Before the pandemic, Anand J, a Chennai-based writer, would be out almost every other evening, certainly on the weekends, with his friends or meeting new people. But covid changed it all. “I am super nervous and get major anxiety attacks whenever I have to go out now,” he says. He has been talking to people on dating sites, but his anxiety prevents him from taking it beyond online interaction. “I’ve been chatting with this girl, and she wanted to meet,” Anand says. But he bailed out, saying he had to look after his dogs. “I think she is close to losing interest in me because I haven’t made any plans with her,” he adds.
The last two years have overwhelmingly changed the way we meet people, fall in love or make friends. But the desire to connect hasn’t dimmed. According to a recent survey by the dating platform Bumble, “an overwhelming 72% of single Indians surveyed think it is possible to fall in love with someone online they have never met in person.” It also pointed out that people were dating more intentionally and honestly, with fewer ghosting, breadcrumbing, and catfishing incidents.
As cafes and bars open and the world limps back to normal, it’s not unreasonable to expect in-person dating to resume full swing after months of online chatting, flirting and sexting.
But not quite.
Sridevi Nayak, a freelance digital marketing professional in Bengaluru, is still terrified of stepping outside her house, let alone meet someone new. “Before the pandemic, I was a different person,” she says, recalling a time when she met three different people in one week. Since March 2020, however, she has barely left the house, only venturing out at 2 am to throw out the trash. “I have asthma and diabetes,” says Nayak, who lives alone with her recently adopted puppy. Though she uses dating apps to chat with people, she still cannot bring herself to meet them in person. “I am scared to step out,” she says.
This increase in anxiety at the thought of meeting a new person is normal now, says Samitha Jain M, a counselling psychologist at Fortis Malar, Chennai. And it isn’t just linked to the fear of covid. “Talking to people can be anxiety-provoking since you’ve been in a comfort zone for a long time,” she says. Since most people have spent the last couple of years only communicating with their friends and family, their social skills have gotten a bit rusty. “You are relearning the same skills because you haven’t been using them,” she says.
Anand would agree. His first and only real offline date since the pandemic began was a “weird experience.” He had found his date on Bumble and agreed to meet her just before the second wave scourged the country. “We had gelled well online,” he remembers. But the date itself was “incredibly awkward,” he says since neither he nor his date had socialised for a very long time. “We didn’t schedule the next date but went back to talking on WhatsApp,” he says.
In-person contact is tough when you’ve spent the last couple of years in suspended hibernation. But a relationship conducted almost completely through texts can also lead to intense disappointment when you finally meet, points out Jain. “We may have all these expectations of a person based on text conversations,” she says. Then, when you finally meet them offline and see them physically, “there is a huge disruption in the belief or perception we had about them and the way they actually are.” A couple of bad dates like this, and you’re probably unlikely to go on anymore, especially with the constant threat of covid still looming around.
Pawan Gupta, co-founder of Betterhalf.ai, however, is hopeful that this is only a phase. “I know many people on the app are waiting to meet,” he says, estimating that right now around 30% of online connections have translated into offline meetings. He expects the number to go up over the next few months.
Vaccine status will play a huge part in the shift from online to offline dating. “People are asking about vaccination a lot,” says Gupta. “It gives a safety net. It isn’t just about your safety but the other person’s safety.”. Anand and Nayak, for instance, have both brought up their views on vaccination with the people they’ve chatted with online. “I do check on people’s vaccine status,” says Anand. When he does go out eventually, he says he will do so only with someone who has been vaccinated. “If they aren’t, I just won’t meet them,” he says.