Group Dating

“There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned.”

–from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra

Parents have always worried about their kids going on dates. Mothers, like those haggy, clingy caricatures in the Old Spice commercials, suffer much anxiety at the prospect of losing their baby boy to the wiles of some teenage vixen. Meanwhile, fathers are filled with a mixture of fear and anger as they imagine their daughters being lured by some young buck into a dark and secret place. They are trapped, self-conflicted, unable to accept the inevitable.

In the past, parents implemented policies that could, to some degree, regulate dating. Mom and Dad could monitor phone calls coming into the house. They set curfews to ensure that kids were not out too late. Moreover, parents could control the means of transportation to be used, along with the events that could be attended. It was then up to the teenagers to figure out how to manipulate the system. It was up to them to find a way to steal their intimate moments. Perhaps it was in the back seat of a car, or in an alleyway, or under a railroad bridge, or within the shadows of summer willows. Or maybe it was in an alcove somewhere behind the school, bowling alley, or skating rink. These were the challenges romantic teenagers faced back in the day.

In the age of technology and social media, the dating process has changed significantly. No longer can parents dictate their kids’ social life. There are just too many different avenues to keep track of, and teenagers are often more savvy than their parents regarding social media. Most have their own cell phones and can fire out a text in seconds. And although physical hook-ups are still a big challenge for these potential lovers, the potential for communication through coded messaging gives them a definite advantage.

For the less intensely romantic teenagers, there has been the growing trend of group dating. This involves small groups of friends, from school or church or work, who coordinate, with their parents’ approval, a time and meeting place. It might be a bowling alley, skating rink, sporting event, or restaurant. The idea is to provide a friendly, open environment that may facilitate the development of social skills and provide the opportunity for initiating personal relationships.

For the parents, group dating ensures a less worrisome format in which the venue is a clean and well-lighted place and the timeframe is controlled. Beyond that, there is the subtle comfort in knowing that in any group of kids, there is at least one who is eager to report any perceived aberrant behavior exhibited during these mingles. The kids know this as well, and there is in place an invisible surveillance system, a sort of Panoptic, wherein every individual knows that he or she may be being watched at any second. On top of all this is the cell phone – every kid wants one despite the fact that its most useful function is a means for the parents to keep tabs on them.

From the perspective of the average kid, group dating may relieve the pressures associated with traditional one-to-one dating. There is no obligation to utter the words needed to “ask someone out.” There is no need to make an awkward attempt to establish rapport through measured small talk and the severe backfire of introspection it evokes. There is no dreaded moment when one has to either admit or dismiss the other’s advances.

No, this is a public affair, and the stakes are much lower. Yet, beneath the prate of the mingle, there is the opportunity for subtle body language, for a swift and knowing glance, and for the small gesture that leads to the secret text to which there may or may not be a response. In this semi-virtual environment, wherein communication is clandestine and clever and concise, there is a quick and subtle dynamic: the possibility that a real hook-up could happen.

Nevertheless, beyond the brief rise in body temperature and a smug sense of having gone invisible for a fleeting moment, it seems to me that these kids have launched their love boat from a shallow harbor, and their commitment to a wild and fantastic journey seems very unlikely. This is not to say that there will not be love, but the love begotten through this process seems somehow less organic, and less honest. While skilled communication through technology provides an effective come-on, it is an equally effective cover-up. There is already some research that suggests that the more dependent a relationship is on tech-communication, the more likely it is to fall apart.

But that is not what bothers me about group dating — most people value convenience and comfort in all of life’s endeavors, and cheaters find ways to cheat no matter what. What bothers me is that the whole process seems to encourage a predictable and sanitized social homogeny. Like-minded parents set out to manage the social-lives of like-minded kids by placing them in sterile environments that induce trite and trivial socialization. Such is their prerogative.

However, although there might be less struggle and strife under lights of the suburban bowling alley, there is also less of the stuff that makes for Great Romance; there are no balconies to echo the voices of star-crossed lovers, no seas to be crossed to wage great war over the beauty of one woman, no deep red sunsets and love songs to be shared by crosstown rival gangs.

What there is, in 160 characters or less, is, well, less.