Why It’s So Hard for Young People to Date Offline

Meet-cutes are hard when nobody wants to talk to strangers.

Bread and Butter Productions / Getty

In all of modern human history, it would be difficult to find a group of adults more serendipitously insulated from contact with strangers than the Millennials.

In 1979, two years before the oldest Millennials were born, the disappearance of 6-year-old Etan Patz while he was walking to a school-bus stop by himself gave rise to the popular parenting philosophy that children should be taught never to talk to strangers. By the time that first crop of “stranger danger” kids was in middle and high school, caller ID and automated customer service had made it easy to avoid talking to strangers on the telephone.

Seamless and food-delivery apps like it, which took most of the interactions with strangers out of ordering takeout food from restaurants, emerged in the mid-2000s. (Today, Seamless entices new customers in New York City with ads in subway cars that emphasize that by using the service, you can get restaurant-quality meals without having to talk to anyone.) Smartphones, introduced in the late 2000s, helped fill the bored, aimless downtime or waiting-around time that might induce strangers to strike up a conversation. And in 2013, when the oldest Millennials were in their early 30s, Tinder became available to smartphone users everywhere. Suddenly dates too (or sex, or phone sex) could be set up without so much as a single spoken word between two people who had never met. In the years since, app dating has reached such a level of ubiquity that a couples therapist in New York told me last year that he no longer even bothers asking couples below a certain age threshold how they met. (It’s almost always the apps, he said.)

Millennials have, in other words, enjoyed unprecedented freedom to opt out of live or in-person interactions, particularly with people they don’t know, and have frequently taken advantage of it. And less chatting with strangers means less flirting with strangers. The weirdly stranger-free dating world that Millennials have created provides the backdrop for a new book titled, revealingly, The Offline Dating Method. In it, the social-skills coach Camille Virginia, who works with private clients and also holds workshops, attempts to teach young people how to get dates not by browsing the apps, but by talking—in real life, out loud—to strangers.

The Offline Dating Method bills itself as a guide for single women on “how to attract a great guy in the real world,” as opposed to on Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, or any of the other myriad dating apps on the market. At surface level, you could say, it’s a guide to getting asked out Sex and the City–style (that is, by attractive and friendly strangers who make their approaches anywhere and everywhere), though at times it veers into some of the same questionable gender-essentialist territory the HBO show often trod: For example, Virginia cautions her female reader against simply asking a man out herself if he isn’t making a move, and advises readers to ask attractive men for information or directions because “men love feeling helpful.”

It would be easy to mistake a number of tips from The Offline Dating Method for tips from a self-help book about finding love in an earlier decade, when people were idle and more approachable in public, their energy and attention directed not into the palms of their hands but outward, toward other people. The first of the guide’s three chapters is all about how to become more approachable, and suggestions include wearing interesting jewelry or accessories that invite conversation, and holding the mouth open slightly to eliminate “resting bitch face.” (One of the book’s first pieces of advice, however—to simply go to places that you find interesting and make it a point to engage with your surroundings—struck me as both timeless and newly poignant.)

The Offline Dating Method also gestures only fleetingly at what some might argue is one of the chief deterrents against flirting with strangers in 2019: the fact that it’s sometimes perceived as, or can quickly devolve into, sexual harassment. But later parts of the book mark it as a hyper-current artifact of the present—of a time when social-media skills are often conflated with social skills, and when the simple question of what to say out loud to another person can be anxiety-inducing for many. In the second and third chapters, The Offline Dating Method could virtually double as a guide for how to talk to and get to know strangers, full stop.

Virginia advises readers to start conversations with others by simply remarking on what’s happening within their shared scenery rather than opening with a joke or a canned pickup line; she reminds readers that it’s okay to think of some interactions with strangers as just “practice” for others that will be more important, as a way of lowering the stakes and the inherent stress. She even advises practicing chatting naturally by broadcasting livestreams on Instagram or Twitter: “It’s impossible to fake your social skills when you’re live; you’re forced to go with the flow, even if you stumble or lose your train of thought,” she writes. “It’s the opposite of, say, spending 30 minutes over-crafting a two-sentence text message.” Virginia also gently guides the reader through the basics of having an interesting conversation, on a date or in any setting, advocating for depth and not breadth (i.e., asking a series of questions about the same topic, rather than skipping around to varied aspects of the other person’s life) and offers a list of seven signs that a conversation has come to its natural close. (“Six: The other person is starting to fidget or look around.”)

The very existence of a book like The Offline Dating Method could be used as evidence that smartphones and the internet are causing arrested social development for the generations that are growing up with them. And perhaps it’s true that on average, earlier generations of people, who regularly interacted with strangers and made small talk to pass the time while waiting for trains and elevators, would have less of a need for such a guide. To an extent, Virginia acknowledges as much in the book: Today, she writes, “humans are craving ... connection and authenticity. Every day people are flooded with an overwhelming amount of information and distractions, most with the sole motivation of hijacking their time and/or money.” So when a modern single person meets someone “who’s able to engage them on a deeper level and sans ulterior motive, all of their unmet need for connection will likely come pouring out. So be ready, because it can happen fast.”

On the other hand, the existence of a book like Virginia’s also points to a desire to transcend some of the antisocial tendencies of daily life and dating in the internet age. And to her credit, she offers numerous, concrete ways to do so without sacrificing the great things that smartphones and wireless internet access have made possible. To the reader prone to wearing AirPods to listen to podcasts or stream music in public, for example, she advises simply keeping one headphone out—“to see what serendipitous opportunities start opening up.”