1,2,3,4 Tell Her That You Love Her More or You’ll Be Going Home Alone: A Closer Look at a Modern American Dating Ritual

Speed dating is a new form of matchmaking for the fast-paced world of modern America. A new concept, speed dating brings a group of young people together in a structured environment to help them meet eligible men and women. When examined from two anthropological viewpoints, we can gain a better sense of how speed dating fits into modern American society as well as how it can elucidate certain rituals.

From a structural-functionalist viewpoint, speed dating is simply a new elaboration of the traditional societal structure of marriage.  In this case, the specific structure of dating to find a life-long mate remains the same, while the population’s interpretation and representation of the institution is changing.  Speed dating was created for the fast-paced, busy world where Americans work and play. Combining the practical institution of monogamous mating with the romantic notion of “the one,” we get the paradigm of speed dating where groups of males and females go on five minute long “dates” to discover the important basics of their partner. This information will allow the individual to determine whether they have found a potential mate or not. Although the criteria for that partnership and the methods by which to acquire it may have changed, the desire to find a lifetime partner has not.

The structural-functionalist viewpoint lacks the recognition that institutions change too. Partnering and the creation of a family have certainly maintained importance in today’s society, but the structure is no longer the same. No longer is the one man, one woman pairing the only way to accomplish these ends. The structure itself is constantly shifting to include new permutations of society.

To take a symbolic anthropology approach to speed dating, one would look at the rituals within the performance.  For example, to gather and organize the participants the director rings a bell, bangs a gong, or presses a buzzer to indicate both the time to begin as well as when it is time to switch partners. The specific response to these noises is socially embedded in American customs; for us it is a clear symbol to start or stop any given activity. Furthermore, this symbolizes the linear way in which Americans view events, generally with a clear beginning and end. Once the times-up indicator has been used, the male will stand up and move on to the next female.  From a symbolic anthropology and from a feminist anthropology outlook this could symbolize two things: one, the classic chivalry idea of the male having to take on the inconvenience of movement, or two, which seems more likely (and even provides further insight into the previous idea), the mobile male demonstrates the guise of power in dating situations, symbolically similar to a male spreading his seed.  Anthropology allows for many interpretations of the relatively new practice of speed dating and how it fits in to modern society.

— Jamie J.

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36 Responses to 1,2,3,4 Tell Her That You Love Her More or You’ll Be Going Home Alone: A Closer Look at a Modern American Dating Ritual

  1. Robin Fiore says:

    This essay really caught my eye because your title was so funny! I really like how you took the idea of speed dating, which seems strange to many more conservative people, and showed how it was just an adaptation of our current dating habits to our busy lifestyle. On the idea of anthropology “making the strange familiar and the familiar strange” I think we could compare speed dating to love marriages in Nepal, which might be their equivalent. Laura Ahearn says that with a lot of the older love marriages what she found was people who hadn’t courted at all really, but got married only days or hours after meeting. This seems odd to us, but is it really any odder than expecting to know if someone is “right” for you after a five minute conversation? And if we do think they are right after five minutes we might go on a date. Someone from Nepal, where love comes after marriage, would take this to mean that they are compatible and should marry, they will find love later. So our practice of speed dating to know whether you want to invest time in a person is not all that different from marrying someone the day after meeting at a songfest.

    • sappho Mea says:

      Robin, I like you comparative approach, between speed dating in the US and lav merej in Nepal. And I’m sure that we could have an interesting discussion about it. You made a good point in remarking the existing similarity between the two institutions: in both cases, we have people merely knowing each other, who explore a life-long love relationship.

      However, I have a question for you all, since I am not familiar with the practice of speed-dating: when two people, after their five-minute encounter, decide to pursue a relationship, is the question of marriage imminent? Or does the encounter just mark the start of a series of other dates which may or may not lead to a love relationship (a pre-selection, in a way)?

      Besides, it seems to me that the structures of feeling involved in American speed-dating on the one hand, and in Nepali lav merej on the other, are not quite the same. In Junigau, Laura Ahearn explains, individuals feel that “love befell [them],” that they do not have any agency in their choice for a lover; in other words, it was already written in their fate that they would meet and be made fall in love with someone. The set of meanings underlying speed-dating seems to me quite the opposite: each participant is introduced with a series of potential lovers, whom they may select or dismiss as they see fit. The degree of agency involved in each case differs a lot.

      • sappho Mea says:

        We may see another similarity between marriage practices in Junigau and speed-dating (as far away from each others as those practices may seem at first sight). The villagers speaking in Laura Ahearn’s ethnography, and especially young women, express recurrently the fear that they pass a certain age unmarried, after which they are considered “old,” and after which no man will want to marry them. The pressure on these women is strong, since if they do not marry, they will be considered a charge for their natal family, and the other villagers will “talk”.

        Even though the pressure on unmarried women is probably less important in North America, since any woman who wants to remain independent can chose to lead a life of celibacy if she wants to, we can still wonder why people who are single are so eager to find a soul mate in their lives. I think that peer- and societal pressure does exist, too, in the Western world. Otherwise, why would people pay money to be allowed to participate in a series of interviews with strangers – a process that is quite dehumanizing, when you think about it – instead of just waiting to find someone, or accepting celibacy?

        In France, an old unmarried woman (but not a man) can still be stigmatized, called “mademoiselle” (miss) with a meaningful smile in front her, or “vieille fille” (old girl) behind her back. Do you have any equivalent of this term in English?

  2. Elizabeth Myers says:

    I think speed dating is an interesting practice in America. Is it practiced anywhere else? In my experience first impressions are not everything, and often completely wrong. Most of my best friends I didn’t like very much at first. I think in order for this dating style to work for you, you have to be able to read people really well and fast. I also feel this leads to just who you find attractive and who you don’t since you really don’t get a fair chance to get to know the person.

    • Kate Barry says:

      I did a quick google search and discovered that an American brought speed dating to Colombia. Currently the Colombian speed dating focuses on single professionals who speak English. This is interesting that it is restricted to English speaking professionals. My guess is that eventually it will spread and become more popular.

      • Brenna Hokanson says:

        Kate, your question of how speed dating (a very characteristically American practice) is used in other cultures is definitely worth further investigation. The linguistic aspect of Colombian speed dating (using English as opposed to Spanish) would be, of course, worth pursuing for a linguistic anthropologist. This school of thought might look at why speed dating is done in English (what about Spanish prevents speed dating, or what about English facilitates it). One possible reason is the class division between Colombians who can speak English (and are therefore citizens of the world, and more desirable) and those who can’t. This particular investigation could also be addressed from the perspective of a cultural Marxist (class divisions) or an anthropologist of globalization.

  3. Halle Bennett says:

    I was thinking about hegemony in the last part of your essay, when you say that the men move tables and the women stay in the same spot. It seems to give power to the males in the way that they don’t have to formerly commit to someone in the way that a woman does. A woman always has more to risk in a relationship, especially involving sex where there is the risk of getting pregnant. This is simply an example of the lived dominance and subordination of a particular gender within the American culture. A feminist anthropologist might say that this shows gender roles in our society. How the men are able to leave and move while the woman stays in one spot. The “one spot” could represent the home, while leaving doesn’t have to mean leaving the relationship- it could simply be going to work.

  4. zackparrinella says:

    Speed dating is yet another depiction of how many alternatives there are in our modern society to finding a lover through everyday interactions. Just like online dating sites, phone dating services, and man other technological forms of introducing people to each other, sped dating provides almost an easy way out to finding a love partner. Now even though some people have found someone they truly love using speed dating, just like with online dating, phone dating and the other services, to me it just doesn’t seem like a true way to find someone you like. It’s hard to even imagine what it was like 50 to 100 years ago when the only way to talk to someone besides in person was on a land line that might have not even worked that well. To find someone you love was a true challenge in the olden days, which was good because it probably provided a lot of excitement when a relationship worked out successfully.
    Jamie, your argument of how speed dating is very symbolic of our culture is true, we just want everything quicker and easier, even relationships. Maybe it is things like this that are to blame for the increased rate of divorces nowadays…..and if not to blame it for sure has something to do with it.

  5. Molly Small says:

    I think this essay was great and speed dating has become a more and more popular thing, especially in American society as of late. I completely agree with the two perspectives you took on for the paper, but I also feel you could look at the practice of speed dating through the eyes of a feminist anthropologist. It may be somewhat of a stretch but speed dating could been seen through the changing roles of females. Feminist anthropoligsts could really pull apart these speed dating sessions by looking specially at how females (in comparison to males) present themselves on said “dates”. It would be important to see how they dressed, what information about themselves they presented, and their body language during the conversation. It would be pretty doable to look at how culture has put constraints on the women due to their gender and at the same time, how woman have become naturalized to act in such a way (ex: a woman will probably take time to think about what she is going to wear, will cross her legs appropriately, and will not share any information that is too personal at first)

    • sappho Mea says:

      Molly, I agree with you that the actual five-minute encounters in speed-dating would be a great fieldwork, and your examples illustrate perfectly how an anthropologist could combine different theoretical approaches (in this case, Feminist and Symbolic) to make sense out of a cultural practice. The combination of both approaches is highly relevant here, since both are concerned with the concept performance. While symbolic anthropologists seek culture in public performances, feminist anthropologists try to present gender as an unconscious and “naturalized” performance.

      Your remarks about how women have been constrained to act and think in specific ways (the importance of clothes and physical appearances; their attitudes when sitting; the kind of information they should give about themselves, etc.) underline very well the idea of performance in gender. Individuals in speed-dating have only five minutes to give a picture of themselves as a perfect man or perfect woman, and to combine all the elements that prove it. That makes me think that such pieces of performance are semiotically very dense.

      Your remarks also make me think of the book The Rules : Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right. It is a very prescriptive, normative, guide book, a series of rules that women have to follow if they want to find Mr. Right: how to behave properly, how to be passive, how to let the man desire you (i.e. never call him! You would appear like a predator, and it is the virtue of men to be predators, etc.). Notions of performance, constraint and gender-bias are perfectly epitomized in this book.

  6. Kelsey Robb says:

    I really enjoyed this essay. I think it’s great how you incorporated the idea that speed dating is just an adaptation to how we normally see dating. Since the world today is full of new opportunities and especially with the new trend of women being financial independent, there really is no time to meet someone the old fashioned way. I think speed dating is just a way to solve this problem. People still meet face to face and get to know each other, but it’s fast paced and people are able to meet many new faces at one time. It’s a faster process and the probability of finding someone to have a connection with is much higher than if someone was to go out on their own and try to find someone. With our society evolving as rapidly as it is, these solutions and adaptations are crucial.

  7. Meghan McFarland says:

    Perhaps, this is a stretch but what role would a linguistic anthropologist have in a discussion on speed dating? I think just the name “speed dating” connotes a sense of ease, and accessibility. Whether or not people seriously believe that they will discover true love, the connotations of “speed dating” imply that people will not have to halt their busy and rushed daily lives in order to date.
    Also, I think that feminist anthropologists would have interest in the age of people that speed dating attracts..

    • Rebecca Oliver says:

      I think that a linguistic anthropologist would definitely find a lot of material to work with in speed dating. Because the discourse in events like speed dating is so different than usual settings, linguistics definitely applies. People speak faster, and more deliberately. It reminds me of one lecture at the beginning of the semester when Professor Mcgranahan gave an example of how people spoke on the busses in Nepal. Those types of questions like “what is your family like?”, “are you married?”, etc. are typical in Nepal, but here we have to create a specific event just to talk to people in that way. I find that interesting.

  8. Sarah Zall says:

    I really like how you pointed out that Structural-Functionalism neglects the fact that structures change. You are right in saying that the one-man, one-woman structure is no longer the norm. Today, the structure is being challenged and same-sex partnerships, single-parenting, and co-parenting are all becoming more prevalent.

    I particularly liked your part about Symbolic Anthropology and understanding why the male moves during speed dating. Yes, the male does take on the inconvenience but at the same time, he is leaving the girl and moving onto the next. She sits there patiently waiting for her next suitor while the male is off to woo another woman, hoping to increase his chances of “spreading his seed.” It would be interesting to see how a Feminist Anthropologist would interpret this aspect of speed dating. What value does the woman add to this situation and is she inferior because she sits waiting while the men move about around her?

  9. Anna Hermann says:

    Do you guys think this cultural phenomenon is an indication of people’s notions that people are either instantly attracted to someone or not? You could look at this practice as promoting the ideas of love at first sight, initially impressions making all the difference. In taking part in it you give yourself that much more exposure and let people know you’re available, in much the same way that a dating site would. The point could be to make it apparent you are open to a relationship rather than to actually make spur-of-the-moment connections. Do you guys think these new forms of dating have arisen lately because it is possible for them to arise, with technology and busy lifestyles and whatnot? Or are they becoming more mainstream because people are more flexible with relationships now than ever, searching for that Mr. Right and less likely to settle as they might have done in the past? Is speed dating, cyber dating, or any of the rest of it a new way to cast a worldwide search for your soulmate?

    • Clair Trousil says:

      To answer your first question, I think that the practice of speed dating is definitely an indication of people’s idea if instant attraction. But isn’t any other way that we Americans go out to find somebody? If you think about it, when we go to parties or to bars to find the next person to pursue a relationship with, we normally approach the more attractive people that immediately spark our interests. Unless you find your significant other by way of having a friendship first, there really is no other way that we start relationships with people. I think that the practice of speed dating may not necessarily be an indication of people’s idea of immediate attraction, but instead a way of agency manifesting itself and becoming reflexive in our society. Our normal practice of looking for someone that immediately attracts us has become a literal social practice of deciding whether or not you want to start a relationship with someone within the first five minutes of knowing them.

  10. Zoe Adelman says:

    I really like the idea of speed dating as a topic for the love essay. I kept thinking throughout this whole essay what someone living in Nepal would think of the concept of speed dating. First, I thought that they would look at the concept as being very strange. First of all, why would a group of people go on dates with many people in one night? Second of all, how would they expect to get to know someone’s character well enough in that time? Or know anything about their family? But when I thought about modern day Nepal and love marriages, I think that the idea of speed dating is no longer that out of the question. This is because many of the examples of love marriages that we have learned about have been very sudden. Many of the marriages took place after only a day or two. You could also argue that you would be unable to truely know someones character in this short of a time. Overall, in a strange and distant way, I found it interesting to try and imagine what a Junigau citizen would think about this concept, but in the end I am only speculating.

  11. kellyloud says:

    I love how you explained how the concept of chivalry might take part in speed-dating. Alas! it isn’t dead! This pushes me to wonder what your thoughts are on speed-dating through a feminist anthropologist perspective. Are women forced to sit idly while men get the liberty of stretching their legs between dates? Are we forced to live by traditional gender roles and therefore submitted to finding suitable males wherever we can? Or is it rather that we have gained so much agency in the workplace that it is by leisure that we fit in dates wherever we can?

  12. Bryan Daino says:

    I think this is a great essay showing the adaptations to dating. As people in society are becoming more and more busy and have less time to meet and date new people speed dating gives these people a solution. Speed dating is based off of first impressions and how they are the most important part of your relation ship. I dont know if this is a good thing because people can learn to like them. I would say that speed dating started to developed in the past 10 years in the US and wondered if any other countries had speed dating? and is there speed dating events based off religion or any other factor? I also wonder what a feminist anthropologists would say about speed dating?

  13. KaliTown says:

    Speed dating is interesting because it seems partially about putting yourself out there, being confident and exploring options, but these actions are preformed in a highly structured environment and often involve excessive strategizing. It makes sense that when you only have a few minutes to speak with someone who could be a potential romantic partner you want to make a good impression. In order to do this, a speed daters have to plan and manipulate the way they embody appropriate social and cultural norms while still “being themselves.” Making a good impression may require some extra thought a dater wouldn’t normally dedicate to a conversation in a different setting. Some examples of this preparation include thinking of questions to ask people, considering heavily how to dress and present yourself, and what types of things you most want to share about yourself with a stranger. So although people in a speed dating setting are exposing themselves to new people and things in hopes of finding a partner, this expression is still highly constrained both internally (how you plan to structure a conversation), and externally (someone rings a bell and you change partners).

  14. Ariane Robertson says:

    I like how you brought up the power difference in relationships. It sounds really sinister, but it definitely exists in all relationships. A poststructuralist anthropologist would probably be very interested in speed dating because, as these people are most likely complete strangers, observing who takes power in the situation might give insight into power struggles between genders in the broad scope of society.

  15. Irina Vagner says:

    That’s very interesting how you represented structural-functionalists’ view through the mating. I think it is itself is a symbol, and a very important idea that such institutions as dates are considered by its PRIMARY function of mating. So, you don’t talk about love as a construction within dating system. I really like it this approach.
    It would be fascinating also to look at this type of dating and meeting people from the functionalist perspective. The power relations: who gets to stay at one spot, and who has to go around the room meeting random people and why.

  16. Irina Vagner says:

    …. and I meant to say post-structuralism, not functionalism….

  17. Parker Robbins says:

    How do you think a Feminist Anthropologist would view this idea of speed dating? With males generally being more sex-obsessive, is it possible that males participate in this action to simply weed out non-attractive women quickly? Is this practice degrading to a female who could be trying to find a happy relationship while a man is looking for a quick hook up? The concept of speed dating has been useful to some of the population, but is it truly fair to females who are looking for their soulmate, or is it a cheap trick for more men to find hook ups?

  18. Dana Melby says:

    This essay made me think of a discussion we had in recitation in which we applied practice theory to dating rituals. What people say they do or expect on a date versus what they actually do. It would be interesting to apply practice theory to the idea of speed dating because it has challenged so many dating norms. Perhaps it would study what people share about themselves and whether they elaborate. Also, there is a stigmatization of non-traditional dating practices in the United States, such as online dating and speed dating. It will definitely be interesting to see how these change with time.

  19. John Vertovec says:

    This essay was a well put together essay. I feel that cultural ecology could have been used as a lens to look through though. Speed dating appears to be a cultural adaptation to a very fast paced environment. Our American environment moves at such break-neck speeds that take away time for normal dating and courting atmospheres. By speed dating, people can get down to the nitty gritty quickly. This allows for people to step over normal dating procedures and get down to the most important thing; are the two people compatible.

  20. Taylor Deisinger says:

    I feel that it would be interesting to look at the types of people that are participating in speed dating and how a cultural marxist would look at this subject. I feel that they would look at the relations in the status and life position these people are in. Would someone bring up where they are in their career and where they want to be in the future over where they have been? How does the want to impress affect the direction of conversation between the participants, what people want to to share and hide from a possible mate?

  21. Alex Myers says:

    How often and where does speed dating take place? I was unaware that it was still around. I have seen it in older movies but never actually heard it talked about. I like your two/three approaches. I would have liked to see more of a feminist point of view, although what you did cover was very sufficient. I also think it practice theory would be a good perspective, looking at the dating norms in American society.

  22. Amanda Pruess says:

    It’s interesting that you brought in the topic of the bell to signal time ending or starting. Although it doesn’t have much to do with modern dating, but it does show a lot about our culture and how linear our minds work. This topic is also interesting in general because it’s shows American’s want for love, but not the want to work for it. Speed dating gathers a bunch of people who simply want to find “love”, when that in fact goes against the “love will find you, you won’t find it” idea. Speed dating, in a way, goes against “fate”, and it almost shows how pushy Americans can be, pushing their fate and all that.

  23. Luke Nelson says:

    Very good analysis of this topic using these great theories. Are their other symbols of dating that these speed dating places use to symbolize the dating process i.e. location, drinks, things that culturally indicate that two people are on a date. I also like your point about structural-functionalism, how our social institution of marriage and relationships are responding to a world that if more fast paced and connected, yet ironically becoming more isolated emotionally.

  24. sappho Mea says:

    I found your structural-functionalist approach quite relevant here. Although you show that it was not a self-sufficient approach, it is still important to ask the question of what changes in the social structure may have enabled (made necessary?) a practice such as speed-dating. The reason you gave, the increasingly fast rhythm of the American way of life, makes perfect sense.

    However, we may see other factors in it. It may sound commonplace to say it, but the Western world has witnessed an increase in individualism, and a certain collapse in one’s sense of community (or at least a decrease in the influence of the community on one’s decisions and acts). Individuals have been more and more isolated from each others, a phenomenon which may have contributed in making the quest for the soul mate more difficult, hence the need to create institutions facilitating it.

    Another factor influencing in my mind the emergence of such an institutions as speed-dating, is the idea, linked to contemporary capitalism, that everything can be purchased. Even love can be obtained easily and quickly as far as one has the means to pay for it.

  25. Katherine Caldwell says:

    I really liked this topic and I never would have thought about it myself. I’ve never been speed dating but from your symbolic anthropology approach it seems odd that this is based around a man moving from woman to woman. Its interesting because its often the women who get “left” for another woman. This seems to just further this dating ritual. Wouldn’t it make more sense to let the women choose? Maybe this is just the way they are all set up. I suppose that would be more from the feminist approach.

  26. Payton Bess says:

    This is a very interesting subject to write on! I really like this essay because I think that it is important to recognize that dating isn’t like it used to be. People are no longer going on the traditional dinner and a movie date. Times are changing and people are busier than ever. With work being on the top of so many peoples priority list, dating and having a love life take a back seat. However, I don’t know that speed dating is a very successful way to date. Even for those that don’t have much time for dating, I agree that much of the date is based on looks, and outer appearance than really being able to get to know a person. Five minutes seems like just enough time to pick out a persons flaws, not see what is good about them or what you might like. Especially with America being such an appearance based society, I don’t think that speed dating really has a place in our society today. I know that I would never try it.

  27. Landon Shumaker says:

    I would of chosen a different approach besides structure-functional because in current society speed dating is for people to meet each other in a fast paced environment. Speed dating is useful for those who are inclined for hooking up. Other places such as eharmony and those types are the ones associated with trying to have a family. Speed dating should be looked at with a feminist view, about changing gender rolls by women being equal in wanting a hook up and potentially making the first move by talking to guys. I do like how they talk about males being the ones who walk around the room to assimilate spreading the seed.

  28. Alex McNa says:

    I like how you used symbolism to attack this cultural phenomenon and how you discussed the symbolism of speed dating as a ritual form of a rite of passage in seeking out a potential mate. One area of symbolism that I thought about that was also interesting that you might not have had room to address would be the goal of symbolic anthropology: to find the hierarchy of cultural categories and what symbols are valued over another. By this, I mean stereotypes that surround speed dating, for example, that its participants are people who are incapable of finding true love on their own or other similar accusations. It is similar to the social stigmas that surround online dating sites. Is anyone that has found their true partner seen as a any less because they used an online dating site or speed dating? In actuality no, but social stigmas and stereotypes do exist. It would be interesting to hear how couples that have met using these mediums to build lasting relationships, felt about using that particular medium and if they have felt aggression from their peers about doing such. To relate it to our studies of Junigau, I would say it could be seen as similar to having your marriage arranged, via capture, or an elopement. While none in reality may be better than the other in the end, people make judgments based off of others actions all the time. While participants of speed dating could be viewed as inferior in their abilities to find a partner, the actuality may be that they are just simply too busy for the act of dating, or travel frequently and never really settle in an area long enough to build strong relationships. In these cases speed dating or online dating seem like a very practical approach. Do you guys think there are social stigmas and stereotypes that surround speed dating? What other anthropological approaches might explain why these exist?

  29. Keith Jones says:

    I have never been speed dating so I wouldn’t know but is that always the case that the man is the one that does the moving? I’ve only seen it in movies and I believe I’ve seen it both ways, with the women moving in some cases and the men moving in others, but this is hollywood, not the most accurate portrayal of reality. At any rate, if that is true that the man is the one that moves that is an extremely interesting observation that could easily be overlooked. That definitely has the subconscious, underlying theme of the man “getting around” literally in this case and figuratively in the context of the world. I’m sure whoever designed speed dating didn’t decide the man would do the moving on purpose but it is interesting how these cultural themes especially with regard to gender subconsciously work their way into our everyday lives without us even noticing.

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