How to Better Communicate with Your Dating Partner in the Digital Era: Should You Text or Talk?

In modern digital life, romantic partners have different means and possibilities to communicate. In their relationships, they can talk to each other in person or just communicate by exchanging text messages.

It can be hard to decide whether to text or meet in person, especially when it comes to romantic relationships where communication is important. What is a better way to initiate and maintain a relationship with your partner? The preference for texting over face-to-face conversation may not be solely about convenience but rather about the quality of a relationship.

A New Study on Dating Communication

Anthony Chen from the University of California, Irvine, and his colleague Catalina Toma recently conducted a study where they looked at how the trade-offs between these different ways of communicating may be closely linked to the fears people experience in romantic situations.

Researchers conducted a survey of 257 young men and women to find out which way of communicating—texting or in-person meetings—they preferred in an exclusive dating relationship. The authors presented a variety of scenarios, ranging from ordinary ones like arranging a date or exchanging daily information to more difficult ones such as conflicts, profound discussions about the future of the relationship, or even the difficult circumstances of breaking up.

The Handy Convenience of Text Editing

Researchers revealed a distinct pattern in their findings: individuals with higher levels of social anxiety consistently favored texting over in-person conversations of all kinds. More socially anxious people preferred texting over face-to-face interaction, even for uninteresting conversations. But when it came to handling difficult conversations and breakups, their preference for texting was particularly noticeable when compared to those who were less socially anxious.

Texting gives socially anxious people a better sense of control over their communication than face-to-face interactions. Texting enables them to edit their messages until they present the version of themselves that they feel most comfortable with. This accounts for at least some of their preference for texting.

This “editable” feature of digital communication becomes increasingly valuable and provides a lifeline for individuals with social anxiety as the likelihood of emotional discomfort in the conversation increases. It acts as a barrier against the vulnerability and immediacy of in-person interactions.

For people with social anxiety, it’s not just about avoiding awkward silences or not knowing what to say in a difficult situation. It’s also about coming up with a response that makes them feel safe and shows how they want to be seen.

People Are Still Longing for In-Person Communication

What is interesting is that the authors also discovered that even with the increasing availability of digital communication, such as texting, many women and men still prefer in-person interaction about some themes and in some special circumstances. Among those topics are conflict, the possibility of emotional harm, or talking about a possible breakup.

This disposition implies that, at their core, people understand the special importance of face-to-face communication in forging deeper bonds and understanding—something that text messages are unable to adequately express.

Why We Communicate the Way We Do in This Digital Age

This study sheds light on how people in the digital age initiate and maintain romantic relationships. Women and men use digital tools in a variety of ways, depending on their motivations, comfort zones, and interpersonal circumstances.

Many people typically prefer face-to-face communication, indicating a shared desire for more meaningful, in-depth connections.

Nonetheless, the deliberate use of texting by men and women with social anxiety reveals a complex landscape in which technology can serve as both a bridge and a barrier in romantic relationships.

This contrast between the convenience of digital technology and the need for human contact emphasizes that personal connection and understanding are still necessary in this digital age. Instead, modern digital possibilities modify the routes that individuals take to satisfy those needs. Understanding these subtleties enables people to thoughtfully incorporate technology into their lives. These new opportunities improve rather than degrade the quality of their relationships as they engage in romantic relationships in the digital age.

Mobility of Intimate Relationships in Online Dating Apps

Online dating applications facilitate interpersonal connections between individuals, enabling them to pursue various motivations, such as seeking sexual encounters, romantic relationships, emotional intimacy, or other forms of interpersonal connections.

Many women and men feel ambiguity regarding the opportunities associated with online dating apps. They frequently do not know exactly what they hope to gain from using a dating app. They might anticipate a connection that develops into a committed monogamous relationship, but these relationships can change over time and are flexible. Users can meet for sex, become friends, or friends with benefits, and possibly form a couple before deciding to become friends again without engaging in sexual activity with one another.

Andrea Newerla, a researcher from Paris Lodron University Salzburg in Salzburg, Austria, and Jenny van Hooff, a researcher from Manchester Metropolitan University, United Kingdom, analyzed the dating app user experience in Germany and the United Kingdom.

They conducted an in-depth analysis of interviews with online app users in the United Kingdom (van Hooff, 2020) and Germany (Newerla, 2021), and their findings were quite intriguing. Researchers performed a thematic analysis on the data collected from both cultural samples.

In a previous article, I described the summary of their research findings about the ambiguities and opportunities men and women experience using dating apps.

In this article, we’ll look into the users’ perceptions of the mobility of intimate relationships.

Experiences of Mobility in Intimate Relationships

For many users, dating practices are marked by ambivalence as the potentialities and possibilities afforded by dating apps emerge as spaces for new forms of intimacy. Normativities are challenged, and spaces are opened up for forms of love and desire that cannot be subsumed under the ideal of the romantic or partnership model in their pursuit and realization of these potentials.

Friendships formed through dating apps, as previously stated, are an important experience for some of our participants. And the descriptions clearly show that these relationships, which were initially defined by sexual attraction, are malleable and can evolve into new forms of intimacy.

Matteo, a 34-year-old man, for example, began using dating apps in 2015. His main goal was to find a romantic partner:

‘I was not as sex-positive as I am now, and society was not at the point we are now. So the main goal was to find a partner’.

Matteo found himself in new cities more frequently as a result of geographical changes, and apps assisted him in meeting new people. He was open to casual sex at this point, but not to the possibility of a romantic relationship if the person was ‘right for him’. As he describes in his relationship with Beate, he developed a variety of ways to be intimate with people in Berlin, blurring the boundaries of friendship and couplehood:

‘It was only sexual, but there was a connection with Beate. She was a person that I was liking. When we started to play [sexually], I realized that I really enjoy this, the motion of playfulness and connection when it’s in consent. It’s clear what we are there for. (…) and from this moment on me and Beate started to have a sex relationship which also developed something more complex. I also developed feelings for Beate that were not immediately mutual (…) Beate was not interested in a relationship that was more romantic, but I was. But we found a common ground and we have been experimental quite a lot.’

(Matteo, M 34, German study).

Beate eventually fell in love with someone else, and Matteo became friends with her. ‘We are still in a good connection,’ Matteo says of this development. It was unclear at the time of the interview whether Beate’s new relationship is open to additional sex partners. Matteo describes the possibility of him and Beate sharing this level of sexual intimacy again. However, Matteo says in the interview that it could remain a platonic friendship without sexual physicality. It’s clear that he sees this intimate relationship as a process, that he’s open to its evolution because he likes Beate and wants to see how their relationship develops in the future.

Here Is How Rob Describes his Relationships on Dating Apps

Rob, who has used dating apps on and off since Tinder debuted in 2012, explained how the connections made on apps evolve and develop based on the circumstances:

‘Being on Tinder you can have a few girls that you’re messaging or seeing or whatever, and it’s actually good because you know you’re not going to get married, because you live in different cities, or you’re too different, but you still have this connection, when you’re bored you can chat, or sext, and there’s no expectation. I don’t know how you’d define it, but I’ve had a few of those kind of relationships, and they’re good because you’re both on the same page’.

(Rob, M 34, UK study).

Rob describes a liminal relationship that maintains an emotional and sexual connection but will not develop into a committed couple relationship. These relationships defy traditional heteronormative conventions, but they are meaningful to participants and are not time-limited. While these types of relationships are often portrayed negatively in popular culture as ‘breadcrumbing’ (sporadic contact with no follow-through), for Rob, they are meaningful ties that do not fit into normative understandings of relationships.

Here Is How Mona Experiences her Relationships on Dating Apps

Mona can easily organize various dates based on her immediate needs thanks to the variety of relationship forms available on dating apps. This is sometimes casual sex, but she prefers it when a relationship develops. Some dates have become friendships. There was no sexual contact in these cases, but they enjoyed each other’s company. However, these friendships are also physical: one friend, for example, comes over on a regular basis to cuddle and watch Netflix. She does not prioritize romantic relationships and emphasizes the importance of friendships throughout the interview:

‘It doesn’t have to be the romantic partner you wake up next to, it has to be a person you just get along with. (…) This realisation that I don’t have to expect a partner to fulfil all my needs, but that friendships are also a relationship that also fulfils needs like a romantic relationship, that was then for me like: bam. I communicate much more openly about this with my friends and also with the partners I am currently seeing.’

(Mona, F 33, German study)

Mona was dating four people at the time, all of whom she met through dating apps. Here, the apps have assisted her in finding people who think and live similarly to her, as they are all interested in multiple relationships, identify as polyamorous, and have openly communicated their relationship status through the apps. Their experiences have allowed them to communicate more openly about their own needs.

Here Is How Alex Explains her Relationships on Dating Apps

People came up with creative ways to use dating apps. Sexual relationships turned into friendships or, in Alex’s case, a professional network. Even though he hasn’t found the long-term relationship he was looking for through dating apps, his experiences show how relationships can change:

‘A long period on Tinder would be six plus dates, usually it doesn’t go anywhere. Usually relationships are sexual. I’d always chat to multiple people at once and occasionally see multiple partners at once. Most encounters have been enjoyable and interesting, some I’m still friends with, one is now our company solicitor, but most I don’t speak to.’

(Alex, M 29, UK study)

Alex is a marketer, and his professional and personal networks frequently cross and overlap. He describes it positively, saying that sexual encounters evolve as dates take on new roles in his life. The normative categorization of romantic and sexual relationships does not apply to Alex’s experience with dating apps, and the normative hierarchy of intimacy does not currently apply to his personal relationships. Alex also emphasizes the importance of transitioning into and out of different relationship forms as key moments of communication and connection in and of themselves.

Challenges to Being Open in Online Dating Apps

Online dating apps assist people to connect with each other, and individuals pursue their own motivations, whether for sex, love, intimacy, or any other kind of interpersonal motivation.

Do people use dating apps for love or for sex? Many men and women experience the ambivalences and possibilities of being involved in dating with online apps. They often do not have a clear idea of what they expect from using a dating app. They might expect a connection leading to a committed monogamous relationship, but these processes are mobile and flexible over time. Users can meet for sex, become friends, then friends with benefits, possibly form a couple, and later they decide to be friends again who do not have sex with each other, and so on.

These processes of communication in online apps are not clearly dichotomous, either for love or for sex. Contemporary intimate relationships are mobile and flexible and cannot be simply categorized as for love or for sex.

Andrea Newerla, the researcher from Paris Lodron University Salzburg, Salzburg, Austria, and Jenny van Hooff, the researcher from Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, UK, completed an analysis of the users’ experience with dating apps in Germany and the UK.

They conducted an in-depth analysis of interviews they administered among online app users in the UK (van Hooff, 2020), and Germany (Newerla, 2021), which showed quite interesting findings. Researchers did a thematic analysis of their data in both cultural samples.

Ambiguities and Opportunities in Dating App Practices

 Researchers revealed that using dating apps presents participants with both ambiguities and opportunities, particularly in “being open.”

The study reveals a tension between participants’ romantic love ideas and the more fluid, undefined relationships found on dating apps. Alternative relationship practices, such as monogamous romantic models, have become available to users who initially didn’t consider them. Participants often struggle to articulate what they perceive as an important intimate encounter.

In interviews, ambiguities and mobility in intimate relationship development are not seen negatively. For example, 26-year-old Thorsten, who uses dating apps to meet women, describes dating as a process rather than a rigid one. He enters a polyamorous constellation with a woman, meeting other people and not limiting themselves. Despite feeling insecure, Thorsten sees potential in insecure experiences:

“I also find insecurity an exciting thing. I know so many people who are security people. […] I don’t want to be so obsessed with everything always being safe. I just find it much more interesting to live with such openness, to live with such contingency. Of course it’s not always nice, it can also be very difficult, but that’s precisely why I think it’s good to learn to endure it, to be able to live with it, to be able to deal with it. And not to let it limit or dominate you, but to recognise it, to articulate it, to be able to talk about it and to live with it.“

(Thorsten, M 26, German study)

As one can see, Thorsten enjoys mobile dating’s openness, allowing for experimentation, intimacy development, and personal growth, while others find it ambiguous and uncertain, offering opportunities for self-reflection.

Mark, after a relationship breakdown, has used dating apps for four years, navigating casual and committed relationships and highlighting the app’s potential for offline connections:

‘It opens up possibilities. So first of all I’m thinking if I want a long-term relationship with this person, and if not I think if there are other possibilities. but that’s not a bad thing I think, we live in a world that’s too po faced about sex. There’s something about Tinder that suggests that people are more open to whatever might happen. If you’re on Tinder you’re in a contract with each other, sex is a possibility, in a way that doesn’t happen outside of online dating. I’d never heard of polyamory before I went on Tinder, but now you can be open about seeing multiple people, rather than lying. That can only be a good thing.’

(Mark, M 32, UK study)

As we can see, Mark embraces the potential for diverse relationships through apps, including polyamory, as he adjusts his expectations to nonnormative forms, fostering positive connections.

Susanne, a 35-year-old polyamorous woman, shares her experiences of recognizing the romantic ideal and embracing multiple relationships, primarily using dating apps for sex but also expressing openness.

‘I think it’s always a question of how you use it yourself and I usually go in there with the feeling of ok I’m open for what’s coming now. There are phases where I say ok now I only want it for sex. And I always find this ’only’ difficult. So I used it for sex. (…) I always call them ’regular sex partners’, because I don’t find one night stands so desirable myself, but they happen and that’s okay. But I would tend to be more interested in meeting more often and building up something sexually. So I’m actually open to that, but I always waver back and forth. For example, when I don’t have the emotional capacity to get involved with someone. If I’m processing a break-up or something and honestly want to leave myself the space for it.’

(Susanne, F 34, German study)

Susanne’s intimacy practices are broader, fluid, and mobile, embracing openness and the uncertainty of relationships beyond sexual experience. She welcomes this openness and views it as an opportunity to engage in diverse forms of relationships.

Irfan uses dating apps to meet potential partners outside his circle, experiencing freedom and short-term relationships while being relieved of long-term commitment pressure. Success comes from short-term connections:

‘Successful encounters have been girls that I’ve continued to date for several months after meeting. Really nice, genuine people that I enjoy spending time with. Removing the expectations that you’re going to get married or stay together means you can actually enjoy being with them.’

(Irfan, M 28, UK study)

Dating apps have broadened relationships beyond normative coupling, valuing connection over external expectations and transforming the way relationships are valued.

Mona discusses the development of intimate relationships through mobile dating, particularly through dating apps, as highlighted by a 33-year-old woman in an interview:

‘I know a lot more of my friends here in Berlin through Tinder, and it never developed into something amorous, but more like: ‘hey, we get along really well, we text all the time, we want to meet up, that’s really cool, but there’s just nothing.’ (…) Really good friendships have developed on Tinder and also good conversations. (…) In general, I don’t have any expectations, except to somehow get to know someone who is somehow quite nice. Someone who seems nice, okay, just a good evening, whatever it turns out to be. Whether it turns into friendship, as it does with some people because they understand each other well, but there’s nothing interpersonal about it, or a one-night stand or something longer-term. That is absolutely open to me. (…) Everything can happen, nothing has to.’

(Mona, F 33, German study)

Mona, like other participants, does not view openness as threatening in mobile dating. She sees it as a way for relationships to develop, varying depending on the person and time. This mobility in relationships is discussed in the next section.

Emoji Love and Other Emotions in the Virtual World

In modern culture, it seems easy to guess what “heart” and especially “red heart” mean. Guess what? Love! So, the corresponding symbols are common in modern virtual world. The emoji ❤️ adopted the same meaning social media messages. The red heart emoji is a classic image to express love and romance. The read heart ❤️ and two hearts 💕 are among the popular heart emoji used on Twitter (What Every Heart Emoji Really Means by Keith Broni, Jeremy Burge, Feb 11, 2021).

What is the best emoji for love? It depends on personal preferences. Nevertheless, some believe that among the most popular are

  •  ❤️: Red Heart. …
  • 😻: Smiling Cat with Heart Eyes. …
  • 😍: Smiling Face with Heart Eyes. …
  • 😘: Face Blowing a Kiss. …
  • 💕: Two Hearts. …

What Emoji Are Used for Love Across Cultures?

In a survey for World Emoji Day, conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Duolingo and Slack, researchers showed respondents various emoji and asked what meaning they were most likely to associate with them. The survey also investigated how emoji usage and meaning differ across countries. It was discovered that emoji can mean different things in different cultures around the world.

Chris Melore presented an interesting review of this international survey.

For example, let us look at how the “face throwing a kiss” (😘) is used. For “romantic love” or “platonic love”?

It was found that this emoji is popular among U.S. Americans, Indians, and Japanese people in different ways.

Indians prefer to use it more frequently for romantic love than for platonic love (52% vs. 27%).

Americans are also slightly more likely to use it as a sign of romantic love than of platonic love (34% vs. 26%).

However, Japanese preferences are the opposite. They tend to use the kissy face less frequently for romantic love than for platonic love (16% vs. 30%).

It is worthy of note that the “slightly smiling face” (🙂) frequently expresses “general positivity” (39%) and “feeling happy” (38%). These meanings are among the top uses for this emoji globally. However, this emoji may express less positive emotions than one may think.

Emoji are also frequently used to express sentiments of care and support. It was especially noticeable during the recent COVID-19 pandemic times. People often use the heart (❤️) and similar emoji to show love and support. Globally, differences between age groups exist in this regard. Across many cultures, younger generations mention that the emoji they send to someone are often misunderstood by the recipients. Young people of Gen Z mentioned this more frequently, at 31% among all respondents, than millennials, at 24% of respondents.