Go on a Date? Can't We Just Sorta Have Lunch?

Last week, I was sitting in my dining hall, grabbing a bite to eat and eavesdropping on a nearby conversation.

"This girl is awesome," one student told his friend. "I've been following her all over. But so far, it's not going anywhere."

"You want to drop hints, but you don't want to stalk her," his friend advised. The first guy nodded. "Don't be too obvious. Just casually show up where you know she's going to be. Eventually, you'll be friends, and she'll get the hint."

After overhearing such wisdom, I was intrigued. "Excuse me," I butted in, "but why don't you just call this girl and ask her out?"

The friends looked at each other, bewildered. At last, one spoke. "You mean," the student gulped, as if struggling to pronounce a foreign word, "on a DATE?"

In ages past, we've heard, the best part of college was the "dating scene." Unfortunately for students today, this scene no longer exists. Boyfriends and girlfriends are definitely still part of college life. But "dating," as in asking someone out to get to know the person and jumpstart romance? Dead. If today's college couples end up together forever, we won't have "first date" stories for our children.

Instead, we'll have to reminisce about when we sorta-had-lunch-together after class, or when we acted in a campus play and kinda-got-together-after-the-cast-party, or when - while living across the hall from each other - we rented a movie with friends and then sorta-waited-until-everyone-else-left. Our first "date" - a public statement like, say, going out to dinner - didn't happen until after we started "going out."

This "dating scene" might seem odd. But there's something, well, collegial about it. Long ago, when our parents inhabited dormitories segregated by gender, the opposite sex represented a mysterious species.

Today, we attend classes with them, compete for jobs with them, and see them in bathrobes every morning in co-ed dorms. The mystique has vanished. But something has replaced it: Among students, the connection regarded as most noble is not sex or even love, but friendship. Often, the greatest fear among college couples is not that our date isn't Mr. or Ms. Right, or that love might prove less than true, but rather that, when romance ends, our old friendships will be lost forever.

In some ways, date-free romance is a great development. After centuries of arranged marriages, dating was revolutionary - not only because of the freedom it allowed, but because relationships became more personal. Perhaps being date-impaired is the next step toward treating potential mates as individuals. We might know our future spouses better, since we started as friends. Dateless dating might encourage lasting marriages, since we won't be in for rude surprises about what our dates look like in less glamorous moments.

Yet there remains something sad about the demise of the date. Ours is a risk-averse generation, eager not to change the world but to embark on safe paths to success. Asking someone out requires a risk. Stalking someone in a dorm, on the other hand, is safe - if the person isn't interested, you never have to admit you tried. It's not chivalry that's dead in today's college dating scene. It's courage.

Perhaps the death of the date is not as fatal as it appears. As colleges get larger and more impersonal, dating might regain popularity. Maybe new generations of students will flood campuses, clamoring for dates. Until then, we'll have to wait until that special someone gets the hint.

* Dara Horn, a junior studying literature at Harvard University, has a date this Saturday night.

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