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Tinder and the Tyranny of Language

Dating in the modern age can be something of a paradox. Apps like Tinder have delivered untold access to a virtually endless, digitally filtered cohort of eligible partners; while contraception has rendered the evolutionary severe consequences of poor mate selection, null and void. And yet courtship via social media still has a stubborn tendency to function quite awkwardly. My understanding of the human brain, and evolutionary context that produced it suggests to me that in using an emotionless symbolic language to organise our sexual selection—we utilise our brains in all the wrong ways—and bring about pairings that are remarkably conservative in their negotiation; verging on pathological in their outcome. Welcome to the tyranny of language.

Relationships end and life goes on. If you are young, that typically involves re-installing an app like Tinder and giving the dice of fate another proverbial throw. I first started using these apps when they were something of a social taboo, but the danger attracted all the right people, and you were always sure to meet somebody open and interesting. That was five years ago when I was still in my twenties. This time, the experience is quite different, and—perhaps due to the median age being higher—is bringing about courtship rituals that are conspicuously low-trust, and notably zero-sum. When I contrast these back to the more successful encounters that have punctuated my life, I am struck by some glaring contrasts. The conclusions I reach are not promising.

The archetypal romantic encounter often takes form as a holiday romance—usually in some small hostel, at the ends of the earth. A gradual build-up of tension, desire, and reciprocal ambiguity results in a chance explosion of intimacy—and you are liable to spend just about every waking moment with that person, in each other’s space, until the fateful return to reality that awaits every traveller. It works, perhaps, because it mimics on some psychological level, Dunbar’s number, being the social dynamics of the human tribe, and the brain’s relative sense of intimacy within a finite framework of people. The hostel becomes the safe space— becoming the tribe itself—and fleeting adventures into the unknown, outside world, only serve to highlight the comfort and familiarity of returning to that same little group, at the end of each day; with that special somebody standing out above all. A person does not date, per se—a person simply lives—and the so-called “pair-bond” becomes something of a path of least resistance. In such a claustrophobic social gestalt, there is no capacity for artificial distance, but you simply don’t notice.

Now, contrast this with something like Tinder. Forget about a slow build up of sexual tension, because a photo can’t instil a great deal of that. Forget an ambiguous sense of longing, and hope, and unbearable desire; you have both just swiped each other, and the rest is just a negotiation. It’s transactional. You rate them against the five or so other people you are simultaneously chatting with, and either lure them into revealing something deal breaking, some hidden flaw that you will promptly use to jettison them; or uncover some hidden trove of bonus points, that swings things into a decisive territory.

Should you find yourself on an actual, face to face date—the high-stakes transactions can really begin. It starts to dawn on you, that you are actually participating in a macabre arranged marriage, of sorts; except that it is being arranged by a computational algorithm, which has coincidentally broken down, and you are forced to run the sorting loop on your own, having no idea how it’s actually done.

If you are a straight male, at my age, the algorithm works like this. You swipe girls that you find attractive. If you are yourself attractive, or at least photogenic; about one in every fifty will swipe you back. So far so good. You say “Hello”—or something hopefully more original—half will respond with a similar greeting, and half will not reply at all. But you have been a very active swiper, and should have a few good conversations going every week. Biological realism, being what it is; these quickly come around to the question of earning potential, career stability and willingness to commit to long-term. Answering poorly on any of these metrics will end a conversation almost instantly, including having hinted at the original sin of being too recently broken up. But assuming you can survive all this and can weave a half-way compelling narrative for your own presence here; you may upgrade your prospects, by shifting the conversation to WhatsApp.

Now you are cooking with gas! Expect several days of intimate, evocative and tantalising back-and-forth, conversations running into the early hours of the morning, a reliable hit of dopamine at the peering at of one’s lock screen. You organise a face to face, a real live date—and the anxiety hits infinity, as this person who you have finally clicked with, will suddenly become real. So you meet up, and you can’t even recognise them. To make matters worse, you never actually do. Their digital persona is more familiar than anything physical existence can do justice to, and you fade out of each other’s lives, wondering who that imposter actually was, and how they got that other person—the one who you really felt something for—to type all those sweet and lovely messages. The hollow feeling grows profound, as you slowly realise, that you never will get to find out and that maybe, just maybe, you have actually lost your mind.

It took some serious contemplation, to untangle why I was repeating this cycle. In part, I can attribute my recently improved skills as a writer, in building an entertaining and beguiling narrative, and pulling somebody haplessly into it. Maybe I am just too good at this? No. It’s something else entirely. I revisited my best encounters, ones that became lasting and rewarding friendships, relationships or anything in between. What pattern did these follow? I can say for certain—these addictive, high-frequency textual exchanges, giving one’s phone a poker-machine like quality—came at the tail end of months of physical intimacy, if they came at all. We existed, perhaps, in a much more tribal state. Every waking moment together, where it was at all practicable; no zero-sum playing of games, no existential desire to weed out deal-breaking traits and experiences, like landmines in a Cambodian rice field, lest they blow up under your tread, leaving you gamed by some malevolent sentient other. When you fall in love the way that you do when you travel, the world has a way of contracting and such details fade into irrelevancy. When you scour the Internet for mates using Tinder, the world has a way of expanding—and nobody is ever good enough, and nobody, ever, can be trusted: to be all they appear to be; to be who they say.

What is the end result of courtship filtered through the language-producing networks of the human brain? Depending on the theory you subscribe to, it’s certainly not pretty. Iain McGilchrist, in his seminal work on brain laterality, makes the case that when it comes to human communication, abstract symbolic language is largely an output of the left cerebral hemisphere, while the more intangible aspects—such as melody, tone, prosody, gesture and sarcasm—are predominantly produced within the Right. Accordingly, what the Left hemisphere contributes, by way of its intrinsic cognitive method, is controlling, pedantic, binary, categorical, and prone to expressing affection through argument and dominance. This is, thankfully, balanced by the influence of the Right—which has a considerable preference for things that live, things that are beyond categories, things that are transient and intangible, but, ultimately, things that can never be grasped, can never be manipulated or utilised and can never be measured. The frustration of one becomes the saving grace of the other, and together, balanced communication is made possible by engaging the many dimensions of a thing, person, feeling or event—and in particular regards to the intimate—allowing the spontaneity and thrilling intensity of unexpected touch, and physical expression, to render inert the obsessive mechanical logic of a purely symbolic dialogue.

When it comes to human courtship, shutting the hell up and following one’s instinct can be the best thing you ever did.

Can courting a mate, through such restrictive and insular communicative dimensions, lead to these dramatic differences in perception? Can this theory account for the subjective experience of being in the company of a stranger (in person) while being in the thick of a long-term relationship when you open up your phone? How can we take ourselves all the way into the depths of textual intimacy, with a person we haven’t held or touched? Haven’t even kissed? Haven’t even seen? The alternative, I know, is to simply hold off on the damned texting. But then you have to consider that both of you are still on tinder and that matches are being made and dates organised. And if you want to hold a hope in hell of staying within that special somebody’s sphere of attention, well, best get texting right away, and best think of something interesting.

I’ve decided that Tinder worked a hell of a lot better as a hook-up app, than it does as serious dating one, and that these strange textual romances—sterile, devoid of physical communication or exchange—can only produce a skewed experience of person, that might, in theory, be rectifiable via some promptly organised outbreak of touch, sensual engagement and sexual exploration. But in practice, they only lead to an equally sterile series of dates.

And so the balance is never restored, and we move from one false romance to the next. Addicted to the idea of the person we could meet, doing our best to fool ourselves, that after three or four days of dialogue, and laughter, and openness and exchange—our rival self, that part of us that speaks no language that we consciously acknowledge—will suddenly meet its counterpart, and have a single damned thing in common with them, that it will know them, them, that it will love them. It won’t, it never actually does. The void between perceptive dimensions is rendered too acute, the balance between talking and touching has been distorted so severely, that the later isn’t even an option, and the former is only taking us round in circles, convincing us we are enjoying the ride.

It used to be that we would wake up, some morning after far too much drinking, or far too much smoking—and seeing that stranger lying next to us—we might even say something interesting, to ease the awkwardness. And hey, maybe it turns out they respond, because they are interesting, and against all odds, we strike up a pretty awesome conversation. Maybe we see each other again, maybe we become friends. Maybe we become best friends. Yet to date over social media, language is not only a performative pre-requisite to explore the intangible, it even serves as a mandatory currency, to perpetuate its own creative expression. It is little wonder that there is nothing left to enjoy, when we finally meet the human behind all these vaulted words—language has reduced us to two strangers, who know each other deeply, but are too scared of each other’s presence, to make that knowing meaningful.

I still get into thrilling and endless chats on Tinder. And I still enjoy doing so. Human courtship is about showing off what you have, and hoping that somebody, somewhere can appreciate it, if it’s about anything. But now I organise the date as soon as is possible and I throw Machiavellian games of mate-value speculation to the wind. If that goes well, I organise a second—again, as quickly as possible—appreciating that I forfeit all mystique about my obtainability in doing so. But maybe, I’ll reach the stage where reaching out and holding that person, becomes as fluid and as natural, as delivering another well-timed wisecrack, or fascinating anecdote, or eye-watering personal detail. And then, just maybe—I will have escaped from the tyranny of language. I will have escaped Tinder.


Jarrod A Gott is a Neuroscience student and writer from Melbourne, Australia. You can follow the action @sanityengine


  1. Very physical unattractive guys like me must have an almost zero percent chance of getting a date on Tinder. We have to find a woman the old fashioned way and that feels like a blessing in disguise.

    • You’d have a better chance if you date/pursue equally physically unattractive women. But men are so deluded. An unattractive guy decides he can only go out with a 9+. Zero chance indeed. Tinder is just one huge bar, mate. All the good looking people hook up with each other.

      • Sasha says

        So true!! Men (no matter what they look like) always act as if they are entitled to top level attractive women. DELUSIONAL!!!

        • Bryan says

          All the data indicates that it’s women who are the most particular about mates. About 80% of women want the top 20% of men and rate the bottom 80% of men as “less than average”. John is most likely right in this case, not “DELUSIONAL” at all

      • Zebesian says

        Unattractive men can date pretty women if they make good money. I don’t know what John does, but if he’s successful, he’s probably well-employed.

      • David says

        That seems a bit unfair to presume. Nothing about John’s comment suggested that the reason for his not getting dates on Tinder is because he only messages women who are far more attractive than he is. Is there good evidence that on Tinder (relative to the offline dating/hook-up scene) men on are significantly more likely than women to only contact people in the upper echelons of attractiveness?

      • MyName says

        way to generalize an entire gender. women on the other hand all want guys over 6 foot, and that is scientifical, not generalization :p

  2. Ashleigh E says

    Wonderful article. I am terribly cynical about technology and its implications on dating and human relationships. If only there could be a counterculture to technology, but there won’t be, because it is too addictive.

  3. Wiremu says

    “This time, the experience is quite different, and—perhaps due to the median age being higher—is bringing about courtship rituals that are conspicuously low-trust, and notably zero-sum”

    Why does the author consider courtship rituals a zero-sum game?

    • Something like: “your company brings me a finite amount of benefit, and my company brings you a finite amount of benefit. The relationship must then be mathematically balanced in such a way we both benefit in equal proportions.” In other words, we must benefit each other in equal, and finite amounts in order to be “fair.”

      A more romantic conception of love would be something like an ever-expanding, spontaneous propagation of meaning as the relationship increases in emotional depth, which ebbs and tides from one party to the other. One side of the relationship could be benefiting more than the other at any particular moment, but since both have agreed not to keep score about fairness and simply “go with the flow,” they have opened the gates of infinite potential rather than rationing between themselves finite portions of intimacy.

      • Wiremu says

        For that reason, if the benefit is not equal among a relationship and someone is benefiting more than the other, so it should be considered a non zero-sum game?

        • Taupe Pope says

          a + b = 0
          -> a = -b
          -> b = -a

          A ‘zero sum game’ is one where the players’ goals are in opposition to each other, they cannot cooperate to their mutual benefit.

          “Why does the author consider courtship rituals a zero-sum game?”
          I don’t think he does; he’s only describing the type of courtship engendered by Tinder and other text-first means of courting.

          • Jarrod says

            Author here,

            That is totally correct. Real life courtships are best when they are “Zero sum plus one”; meaning that when both parties co-operate, the outcome is not only mutually beneficial, but the net degree of benefit exceeds that available through simple competition. This might be considered something like mutual exploration of truth, or mutual growth through osmosis and exchange.

            “Zero Sum” courtship is something that any human can participate in, at any time, but I was simply saying that something about Tinder ruthlessly brings it out. This is where you present your best side, and trick somebody into falling for you, then they are stuck with you. Suspicion rises in proportion to the risk. Both genders can play this game, over just about anything you could imagine. It’s a game of deception and value-speculation.

  4. Stephen Henstock says

    Interesting article– makes me so glad that that I met my wife in person at college and got to know her as a person before dating her.

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  6. Carl Sageman says

    I hope this advice helps someone,

    From my own experience, I’m not shy. I dress well, I speak and present well in the real world. I’m softly spoken and know how to be warm and friendly. I have no issues with talking to anybody, male or female.

    When I was on the market for a partner, I tried a group dating club. It was good that you could meet people in person to see who you liked over dinner and drinks. At one stage, I was physically threatened by another guy to keep away from a girl when she gave me her number. That was the end of dating groups for me.

    I also tried newspaper adverts. The girls who responded were all unlike what I was looking for. It was the equivalent of plucking random girls off the street.

    I found the most successful meetings and best results came from social groups and friends. It is an excellent avenue for introductions. I had a lot of opportunity through these avenues, but, I’m fairly picky, so, I purposely limited my options and took my time. I’ve always sought women with intelligence, confidence, easy going personality and non-feminist (because I wanted an equal in a partner). There are plenty of good women so I found this criteria easy to fill. However, chemistry was often missing. I passed up quite a few good looking women.

    I ended up marrying a woman from my university quite some time after we had both finished studying. I was very awkward about how I approached her, even after being friends for years. Taking a risk of losing a friend can be high stakes, especially if you like them enough to pursue them. I’ve been married for a few decades, so, it didn’t turn out badly. However, a rejection could have ended our friendship.

    Knowing what I know now, I would strongly avoid Internet tools like Tinder. They set up false expectations. You can’t be yourself. They force competition and create unrealistic expectations. You get no sense of chemistry between yourself and your potential partner. Social clubs and friends are still my preferred way to meet people, although, these days, it’s not about sex/partnering – it’s about finding interesting people who I want as friends.

    John (above) mentioned he wasn’t very good looking. I don’t consider myself good looking either. Presentation and attitude is highly important, as I suspect John knows based on his entire post. One of my partners once said she was concerned if our [future] children would “look funny” because of my looks. I didn’t take it personally. Other partners of mine have described me as handsome. I feel the same about women. Some women who are considered “average” really take my fancy. I am much more attracted to a personality than physical looks. Tinder will not allow you to experience the pleasure of a partner beyond physical looks. The chemistry only comes from interacting with someone.

    In some ways, I would consider (based on gut feel) that grindr is more honest and successful than tinder. I wonder how the two different groups of users collectively perceive their tools. I imagine Grindr users are often far more satisfied with the outcomes, despite both tools basically designed primarily for hookups.

    • That’s great that you managed to meet someone through friends, but internet dating can be very successful if you go about it the right way.

      I agree with the author that Tinder is likely a flawed app because of the emphasis it places on looks, which is why I opted to use a different website that allows you to include a write-up about yourself and a list of interests (maybe Tinder does this too, but I’ve never used it so I don’t know). Because I was taking it seriously, I took the time to make my write up and list of interests thorough enough to ensure that anyone reading it would get a good sense of who I am and the sort of things I like. Likewise, I assessed potential matches based on their write ups and likes.

      I think this is actually a good way to date because you can get a sense of general compatibility before you even message someone, and it gives you something to talk about right off the hop (i.e. common interests). Of course, sometimes it turns out there’s no chemistry or little mutual interest (likely based exclusively on looks), but that’s life. In the end, I’ve always managed to find someone worth having a long term relationship with. The first one didn’t work out, but the last time ended up being my wife.

      In short, internet dating is all what you make it. If all you want is an empty hook up, it can give you that; if you want something meaningful, you can find it that too. You just need to tailor your approach accordingly.

  7. Author,

    You’re in your 30s and you’re still a student with big words and dreams of hooking up in a dirty hostel. Maybe something that contributes to your lack of success on Tinder.


    • Kat,

      If you don’t have any constructive feedback about the article, maybe you should keep your dull comments to yourself.


    • And awkward grammar.

      Why is a neuroscientist 30-something student “hooking up” on Tinder (and then complaining about it)? As others have noted, if you want something more than hooking up there are other internet facilitators that do more than swipe pictures.

      The “zero-sum” characterisation of his experience when more mature is telling. Firstly, it doesn’t make sense (I suspect he was seduced into including it by a supposedly clever thought. Zero-sum is almost common vernacular, but if you do want to include an explanation, don’t link to an arcane paper; it’s an easy concept). But what he is perhaps revealing is that he is a bit more mature now, and the hook up culture is no longer what he is after. If we assume Tinder is catering mainly for the hookup market, then by continuing to use Tinder he’s getting sex (not nothing) but not the more he now wishes and he’s left unsatisfied. Whereas if, for want of something more, he resists sex, or has sex but becomes a bit more emotionally engaged than is appreciated by the partner, then the hookup partner is left either disappointed or has an experience not perfectly aligned with what she wants. It’s not zero-sum, just looking for something in the wrong place. Duh.

      • Further, this article seems to be a speculative sciencing-up of the authors personal experience. What shall I write about? The two things I have experience of: hooking-up and stuff I’ve read in my studies. The article was of interest to me in gaining some insight into what it must be like to be a heterosexual man with the ability, and probably looks, to be successful in a hook-up cultural stratum. The right-left hemisphere observations were also interesting, if perhaps a bit hand-wavey in a Women-are-from-Venus kind of way.

        I find this article a bit amateurish. “In part, I can attribute my recently improved skills as a writer, in building an entertaining and beguiling narrative, and pulling somebody haplessly into it.” This sentence reads as if it is not complete. (Incomplete like his improved writing skills). Remove the second comma and replace the following “in” with “to” and it reads as a complete sentence. Otherwise it reads as “In part… in building [something], and pulling [something] …. [what?]. And is it not a classic mistake of new writers to write too much about themselves?

        Quillette – maintain your standards. I suspect this guy is an acquaintance of the editor from her uni days in Oz.

  8. I don’t bother with Tinder. I’ve found wearing a leather jacket, thumping jukeboxes in diners to get free plays and telling squares to ‘sit on it’ attracts the ladies.

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  10. Learning to Trust says

    I have to disagree with the harsh blaming on men from the earlier comments. There is already significant evidence out there supporting the 80/20 rule, whereby here 80% of all the sex is being had by 20% of the men. And the data showing women rate 80% of men as below average (a statistical fallacy) would suggest that it’s mostly the women with the delusions and unrealistic expectations. Just as porn has given men unrealistic expectations of women and sex.

    I am fortunate to have had my prime exploratory years before these technologies and lucky to meet openminded people including my wife just as tinder began to gain traction. Online dating is heavily stacked against men because in real life men have a diverse toolkit on disposal to convince women of their worth, ranging from, charm, authority, competence, scent, apparel, aura, social proof and capital. But now forget even being given the chance to sell yourself with this range. No, just a swipe left and that’s it for you, dumped in with the other 80% of men deemed unworthy.

    Most average men never get to be with a women who is highly sought after, yes some do and it is these men who develop confidence and try their best in social settings to court attractive women and indeed a few succeed. In the online world forget it. Lookism prevails. And what of average women? Most average women in the real world learn through trial and error that the alpha males are hard to keep for themselves, some do but most settle for their average-to-average level mate.

    Tinder destroys this delicate social dance. Average men get cut out and this breeds bitterness and resentment, average women get to have 24/7 access to these alphas on a surface level simply through the touch of their fingertips. This rebounds as entitlement towards the rest of the dating pool. How often in the real world do we see the hot chick with the average dude or the ridiculously handsome beefcake with the plain Jane? Not much and when we do people usually do a double take in public taking a mental note of the anomaly.

  11. The author’s experience didn’t resonate with my own, despite some surface-level similarities. My experience of online dating has been constructive and life-enhancing, and I encourage every single person I know to try it out. The main difference between the author and me was that I never used Tinder, only OKCupid. The interfaces are very different, with OKCupid rewarding (or at least facilitating) connecting with compatible people who took the effort to articulate themselves cogently in their profiles. Interestingly, I hear that OKCupid has been gradually changing its interface to more resemble Tinder. I really hope that at least some people can use modern dating apps as constructively as I could.

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