The Trouble with Dating

Even at college, courtship keeps getting more complicated.

May/June 2002

Reading time min

The Trouble with Dating

Ken del Rossi

Remember dating? Sure you do. It was that ritual, often practiced in college, during which both parties presented their résumés as prospective partner material and tried very hard to avoid embarrassing moments such as spilling one’s drink on one’s lap during dinner. Not that that ever happened to me.

I wish I could remember more about dating, because then perhaps I would have been more useful in our conversations about two of the stories in this issue: Stanford’s biggest night out, the annual Viennese Ball and how today’s students go about pairing up, or not.

I can’t think of a subject I am less qualified to comment on. I haven’t had a date in 15 years.

That’s not as bad as it sounds. I’ve been married for quite a while, and before that I had women friends with whom I occasionally spent time, but to find an actual date I have to go way back. My memory is fuzzy, but I seem to recall that it was a generally unpleasant experience, particularly on the front end. And come to think of it, I have never heard anybody speak glowingly about the institution. What is dating, really, other than a marketing exercise with nice manners? It’s an audition, and like an audition, it produces mostly unwelcome responses such as heavy-duty perspiration and performance anxiety.

I used to wonder about the sanity of people who claimed they wanted out of a relationship so they could “play the field.” Right. Most people would agree that the key to happiness is avoiding dating, not embracing it. The whole idea is to minimize the number of dates one must endure during one’s lifetime while still ensuring the continuation of the species.

When you’re in college, though, dating is easier. First, there are plenty of prospects. From a strict efficiency standpoint, you probably can’t beat living in close proximity to hundreds of attractive, smart people with whom you share certain affinities such as where you chose to go to school. You sit around for long periods each day in casual dress, sharing stimulating conversation about interesting topics. And although some won’t admit it, just about everybody who goes to college imagines how cool it would be to meet their future mate in the library stacks or in poli sci club or whatever.

For a few years now, social observers—not to mention disgruntled students—have noted that college dating is in crisis. Some people are worried that the whole notion of courtship is outdated, so to speak. Dating conventions like man-calls-woman-and-pays-for-dinner have virtually disappeared, we are told. Is this a problem? Depends on whom you ask. Negative: students may be choosing fleeting sexual encounters as a proxy for intimacy. Positive: traditional dating may have changed in part because of women’s increasing sense of independence and the knowledge that “finding a husband” is not a necessary extracurricular.

Moreover, at a place like Stanford where simply getting in is an extraordinary achievement, social life has a somewhat different cast to it. Students aren’t easily distracted from their studies, not even by brilliant, charming classmates who can talk about Proust and P. Diddy with equal facility. The chemistry they share is usually the classroom kind.

But what do I know? I would never presume to understand how 20-year-olds think. And besides, my credentials as a dating expert were destroyed long ago at a restaurant I can’t remember by an incident I’ll never forget. I was sitting there waiting for dinner to arrive, probably trying to sound erudite and hip, only to have my studied attempts at cool reserve torpedoed by a soda my elbow sent careening into my lap. It must be some kind of cosmic punishment that during my 43 years of life, one of the moments preserved with pristine clarity is watching that black stain sprawl across those light-colored pants.

Now that’s what I call a dating crisis.

You can reach Kevin at

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