The XX Factor

In Defense of the Nondate Date

“Are we on a date?” “I have no idea!”

In honor of National Date Night (which apparently is Saturday), Alex Abad-Santos has written a piece for Vox asking why dating has gotten so complicated. Abad-Santos rounds up the various things that make modern dating so difficult, from navigating online dating sites to navigating changing gender roles. But one issue he addresses was especially familiar to me: the nondate date.

Citing a Glamour poll that shows that 73 percent of women surveyed had been on outings where they couldn’t tell if they were on dates or not, Abad-Santos argues that changing social norms make it downright hard to tell what does and doesn’t “count” as a date:

“It varies from person to person,” Dr. Zhana Vrangalova, a sex researcher and adjunct professor at NYU, says. “Some people think of it in the traditional sense: dinner, movies, whatever. People have also stretched the definition of the date to something more casual like getting drinks. Couples and non-monogamous couples have their own definitions of dates too.”

Eliminating the idea that a date is a prescribed set of actions makes those older definitions obsolete. Ergo, a 20-minute coffee meet-up and an afternoon stroll in the park could both be dates, as could seeing a movie together, or dropping by for wine and an episode of Game of Thrones.

Sure, that can be confusing, but I would like to defend the much maligned maybe-date. What that Glamour poll recorded is actually the widespread use of the maybe-date as a dating device, a phenomenon where two people go on an outing that is ostensibly platonic but also has the possibility of morphing into something sexier. Going on maybe-dates is a way for a lot of young people to experiment with dating with a safety net. If you go on a maybe-date with someone and there’s no spark there, you don’t have to deal with outright rejection—giving or getting it—because it wasn’t officially a date anyway. For people who enjoy each other’s friendship, maybe-dates give them a safe space to explore what dating might be like without risking the friendship. Official dates can also feel a little stiff and formal if you’re not used to them, so easing in with maybe-dates until you figure out the lay of the land can be helpful.

To make the maybe-date work right, however, both parties have to keep their expectations nice and low. If you find yourself taking people out on maybe-dates and then being bitterly disappointed that you don’t know where things stand by the end of the night, it’s time to suck it up and start asking people on real dates instead, because handling ambiguity is not your bag. But as long as everyone is on the same page, spending time in that in-between space can be fun. 

Of course, as people get older, the maybe-date does tend to disappear. You don’t have as much unstructured time and you start needing more clarity on what is and isn’t a relationship. You start going out on dates with the explicit expectation that either this is going to be a romantic relationship or you won’t have any relationship at all. The fun in hanging out for hours with someone that you might make out with or might not, and it doesn’t really matter either way, tends to fade. But for young people who need a low-stakes space to figure out what they want and don’t want from romantic partners and friends, maybe-dates can provide just the right amount of ambiguity to explore the options.