In a Starbucks on the Boston University campus, Dave Griffin sat down with an acquaintance from his hometown of Duxbury. Griffin placed two coffees and two croissants on the table.
Griffin and his date caught up on how freshman year had been, the conversation tinged with awkwardness, until they reached the 45-minute time limit. Before they parted ways, he invited her on a second date. He didn’t tell her why he’d asked her on the first one.
“I would have asked her out regardless,” he said.
Unknown to his companion, Griffin had invited her for coffee as part of an assignment for a Boston College class whose instructor, Kerry Cronin, gives extra credit to any student who will go on a date.
The reason? Because most of them don’t know how, Cronin says.
It’s not surprising, says Cronin. This is a generation that has grown up with relatively low expectations in the realm of happily every after. Theirs is a world where most embrace group activities, punctuated with the periodic hookup, and communicate largely in digital bursts of 140-250 characters instead of in person. Love Letters: He’s feeling like a second fiddle
Cronin says this all came together for her during a lecture she gave about the campus hookup culture eight years ago. She says she was nervously anticipating controversial questions about sex and intimacy, but instead one student asked, “How would you ask someone on a date?”
As she began to answer, the questioner became more specific: “Like, the actual words.”
That year, Cronin gave the option of going on a date to students in a seminar she taught to juniors and seniors that examined relationships, spirituality, and personal development.
Only one of the 15 students did. The next semester, she made the assignment mandatory, and some students began choosing the course specifically for that reason, saying they had trouble asking people out on dates on their own.
Cronin is associate director of the Lonergan Institute, a philosophy research center at Boston College. She now teaches a philosophy class for freshmen and sophomores that includes discussions of personal ethical and moral choices, and the optional dating assignment is part of the syllabus.
“The idea behind the hookup culture is that these are our ‘crazy’ and ‘independent’ years, and dating is too serious or committed,” says Meaghan Kelliher, a sophomore who took Cronin’s class and went on a “Cronin date.” She says the assignment showed her that dating could be “exploratory” rather than a serious commitment.
Cronin describes dating as a “lost social script.” Students, she says, don’t know where to begin or what to say. Her assignment delineates specific boundaries so students know what to expect. The date has to be 45 to 90 minutes long with a person of legitimate romantic interest.
The student has to pay and has to make the invitation not by text or e-mail but in person, which Griffin did at a BU dance recital he attended with a mutual friend. The date cannot involve alcohol, kissing, and sex.
“It’s easy to hook up with someone you’ve just met in a dark room. . . . But asking someone out on a date in broad daylight . . . can be really scary,” said Frank DiMartino, BC freshman.
Dating, Cronin says, has been supplanted on campuses by a hookup culture that can entail anything from kissing to having sex with strangers or acquaintances rather than committed partners. When Cronin gives talks, on the other hand, she plays down the issue of sex and focuses on how dating requires the courage to be vulnerable to another person.
Cronin explains the assignment to her students as “wanting us to do something courageous,” says freshman Frank DiMartino, who took the class. “It’s easy to hook up with someone you’ve just met in a dark room after having a few drinks,” DiMartino says. “But asking someone out on a date in broad daylight, and when you actually have to know their name, can be really scary.”
Cronin’s not expecting students to return to the courting culture of the 1940s or ’50s, but she says it would be useful for them to revive and reshape the dating “script.” “When my parents and grandparents went on dates they knew what to expect. That’s what a social script is, that’s why manners work — not because they’re truths but because they make things easier,” she says.
Students no longer have that script. For them, says Cronin, dating is so rare it feels strange and even creepy. Instead, students use friendships and groups to satisfy social and emotional needs and see hookups as purely physical. But as a result, Cronin says, students don’t have a relationship that allows them to address the confusions or expectations that can arise out of hookups.
Relying on groups also prevents students from learning to interact one-on-one. “In a group, you get to know another person as mediated through the group dynamic,” Cronin says.
Social media, especially texting, is another way one-on-one conversations are mediated. It provides access to a constructed “virtual self.” While it makes students feel connected, Cronin believes it builds habits of “ADD-quality connections” rather than face-to-face relationships.
But students like Griffin, who have taken up the dating assignment, say they enjoyed the experience. “There was a general feeling of awkwardness but also accomplishment,” he says.
Another reason students are reluctant to date, says Cronin, is that, “When you ask somebody, you risk failing, and nobody likes to fail or be vulnerable to rejection.”
Especially college students.
“They like to push themselves out of their comfort zone only if the energy and effort will equal success,’’ Cronin says. “But when asking someone out, nothing can ensure the person is going to say yes.”
Between 60 and 80 percent of North American college students have had some sort of hookup experience, according to a study published by the American Psychological Association in February 2013. However, a similar percentage, 63 percent of college-age men and 83 percent of college-age women, would prefer a traditional relationship to an uncommitted sexual one, the study found.
“The vast majority of young adults hope to be in a romantic relationship characterized by mutual love and commitment,” says Richard McAnulty, an associate professor in psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, a pattern that hasn’t changed despite uncommitted sex becoming more socially acceptable.
“Young adults have not abandoned intimate relationships,” McAnulty says. “Those relationships simply look different than in the past.” Most students practice “serial monogamy,” in which they have consecutive, exclusive relationships involving emotional intimacy and sex.
Though today’s young adults are more wary about long-term relationships and settling down, their caution is not unwarranted, considering that about half of American marriages end in divorce.
Critics of the hookup culture fear it will prevent students from being able to form successful long-term relationships later in life. McAnulty says that young adults today are less willing to settle for relationships without sex than their predecessors were 30 or 40 years ago, but research still has to be done about whether hooking up causes commitment problems later.
Cronin is optimistic about people’s ability to “figure things out,” and doesn’t believe the hookup culture will cause fewer people to get married or lead successful family lives. But for now, the hookup culture, as Cronin puts it, “creates a part of life that is unnecessarily chaotic and lonely.”
As for Griffin, he decided he was willing to give dating a try. Outside The Sinclair in Cambridge, he waited to begin his second date.