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Love in the digital age: How expats use dating app Tinder

19:38 13/02/2020
It turns out dating apps have their uses for expats beyond finding love and casual hook-ups

Meeting someone is hard. It can be even harder when you’re in a foreign country, don’t know a lot of people and don’t really speak the local languages. We asked Tinder expert Dr Elizabeth Timmermans for some insights and talked to some expats to find out how they’ve navigated the online dating scene.

Timmermans – a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Rotterdam who’s just released a book about the influence of social media on dating called Liefde in tijden van Tinder (Love in Times of Tinder) – has surveyed more than 3,000 people about their online dating experiences. She says that expats, just like locals, don’t necessarily use dating apps to, er, date people.

Based on her research, it seems people use Tinder for 13 distinct reasons, Timmermans says. The number-one reason her respondents cited was to pass time. The second and third most common reasons were curiosity and to meet new people, while finding love came fourth and casual sex only 11th.

So expats can kill a lot of birds with the app. “Expats find themselves in an environment where they are new, where they don’t have any friends or a network that they can fall back on to meet people,” says Timmermans, pointing out that though friendship apps like Hey! VINA exist, they aren’t at all as popular as Tinder. “So expats are more likely to use dating apps to get to know their neighbourhood, to meet new people, to expand their network and not necessarily always to find a partner,” she says.

‘Tinder creates a dependency’
Lucas (not his real name), French, 34

“I started using Tinder three and a half years ago to meet new women after a break-up. I deleted and later reinstalled the app multiple times. I had both positive and negative experiences using the app (I’m in a relationship now; we didn’t meet through Tinder), but on the whole I would say that I’ve got a rather negative attitude toward Tinder. It was a lot of chats that went nowhere fast. I think that for every ten people I chatted with, maybe one would lead to an actual date, and one in five dates I had a good time. I don’t think I would have used the app so much if I had still been living in France. When I started using it, I hadn’t been in Belgium for very long and I think I would have spent less time on the app if I’d had more people around me.

“The way I see it, Tinder creates a dependency, an addiction almost to something that appears to fill a need for affection, for human interaction. But it doesn’t. Instead it’s a promise of all those things that isn’t met. In reality, you’re alone with your phone, swiping, looking at images and maybe you’ll find the affection you’re craving after 150 interactions. It’s sort of like being incredibly thirsty and seeing one after the other image of water bottles and soda cans. But you’re not drinking, you’re just browsing images of drinks.

“People also do things on there that they would never do in real life, not unlike online trolls. If you’re a sensitive person, you can feel incredibly hurt when people unmatch you or don’t bother replying to you. If you’re someone who’s genuinely looking for affection, you’re typically suspended in a sort of vulnerable state and the messages that people send you – or fail to send you – can really bring you down.

“Then again, Tinder also creates possibilities for these crazy, magical moments that would otherwise never be possible where one moment you’re alone at your place and an hour later you’re in a stranger’s home. And as a guy, it was great that I no longer had to make the first move but women did. That was a dream situation.”

‘Finding time to actually meet people is hard’
Alicia (not her real name), British, 29

“I started using Tinder about three years ago for romantic connections, whether something longer-term or less serious. My last ex was actually the first person I reached out to on Tinder so that worked out very well! After she and I broke up, I wanted to be myself for a while and then started using the app again about a year and a half ago. I stopped using Tinder about a month ago because I met someone through the app and things are going well.

“Over the past three years, I’d say I’ve been on ten actual dates max. I’ve only had positive experiences, even if it didn’t lead to anything more. I think that’s because I really take time to consider someone’s profile and to look in depth before swiping right: am I going to have something in common with this person based on their photo, the kind of person they seem? I’m also quite social anyway and enjoy meeting new people, people from different backgrounds, even if nothing’s going to come of it.

“I don’t like that Tinder is so based on looks, though. I like to get a bit more of a sense of a person rather than just what they look like. Because you’re swiping based on attraction, you also might meet someone you don’t actually have something in common with and something develops purely from being physically attracted to one another. But on the whole I’m still positive about it because it facilitates meeting people you wouldn’t be able to meet normally. And everyone now has super busy lifestyles, so finding the time to actually meet people is hard.

“Using the app in Brussels as an expat means that when you match you never know which language to start writing in with someone who’s from a different country or culture. But I feel Brussels is so international that everyone is an expat here in a sense.”

This article first appeared in The Bulletin summer 2019

Written by Linda A Thompson