good communication, and a modicum of general politeness and thoughtfulness.