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Handout

Ghosting, breakups by text, messages left on “read” and ignored for days – just some of the brutally efficient realities of dating with the aid of technology. Dismayed by what she was hearing from her millennial employees, Toronto strategist Siri Agrell was unnerved to see the same unfeeling behaviour from some in her own generation – forty-somethings who should know better, whose formative dating years took place offline.

Poetic and provocative, Agrell’s new book How to Get Laid Without Your Phone examines what we’ve lost with technology-facilitated intimacy – where conversations are scripted, polished and dispatched through a screen, and people are treated like they don’t exist in real life.

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“Let’s recognize that the way we are, the way we meet, talk, sleep with each other, live with each other, fight and hurt each other, has been informed and altered by the ways we are conditioned through technology,” Agrell writes. The author spoke with The Globe and Mail about her hopes for strengthening human relationships amid a global crisis.

Siri Agrell is the author of How To Get Laid Without Your Phone.

Handout

Despite 11 months of pandemic lockdowns, we’ve witnessed some surprisingly hopeful signs on the dating landscape. People dating online say they’re investing more time and energy into connecting with fewer matches, versus swiping constantly. Conversations are lengthening. Slower courtship is replacing faster hookups. People are steering away from tired resumé exchanges to more pressing issues, including their fears through this crisis. Are you heartened to hear this?

Even before the pandemic, people were realizing that the transactional, volume-based, algorithmic approach to dating wasn’t doing it for them. People want to connect in the real meaning of the word – not just meet, but really find someone they can talk to, feel comfortable with and joyful around. I’m glad to hear that people’s habits are changing to develop more meaningful interactions.

But I also keep seeing this pop-up ad on Instagram for “date night” boxes and kits – a step-by-step game for couples. Have we really become so bad at finding things to do together?

Some singles decided they would only date virtually by video call through the pandemic, while others said they’d only do outdoor walks. What do you make of this shift: one toward more screen time, the other to in-person?

The social isolation we’ve all experienced to fight the pandemic has made us crave human interaction. Technology has been a hugely important tool to let us connect through this, but we’ve also realized that technology alone can’t fill the void – and that we’re still missing something. You felt people burn out on video calls – we knew it wasn’t the same. And so people are going for walks, finding ways to connect face-to-face.

Much of dating used to happen over a table, probably over a drink. “Pandemic strolls” are side-by-side, most likely sober. How does that shape the experience?

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It’s good for people to understand that dating doesn’t have to involve drinking. Both alcohol and technology can be used as social lubricants, a way to loosen our inhibitions and get us to talk to each other. But whether we’re chatting over a cocktail or online, the question is: Are we actually connecting with each other, listening to one another?

Technology has trained us in a very different way of communicating. It’s accelerated our tendency not to listen, to just wait for our turn to talk. When you meet people, you need to really meet them: to listen, be open to conversations we can’t necessarily plan for, to be honest.

One of the main things I hear from people who are going on online dates is that the person didn’t ask them anything about themselves. People are performing – they’re not connecting.

You write about “messiness, chance and spontaneity” being largely absent from online dating, where people tend to micromanage so much of the experience.

A lot of people use technology, consciously or not, as a way to ensure control. To try and plan everything, to set everything up just-so, the way they like it. Technology is a great tool, but we must make sure it doesn’t become a crutch.

What bothers me is what I’m hearing about people having a set route [on walking dates] that they travel on every date – a pre-set agenda or system. The problem is, this removes the other person from the equation. You’re dictating terms. We don’t wander aimlessly, letting events unfold. We don’t allow for factors beyond ourselves – and that’s stifling.

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The dating app Bumble now lets users specify if they want their dates to be virtual or socially distanced in-person, masked or unmasked. Not only are people filtering matches, but they’re setting up these new safety parameters, then quizzing dates on their tolerance for risk and any possible exposures. How can spontaneity and chance possibly figure into this moment?

It’s actually wonderful that people are openly communicating their boundaries and desires, even if it’s, “Listen, I don’t want to get sick – can we agree that we’ll both take these precautions?” You can be safe and clear – in a pandemic and otherwise – and still allow room for spontaneity, for messiness and surprise. When we feel safe and have a shared understanding of terms, we’re more likely to be spontaneous with them, to be free and open in our exchanges. It’s called trust.

Amid a crisis we can’t control, questions of trust and vulnerability are constantly with us. How does it change how people behave around each other?

If we’ve learned anything from this, it’s how vulnerable we are to each other. We’ve learned that we need each other in so many ways. We’ve realized that technology is a vital tool – but that if we don’t focus on our humanity, on how we actually treat one another, we’re a bit screwed.

When it comes to our relationships, what are we looking for? Someone who gets us, cares about us, who will have our back. I hope it makes us ask more of each other – and expect more of each other.

When this time is over, do you see us maintaining these improved relationships with each other – on-screen and off?

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We have the opportunity right now to push past the status quo on so many things. We understand now, I hope, that something is off in how we treat each other, in how we spend our time, and what we believe and prioritize. We need to accept that our reliance on technology is shaping us – for better and for worse. It’s a great time to give our heads a shake and remember what it is we’re actually trying to achieve. Our relationships are the perfect place to start.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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