How to flirt on Zoom, and other pandemic dating challenges

When Prof. Maryanne Fisher began studying people’s dating habits in 2017, she had no way of knowing she would so quickly see such a profound change.

Psychology prof sees 'movement away from opportunistic’ to search for companionship

Meeting up with a potential new partner over a video chat app requires whole new ways of communicating, says a Halifax psychology prof who studies dating habits. (Shutterstock)

When Prof. Maryanne Fisher began studying people's dating habits in 2017, she had no way of knowing she would so quickly see such a profound change.

But as with so many aspects of our lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, dating is very different from what it was a year ago.

Fisher, who is with the psychology department at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, said the biggest change she has seen is far fewer casual interactions.

"We're seeing a movement away from opportunistic and a movement away from short term, and people wanting more companionship," she said.

Instead, she said, singles are looking for "longer term, more stable, and I'd say even more meaningful relationships than we've seen before."

The first virtual impression

Fisher has become intrigued by the sheer difficulty of having a successful date on a video conference call, which is option number one for early dates in many parts of Canada right now.

Public health restrictions mean fewer chances to spy someone cute in a bar at midnight, or encounter a fellow single parent at a hockey tournament, and get close enough to chat and check for compatibility.

Online date preparation starts with some basic questions, Fisher said.

How dressed up should you be? How can you ensure the most flattering lighting and angle for your face? Will your Zoom background be real or one of the many virtual options? If it's real, will you make the effort to add interesting objects or take away clutter?

On a more serious note, how can you ensure privacy and not reveal too much about yourself while essentially inviting a potential love interest into your home, where there may well be other people living? (It's not just roommates you need to worry about; it could be children or elderly relatives you are caring for.)

The pandemic is a good time to keep it real, advises Prof. Maryanne Fisher. (Saint Mary's University)

Older people dropping out

These issues may partly explain why there has been a sharp drop-off in people using dating apps as they get into their 30s and beyond, said Fisher.

Before the pandemic, dating apps were being used by people from their teens into their 90s, she said. But life complications pile up as we get older, and people may not have the time and energy to find new ways of dealing with them in a time of COVID-19.

"We always had a bit of a script that we could tell people when you start dating," said Fisher. For example, you might have some short, funny explanation of what you're looking for in a partner, or why you've been off the dating market for a while. 

"But that's all gone to the wayside. And it's just things like 'How do you flirt when you're doing it online only, and how do you engage in that sort of beginning part of a relationship online?' It's a lot more challenging."

Some signals harder to detect

Few of the ways a person might flirt in person are going to be effective — or even possible — in a video call.

"You touch the person on the arm lightly. You do a hair flick, you raise your eyebrows. And only some of those things can translate to a virtual communication," said Fisher.

If it's online, you might not see the signals as clearly as you would face to face.- Prof. Maryanne Fisher

"It's really about exaggerating your features. So exaggerating your facial expressions or really telling the person, 'I am very interested in what you're saying,' because if it's online you might not see the signals as clearly as you would face to face."

Fisher said she is launching new research to find strategies for effective online flirting. But in the meantime, given the desire for connection in our civilization right now, she advised making an effort to be as honest as you can, and resisting the temptation to overly stage your video encounters.

"There's so many things that you could do that make it artificial," she said. ""I think now, more than ever, we need to be genuine."

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With files from Island Morning