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Jasmyn Ellis says she has experienced a seismic tonal shift in online dating.

Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

Self-isolation is doing strange things to the dating scene, and Jasmyn Ellis has a front-row seat.

Ms. Ellis, 28, had three dates scheduled in Vancouver when the coronavirus pandemic intensified and self-isolation became the new reality for Canadians in mid-March. With in-person meetings out of the question, Ms. Ellis took her dating life into the virtual realm, sharing wine nights with men through video chat instead.

Since social distancing rules forced everyone to hunker down at home and the global crisis left so many feeling deeply unsettled, Ms. Ellis said she has experienced a seismic tonal shift in online dating. The conversations, she explained, have grown richer and the men kinder: The wolves have fallen away, their chances of hooking up evaporated.

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“A week ago, it was a completely different landscape online. I’m noticing that I’m attracted to more people,” said Ms. Ellis, a social-media specialist who uses the dating app Bumble, on which women have to make the first contact after matching with a man. “The people on it right now," she said, “the quality is way better.”

Like everything else that changed seemingly overnight since the pandemic shook the world, so have humans’ dating habits. With bars, clubs, restaurants, theatres and other public spaces shut down and self-isolation the new norm, daters are adapting. Video chat has officially replaced flesh-and-blood dates, and slow courtship is ousting the hookup, supposedly. Online conversations are lengthening and steering away from the tired resumé exchange to more pressing matters. Some are actually finding it a hopeful time to date.

People’s gallows humour is coming out and the talk is more vulnerable, Ms. Ellis observed. “A lot of men are getting to the point where they have to feel their emotions. They can’t just go to the gym and work it out.”

She finds herself opening up more, too, sharing fears that keep her up at night. “You can really see people. How they’re relating online about what’s happening to the world right now is kind of attractive."

At the same time, aesthetic expectations have plummeted, Ms. Ellis said. “A T-shirt and jeans and maybe a tinted moisturizer and pulling my hair back is enough. The reality is, this is going to be me for the next little bit, so here I am.”

Dating app users are shifting away from the superficial, grocery-shopping experience of date after date, doing “chemistry-building time" instead, said Kimberly De La Cruz, a spokesperson for Seeking Arrangement, a dating site that caters to “sugar daddies” and “sugar babies.”

“We’ve gotten away from really getting to know someone or even establishing true interest before going out,” she said. “Now you actually have to engage and maintain someone’s attention.”

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In a way, Ms. De La Cruz and other daters observed, it’s now easier to decipher a stranger’s character: Are they willing to disregard health officials and put others at risk by pushing an in-person meet-up? Or, will they wait for the first date, which may be months out? “Watching and learning how people respond in crisis while you’re getting to know them will say a lot about them,” Ms. De La Cruz said.

For the first time in his two years on Bumble, Drew Hall, 27, has been using the website’s video chat feature. Mr. Hall said that while it’s been frustrating not knowing when it will be safe to emerge and meet dates out in the world, he hypothesized that a guy’s level of irritation depends on his motives: Was he looking for sex or hoping to get to know someone?

Mr. Hall, who works in software sales in Vancouver, said he finds himself speaking with fewer people on Bumble now, and that the conversations feel more genuine, even though they’re happening through a screen. “When we lose all the distractions out there and become detached from our routines, we’re forced to sit there with ourselves. Everybody’s handling it differently, from people being positive to people going through an existential crisis.”

As singles who live solo try to keep loneliness at bay, online dating sites have seen a surge in activity. Bumble reported a 42 per cent increase in direct messages sent among users ages 18 to 22 from March 13 to March 20. Sign-ups at Seeking Arrangement skyrocketed by 74 per cent since the same time last year, Ms. De La Cruz said.

On Tinder, the location-based dating app, daily online chatting rose by 25 per cent in Italy and Spain. Conversations also lengthened by up to 30 per cent in mid-March compared with February, according to the company. Users became preoccupied with the pandemic: Words such as “stay home,” “be safe,” “how are you” and “wash your hands” are popping up more prominently in users’ online bios.

For Audrey Brennan, a 30-year-old graduate student from Quebec, the edicts to stay home came at an interesting juncture. She recently decided to take a break from dating apps, which she has used periodically since 2012, choosing to practise her dating skills in real life instead.

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“I wanted to go back out into the world and not spend endless hours swiping, only to chat for a few weeks or to be bluntly asked whether I would like to go over to his place for a hookup.”

Then came the government orders to keep away from other humans. Ms. Brennan plans to keep experimenting with in-real-life flirting, albeit from a safe two-metre distance. “I naively look at it as a unique challenge for me to meet strangers on the street, to say hello more often than I used to while taking a walk.”

She likes to think these uncertain times will provoke more meaningful interactions between people.

“I’d hope that it makes us stop with the small talk,” Ms. Brennan said. “Let’s talk about what happens after this crisis.”

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