What Does Dating Mean?

A couple drinks espresso in a cafe.
ZoneCreative / DigitalVision / Getty Images

One of my biggest takeaways while exploring Western Europe for six months was a conversation I had with an Austrian couple. Within a few minutes of meeting in an Irish pub, the lady of the couple asked, "So, is dating a construct of Hollywood? Do Americans really go on... dates? What is a 'date', exactly?"

I learned a lot while in Ireland (and France, Belgium) about romance and relationships, and you can read all about my adventures elsewhere (see: What Does Shifting Mean in Irish Slang, and Dating in Ireland).

What struck me the most was that there isn't a word in many languages for what North Americans call "dating", and that, in fact, few cultures around the world actually "date".

So what does it mean, to date? And how to other people get to know one another before committing, having casual sex, or something else? These were the most pressing questions my friends back home wanted to know, so I went out in discovery of answers. 

First, I had to come up with a way to describe what I do for a living. In North America, I say I'm a dating columnist. It's easy, pretty much every knows what that means, and if for some reason they're confused, I say, "You know Carrie in Sex in the City? I'm her, but she wrote for the Post and I wrote for the Times". People nod, and then ask me whatever pressing dating questions they have.

In France however, there's no such thing as a dating columnist. I've been a semi-fluent French speaker since my youth, yet trying to share what I did perplexed most French, Belgian and Swiss folks I encountered.

"On sort ensemble" is something you'd say in Quebec (loosely translated: "we go out together"), but no one said anything of the sort in France. "I give advice to people who go out together," kind of worked, but most people didn't understand how or why I had a job. This in turn confused me -- I get thousands of emails every week with questions, wanting to know how to get a guy to call them back, whether or not a woman is interested, or if they should break up.

I can rarely keep up. 

In Paris, a man I considered to have dated a few weeks (he was adamant we were in a relationship), told me, "Either you're having casual sex, or you're in a relationship. That's it". My next question, "Well, then how did you know you wanted a relationship with me?" He laughed. "From the second I saw your picture online and sent you a message, we were in a relationship. I stopped talked to other girls. I stopped messaging them. And I asked you to meet me on the Seine". 

Friends back home couldn't get enough of this. My male friends scoffed, my female friends swooned. Yes, the guy really planned to have me serenaded, on our first date, along the Seine River. I lost my credit card and was two hours late, so instead we met for wine and cheese. We did, however, stroll hand-in-hand along a love lock bridge. It was like a fairy-tale. Or was it?

That relationship ended because the gent couldn't communicate clearly with me, and kissed another woman at a party repeatedly knowing that I'd never take him back if he did. I cried, I got mad, and then I left Paris. I'm still grateful for the experience, because it showed me just what dating was, and wasn't. 

So What is a Date?

In (most places in) North America, a date consists of intention, like art.

If your intention is to get to know the other person for a possible romantic partnership, you're on a date. The act of getting to know one another is called dating. Now, there's hooking up, friends with benefits, casual dating, and all manner of other things. Yet none of these are "dating". There's no courtship, there's zero determining if you're compatible romantically or long term. You're just bumping the naughty bits, and that's why we North Americans have so many, varied terms for what is essentially a no strings attached sexual relationship.

There's a ridiculous amount of social pressure in North America to have sex, for men to have "more" partners, and for women to detach emotionally and make it "okay". Almost everyone I met in Europe in their mid 20s to 30s had had one, maybe two, very long term partnerships, and perhaps one casual, one night stand.

Everyone I know in North America? Um... I've lost count.

So let's call dating what it really is: a way to get to know a complete stranger to see if they're a possible romantic partner for the long haul. It isn't an excuse to 'test the merchandise', or 'see how I feel in six months', or even, 'give him a taste'. It's really a method, and a pretty intelligent one at that, to get to know someone before you bond physically with another person.

Not that I have an issue with people who want to have casual sex, and are consciously choosing it as a way to release sexual energy and truly connect. I'm just saying let's call dating what it actually is, and then everything else, well, whatever it actually is.