For a 21st-century young man in the industrialized world, dating is as much a part of life as is indoor plumbing. And like indoor plumbing, perhaps unbeknownst to the modern-day gentleman, the concept of dating is a relatively recent invention.
By the late 17th and most of the 18th centuries, the Age of Reasoning (ca. 1670 – 1790), led primarily by French intellectuals and quickly embraced across all of Europe, championed the notion that reason, rather than dogma or blind compliance with tradition, should govern behavior and bring about reform. Some of society’s most venerated customs were challenged, the tradition of arranged marriages being one. Thus, courting, the forefather of dating, was born. Perhaps inspired by the medieval-era literature of 500 years earlier, which included themes of courtly love and chivalrous comportment, 18th-century courtship involved a young man who, having captured the fancy of a young lady of his social class, would be invited to her home for a social visit supervised by her parents and observed by her siblings. If the interest proved mutual, additional invitations would be extended to the young man, culminating, hopefully, in his asking the young lady’s parents for her hand in marriage. Because courting occurred primarily in the home of the female, it was a “gyno-centric” ritual.
By the late 1700s, the Industrial Revolution was underway. And nation by nation, led by the British, the agrarian, farm-dwelling world became increasingly urban as agro-laborers moved into the cities of Europe and America seeking more lucrative employment opportunities in mills and factories. To accommodate the great urban migration, modest housing was constructed. The typical tenement dweller, having left his family and bucolic environment to make his way in the world, lived in a simple flat that was not conducive to impressive entertaining. So the newfound city dwellers started inviting their romantic interests to public outings: Concerts and picnics in public parks, dances, restaurants, and the theater, for example. Thus, dating was born. Unlike courting, however, which was supervised and on the female’s turf, dating was unsupervised and controlled by men since they paid the expenses associated with public outings. By the first decades of the 1900s, with the coming of the automobile and the additional private mobility it afforded, dating became even more established as a way of life. And by the 1920s, with the sexual revolution which resulted from unsupervised urban living, arranged marriages and courting had become things of the past in most of the industrialized world. Dating was now the custom by which people sought and found suitable mates. By the 1930s and ‘40s, with the rapidly increasing popularity of the cinema, partly because of its relatively modest entrance fees, dating expanded to accommodate people in their teenage years. And as young women increasingly left their homes in pursuit of university educations, dating became even more widespread. By the 1940s, most college women, without any help from their parents, would, upon arriving on campus, find themselves an “S.P.” (“special person”) while in pursuit of a B.A. and an M-r-s. With the 1970s came the concept of the “blind date,” where two people, “site-unseen,” would be introduced by a mutual, unofficial, matchmaker-friend with the hopes that the newly introduced would take a liking to each other and venture off into their own dating relationship. And by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, “speed dating,” in response to the ultra-efficient culture spawned by the age of technology, had become a part of the social construct: Professional dating agencies, based on personality-profile data, would select 10 or 20 “personality matches” or “compatibles” for presentation to a “client” in one “sitting” during a rapid-fire, single-elimination-style series of five-minute-long “interview-dates” where the client could quickly and efficiently assess all the “potential partners” in less time than would normally be required for one traditional date, thereby saving considerable time and money while simultaneously eliminating the need for “morning-after” phone calls.
Dating—A Means to an End
While the goal of courting was decidedly marriage, dating has always been more open-ended. And almost from its inception, it was bifurcated into casual dating and serious dating. Casual dating assumes many forms, from the “hook-up,” which generally begins with a ritualized, prelude-type outing—whether to a movie, a local bar for a drink, or a dinner, for example—and ends with a tacit or outright request for sex, to dating where two people simply enjoy each other’s company in public. Serious dating, sometimes referred to as “going steady,” is more akin to courting. After compatibility has been established (oftentimes as a result of casual dating), serious daters spend time together with the idea that the relationship might evolve into marriage, remain as-is indefinitely, or exist for as long as both parties consider the relationship mutually satisfying.
But whether casual “hook-up” or a much more serious dating relationship, what is critical is that a gentleman—especially when dating a lady in her late 20s or in her 30s, for whom marriage may be a priority—be immediately open and truthful about his intentions and desires so as not to mislead or be misinterpreted.