It started with a guy that I met on Bumble, at the beginning of the summer. He was very handsome, and clever, with a good job in the government. But when he asked me questions, I’d churn out replies while silently thinking, “huh, so this is heartbreak. Eating in the basement of a Soho restaurant opposite a man I don't love, not even a bit, and never will.” As you’ve probably guessed I was quite newly single.
My date could tell I wasn’t really into it, so in a deft act of kindness, he leaned in, touched my hand and told me a secret. I won’t reveal it, but it was fairly juicy. “Now you go,” he smiled. For a second I didn’t really know what to do with myself. But I realised that to this relative stranger – we had no friends in common, no shared work colleagues, he could have been any man off the street with a rumpled shirt and a wry smile – I could say anything. Or nothing. I could step outside of my heartbroken narrative and just, you know, do something else for an evening. I gulped down my pinot, the waiter came and busied himself collecting plates and lighting a candle. For the first time in six months I felt my mind expand.
As long ago as 2004, an American psychologist called John Suler had published a paper about the disinhibiting effects of online anonymity. As soon as we shed our identity, he theorised, the constraints on our behaviour slip away with it.
Earlier this year Monica Lewinsky borrowed from Suler’s theory when she talked about how the distancing effect of screens forces us to “lose the humanity.” It’s a particularly interesting proposition when you consider that for many of us, dating is now another screen-based activity. Plenty has been written about the depersonalising effect of dating apps – with detractors arguing that they gamify the richly intimate and human experience of finding The One – but the more I’ve used them, the more I’ve begun to wonder whether a bit of anonymity is such a bad thing.
On dates I have been every part of my personality, even the ones that I wasn’t sure I wanted to admit to
Unlike the world of trolls and bullies – which is what Lewinksy, the self-proclaimed “patient zero” for the kind of world-wide public shaming that is so commonplace right now, is talking about – I found the anonymity of this current mode of dating to be light; freeing.
One date was a curator for a gallery in south London who took me back to his sparse flat to see his art collection. “Do you like art?” He asked. Let’s be honest, he didn’t care. He touched my arm lightly as we walked around and later told me that he’d mainly just been waiting for me to take my top off. I looked at him coyly. “Oh, I don’t know much…” Actually, two of the artists he had on display were friends of mine from way back so I knew a fair bit about their style. But passion is attractive and I could see clearly how passionate he was about explaining it all to me. We drank wine from tumblers and I did eventually take my top off. It’s not like I wasn’t being myself. It’s more that this was just one version of me – quiet, wide-eyed, receptive.
Still, on other dates I’ve eked-out different selves. The loud, party one – we ended up in a club in a not-very-nice part of north London; I danced on the furniture. The serious bookish one, the brooding one (in his bed at midnight, we had a very intense conversation about Heidegger, then he went down on me). I have been every part of my personality, even the ones that I wasn’t sure I wanted to admit to. Like when you hear an actor say “oh, I’m very shy really” and you think “such bullshit”, I’ve been the actor, and I am actually shy; inside there is a grisled, vulnerable nub, but it has been a lot of fun pretending otherwise.
Is this more likely to lead to my next long-term love? No. Probably not. If you’re playing the dating game desperate for the win that’ll boost you into the next league, then it can all get a little miserable. Because the people you meet online are never quite as you built them up to be in those two weeks of wry texting, and then it’s all just myriad disappointments played out in bars across the city as you realise their voice is weird and their views on Brexit are questionable. But if you can retire any expectations of finding The One, then it’s a world rife with opportunity. You can explore different facets of yourself without friends-in-common waiting in the wings to find you out.
And at some point, I guess you just have to be who you are.