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2013 Fall Issue 7 (November 8, 2013)

Dating at Carleton: Why Doesn’t it Exist?

November 8, 2013
By Drew Higgins

It’s difficult to have perspective on a community when you’re a part of it. While thinking about dating at Carleton this week, I was hesitant to make any conclusions out of fear that I’d wind up generalizing an entire collection of individuals, each with their own private and personal lives. Still, communities do have personalities and atmospheres, ours included, and if a stranger on the street asked me about the dating culture at Carleton, I’d likely tilt my head, squint my eyes and let out a long, uncertain “um”--because the fact remains: I don’t sense that there even is an overwhelming dating culture at Carleton.

First, I should clarify that by “dating culture,” I specifically mean the existence of serious, long-term, romantic relationships. Moreover, it’s not that I don’t think these relationships exist at all on campus--they do, obviously--but more so that I don’t think they exist in abundance.

Second, I admit that I have no proof in this besides my own observations and therefore, its possible I’ve misjudged things. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe you strongly disagree; maybe your own personal experiences prove me otherwise--one of my housemates recently mentioned that his older brother dated the same girl for his entire four years at Carleton. But then, maybe there’s also a  chance you agree with me, and for those of you who sense the same thing I do and are wondering why you sense it, I’ll offer my thoughts.

We’re certainly not anti-social work-horses here. I dislike the stereotype that Carleton students are awkward and clumsy when it comes to interacting with each other, because it’s so plainly false. Have you ever walked into Sayles at 3 pm on a Friday? Been to 4th Libe on Sunday night? We’re a bona fide group of fluttering, social butterflies.

And yet, two things stand out to me about us: that we’re very busy butterflies, and also very casual ones.

We’re asked to do a lot, and the typical schedule of a Carleton student is not one necessarily conducive to fostering romantic relationships. We’re constantly juggling that delicate triangle of ambitions, that balance between academic work, friends and extra-curriculars, and no matter which way you position it, relationships demand time, even platonic ones.

But somehow, I think, we’re more willing to shoulder the commitment of the platonic ones, because romantic relationships not only demand time, but they demand a demanding kind of time--  namely, an exclusionary, one-on-one time; a time fraught with a different kind of work and emotion; a time that distracts you even while you’re doing your physics problem set, because you can’t keep your brain focused.

So it understandably seems unfair to steal time away for this one thing--this thing that selfishly demands our whole selves--at the expense of other parts of the triangle. And the cliché remains that something has got to give; the hours in the day are not infinite, and the questions then becomes: what gets the short end of the stick, our GPA or our other friends? Perhaps unintentionally, by leaving no breathing room in our lives for them to develop, we shy away from those particular relationships.

Then there’s the very nature of our community. We’ve got an extremely inclusive, comical, progressive, and casual campus environment, which are all wonderful, admirable qualities, but are also possibly qualities which may make creating certain relationships--mainly, the more exclusionary, serious kind--more difficult to instigate, at least initially.

Take screwdates, for example. What’s most awkward about them is that they’re horribly ambiguous. They’re a hilarious, unique Carleton tradition, but they also reveal something about our culture here, in that the whole thing is so casual, we have no idea whether the interest from the other party is genuine or just in good fun. Many of us actually do hope there’s something more to it, some sort of legitimate interest, but don’t want to be the baboon who misinterprets things. Which leads me to wonder, do we keep these things on the surface level because we don’t want to risk  embarrassment, rejection, and the like?

Because it’s certainly not that, as Carls, we don’t want relationships. We’re a bunch of eighteen to twenty-two year olds stuck in the middle of the Midwest. Of course we want affection and love and that whole mushy repertoire.

But the process of pushing these things into fruition is no easy task--and there are certainly easier things to obtain, namely things at parties, on the weekends, under a certain degree of intoxication, if you catch my drift. I’d argue more than a strong dating culture, we’ve got a respectably strong hook-up culture here, which could be a function of any numbers of factors--that casualness on campus, or even the very casualness (at the risk of sounding like an old-timer) of our generation.

On this latter point, consider the way in which we rely on technology in forming relationships. Facebook, texting, even snap-chatting--these are all casual and quick forms of communications. Things progress rapidly in our social interactions, and I wonder then if we naturally expect them to move equally fast in our romantic lives, expecting things to flow effortlessly, expecting the reward before the effort.

And relationships--the kind that span beyond Saturday night--require the effort. They can be tenuous and finicky, necessitating finesse and, more than anything, words. It seems a silly, obvious thing to say but it’s nevertheless true. Our romantic life demands a vernacular that is specific, unfamiliar, and hard to employ. It’s the dictionary we use to ask “would you like to get lunch sometime?” and “can I kiss you?” It’s delicate, vulnerable, difficult. It’s awkward.

But if we’re willing to push through that vulnerability, there’s a lot in it for us. Of course, I understand that not all of us are searching for serious romantic relationships--and not all of us should be. We all have different needs, ambitions, lifestyles. I’m not even sure that Carleton should be the kind of place that has a strong “dating culture.” I like us the way we are, for the most part. Still, I’ll say this:

Relationships teach us about who we are. Friendships do this too, but romantic relationships do it differently and, given that we’ve come to this place not only to learn with our minds but also, I hope, to learn about ourselves, it seems a shame to ignore this venue for self-discovery, whatever the reason--whether it’s because we’re too busy, or too nervous, or just can’t seem to find the right words.

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