What is a ‘real’ date, anyway?

Follow these rules to ensure that your ‘real’ date isn’t just fake news


I went on my first date at the age of four. Quite a cocky preschooler, I thought I was a catch. Not that I would let them catch me, of course — I wore a very specific pair of shorts on Tuesdays and Thursdays just so that I could outrun my pursuers on the playground. It was no secret, however, that my heart belonged to someone else. It was cooties at first sight.

Of course, I was not the only eligible bachelor in our class with my eyes on her. In fact, our enamored squabbling was something that ABC producers could only dream of catching on film. At one point, it got so bad that our teacher had to sit us down and create a schedule of turns for getting to sit next to her during group activities (incorporating an ample number of breaks for that poor, poor girl). I ended up with the final rose, though, thanks to the help of the best wingman around — my mom. In fact, she coordinated our play date so well that I didn’t even have to muster the courage to ask the love of my life myself. Needless to say, that hour was the greatest of my life, playing with my (very manly) Polly Pockets and hiding from my little brother in a very large basket together. While our date never had a sequel, sometimes I swear I can still hear our one-hit wonder playing on the radio.

These not-so-humble beginnings shaped me into the odd combination of Ted Mosby and Barney Stinson that I am today, and I have never lost my fascination with the topics of love, romance and dating. You can imagine, then, how ecstatic I was to see “Go on a Real Date” listed as one of the 118 things I am now practically legally obligated to do before graduating. And I still am ecstatic. But, the same lack of responsibilities as a fourth-year that has given me plenty of time to just hang out in Alderman Café has also led me to question things, and all of this introspection has guided me to one troubling thought — what is a “real” date, anyway?

At the ripe age of 20, I lack the years of wisdom to speak on whether dating in today’s age significantly differs from the practices of our parents’ generation or beyond, but as a fairly typical college student, I do believe that I have the subject matter expertise to claim that dating is messy. Constantly struggling to balance school with clubs, college friends, home friends, family and self-care is hard as it is, and that’s even before you throw in that weirdo from Trin last weekend. The thought of intentional vulnerability for a chance at romance can be overwhelming. If you are up for the challenge and are dedicated to crossing every single item off the list before graduation, however, then follow these rules to ensure that your “real” date isn’t just fake news.

1. You need to be actively exploring romantic potential.

No, I know, I’m sorry — friend dates and Sustained Dialogue dates don’t count. While you don’t need to be madly in love with someone or even believe that you ever could be madly in love with them, a “real” date is differentiated from just hanging out by the explicit acknowledgement that it could potentially be only the first of a series of many that eventually leads to romance. This also means that it is not a “real” date if there is no interest in the person or situation outside of hooking up (and a whole other article could be written attempting to define that elusive term). As my dear new friend and fellow Life columnist John Patterson said, “The main takeaway should be emotional, not physical.”

2. The main focus of the activity must be the person.

This may seem redundant, but I think it is worth mentioning nonetheless. While there is no formula for what activities a date should consist of, the underlying theme of all your typical date ideas — dinner, coffee, hiking, drinks, etc. — is that each simply serves as a vessel allowing you to get to know the other person better. As a personal aside, this is why I have never understood why going to the movies is considered such a classic date. If anything, anyone who suggests it is probably just trying to tell you kindly that they would rather spend two hours eating heavily-buttered popcorn than talking to you. Ouch.

Regardless, this leaves you a lot of flexibility to craft a fun, unique “real” date.

3. You need to be on the same page.

I want to craft a beautiful sentence that somehow incorporates the term “mutual intention” here, but I don’t know how to put it in a sentence that isn’t just a sentence describing how I don’t know how to use it in a sentence. I think being on the same page is as close of a description as I’m going to get. It is hard to consider a date a “real” date if 50 percent of the participants don’t know it is a date. Which, honestly, is quite a shame, since I thought Emma Watson and I had shared so many special moments together on dates while watching the Harry Potter movies. Oh well.

4. The activity needs to be purposeful.

Let’s call this the no “just hanging out” clause. A “real” date involves some forethought, though I won’t go as far as to say that it needs to be entirely planned out far in advance. Specifically, it should not be considered a “real” date if a Friday night devolves into just you and one other person spending time together in some unplanned context, no matter how cute or “When Harry Met Sally”-esque. Dates are intentional — they are the events that cause your stomach to swarm with butterflies as the fateful hour slowly approaches. Or maybe you’ll feel nothing at all as the engagement draws near, which is an important sign in and of itself. Regardless, a “real” date is not accidental — it is a conscious choice.

5. You can’t hide behind anything or anyone.

Vulnerability is hard. Vulnerability under the influence of alcohol, however, is easier, and that’s why this crutch is so common within the romantic world of a college campus. But while this drug may help smooth over awkward interactions on the weekend, it is not conducive to a “real” date. After all, how are you supposed to get to know someone if you are hiding part (or all) of yourself while you do it? Of course, alcohol is not the only tactic used to avoid potentially vulnerable situations. Similarly, a “real” date should be one-on-one, or at most a double date with well-defined couple pairings. Group dates are not “real” dates, no matter how much “The Bachelor” would like us to believe otherwise.

Even though I left these five guidelines for defining a “real” date fairly broad, I have no doubt that there will be no general consensus that these are the true rules of the road. In reality, you don’t have to agree with me. That’s not the point. I believe that the admittedly aggressive wording of this task on the list of things to do before we graduate is, more than anything else, simply intended to motivate you to make the most of your time here at U.Va. — whether it’s your first year or your last — by expanding your comfort zone and taking leaps that a past version of you may not have taken. Though four-year-old Sean wasn’t daring enough to ask out his crush himself, I like to think that this list may have been the encouragement he needed to take that bold step and put himself out there.

So go ahead and get out there. Treasure the relationships you already have, but don’t forget to take the time to focus on meeting new people, too. You will never again be surrounded by so many similar-aged peers with so many things in common with you, so take advantage of the situation while you are in it. Oh, and one more thing…

For crying out loud, go on a real date.

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