A gentleman’s guide to digital dating

Welcome to the Love Lockdown Lowdown

Love in the Time of Cholera is a wonderful novel all about — well, perhaps you can guess. I haven’t read it, much less experienced it. But our librarian says it’s a complex story with a simple message: that love, in the end, finds a way. (She has been married six times.)

It ought to be required reading during this most confusing moment — when the scent of darling buds has been Carex-d to oblivion, and the spring lambs don’t so much frolic as tremble. How can one achieve a movie ‘meet cute’ at two metres? And does anyone look beguiling in a face mask?

The answer to all your romantic problems (and I’m sure I’ve said this before) is the internet. You see, Zoom and Skype and Houseparty aren’t just programs for needlessly niche family quizzes (nobody cares about the flag of the Dutch Antilles, Michael) or shouty drinking games with boys who dropped out of Newcastle — they’re also locations of love. This is the gentleman’s guide to digital dating. Don’t thank us — it’s really no trouble at all.

Rule #1: Always wear trousers

There seems to be a horrid little rumour going round that it’s really big and clever and funny not to wear trousers on a Zoom call. “From the waist up I’m strictly business — but below deck I’m just in my M&S boxer shorts!”, these people say, and expect us to like them afterwards. (The same people tend to build their personalities around craft beer subscriptions and the fact that they like David Attenborough — listen, friend, so does literally everybody else.) If anything, getting fully dressed in everything apart from your trousers is actually more effort. Are you still wearing shoes? Where do you keep your phone? Isn’t it a bit cold? Don’t you like clothes?

The same goes for courting. You should get dressed properly to go on a date, digital or otherwise. If you look good, you feel good etc etc, and confidence is attractive etc etc. And it’s always harder to be charming with your thighs out, I find.

Rule #2: Make sure you have a stable internet connection

The atmosphere is bubbling along beautifully — just the right amount of laughter; a lovely set piece on the heroes of our NHS; a playful touch of the hair; the formation of knowingly silly inside jokes that will provide excellent material for second date callbacks. And now you’re onto the home straight — chuntering merrily towards the dazzling denouement of your best self-effacing (but not bodily) anecdote. (Something sweet about a muddy childhood dog, perhaps, or a prep school talent contest gone awry.) A teasing set up, a casual mention of a second home in Cornwall, a bashful semi-blush… and then — BAM! Punchline. It’s lovely, lovely stuff.

Until — over the crackling speakers — you hear: “Oh sorry — I didn’t quite catch the end of that. Was it something about a dead dog?”

Torpedoed by the Virgin Broadband once again. Thanks, Branson.

Rule #3: Think about your background

When you date in the real world, there’s so much more at play than just looks and words. The restaurant you choose paints a thousand words; the scent on your collar will speak to heady, sun-kissed adventure; the way you treat the waiter is a good indication of the way you’ll treat the maid. You get the idea.

With digital dating, a great deal of that contextual data has been stripped away. There is a face, a voice — and hopefully some sort of synchronicity between the two. But this is it — and you’ll need to use your video call background to allude to the elements of your character that can’t be communicated verbally. A mid-century clock says you have an eye for detail; a copy of Sapiens suggests you’ve pretended to have read Sapiens; a photograph of your family’s second home in Cornwall says your family has a second home in Cornwall. And so on and so forth.

Rule #4: Try to consider lighting

A fine balance, this. Low, soft lighting is often more flattering (and adds an element of mystery — is he into aromatic candles? Does he live in a kitchen cupboard?), but it can also hide too much. It is never pleasant to be on the receiving end of a long squint, and she may think the semi-darkness is just there to conceal your third chin (not much we can do about the second one, I’m afraid).

On the other hand, an excess of underlighting will leave everything looking a little too Blair Witch Project for most tastes, while a direct beam can give you the appearance of a village drunkard who’s been startled by the constable’s flashlight. Go half cock on the dimmer switch and be done with it.

Rule #5: Make sure there is a pre-agreed end time to the date

Do you remember when things used to happen? Engagement drinks and dinner parties and five martini barbecues? Now there’s none of that: no appointments whatsoever, no pre-arranged plans at all — which means you’ve got no good excuse for calling an end to your date if it all gets a little so-are-you-a-cat-person-or-a dog-person-y. Now that nothing happens, anything can go on forever. Save for a freak power cut or a sudden heart attack, you’ll be stuck on this date for eternity. You may as well get married, move to your family’s second home in Cornwall, grow old together and raise cats (and you lied about being a cat person!).

This won’t do. Much better to have a final duration agreed beforehand. Zoom caps things at forty minutes, unless you’re a paid subscriber. This, to me, seems like more than enough time to perform all the essential rituals of modern dating — the nervous drinking of overpriced wine; the outright lies about Strava performance times; the unbearably overplayed manners; the nagging sense that you’ve worn the wrong colour shirt; the impromptu joke that, on reflection, does sound a little sexist; the dawning realisation that this person isn’t right for you; and the ultimate acceptance that you’ll give it a go anyway because you’re terrified of being alone and you need someone to take to Poppy’s wedding and, let’s be honest, you’re not getting any younger, are you, and your younger sister just got engaged and she barely knows him, so what’s all that about, and wouldn’t it be terrible to die alone and how long do you think it would be until they found the body and what if the cats start to eat me. Love is in the air.

Need more lockdown etiquette pointers? Here’s how you should be using HouseParty…

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