The ‘Talking Stage’ Is Nothing New — Here’s How To Manage It

Photographed by Naohmi Monroe.
Just like Indiyah and Ikenna on this year’s Love Island, no one is immune to the 'talking stage'. All over TikTok and a prominent part of our lives in 2022, this excruciatingly drawn-out phase is a modern-day dating phenomenon — in name at least. But what's now widely known as the talking stage has existed in some form throughout history, practised by generations gone by. Essentially, it is a new word for a very old phenomenon.
In 2022, the talking stage is used to describe the nebulous start of a relationship where both parties likely met either in person or, more likely, online. It’s the stage where you will probably be texting someone every day for weeks or months on end. Asking questions, getting to know each other, becoming more and more attached and eventually, potentially… catching feelings. You might meet up with them, you might not. You might have sex, talk about sex, or not mention it at all. But the talking stage is somehow romantic and full of emotion, heady feelings and butterflies.
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Although it feels like love in some sense, do not confuse any of this with commitment, because the talking stage exists to help people avoid the dreaded question of ‘what are we?’ It’s a blocker, an enabler and a way for us to hide from our emotions. Plus, after two years of COVID-19 isolation, distance and yearning, for many it's become a norm to talk endlessly to somebody and revel in the uncertainty that comes with it, while dodging anything more definitive.
Dr Caroline West, Bumble’s sex & relationships expert, tells R29 that the talking stage today is an opportunity to find out about a potential partner, explaining that “it’s a time to see if your likes and dislikes are compatible, if you can communicate well, and if there are any red or even pink flags that you should be aware of.” While Dr West believes the talking stage is a positive part of modern-day dating, you only need to scroll through social media and see the memes and videos that show not everyone agrees. With TikTok pages talking about how stressful, time-consuming and repetitive ‘talking to someone’ can be, although it can be a period of magical feelings and the beginning stages of a relationship, it can also be a minefield that we can all relate to somehow.
Some of the frustration brought out by the talking stage is definitely a product of the time. Dr West recognises that because we all live in a digital world it’s never been easier to meet someone “and then be connected quite quickly across multiple social media platforms.” You know when you’re scrolling through their Instagram and almost like a photo from 426 weeks ago? Or when you’re looking at their Facebook profile and feel as though you know everything about them and their aunt’s best friend? Well, this can accelerate things, and as Dr West puts it “make us feel as if the ‘relationship’ is more solid than it really is”. This makes the talking stage feel quite ambiguous, because one person might feel like they know the other intimately, while that person barely thinks about you — or vice versa. 
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With all that said, this uncertain dating stage is nothing new. In fact, as the dating scene has changed dramatically over the years it has been a part of it in some form. The concept of dating emerged at the beginning of the 20th Century and started with private courtship in the early 1900s, which according to The List was unemotional and mainly focused on financial and social status. Dating then shifted to ‘going steady’ like our grandparents in the 50s before the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s, which saw people enjoy casual sex more than ever before — their equivalent of  their ‘talking stage’. And today we have an amalgamation of them all — commitment is scary, sex is celebrated and figuring out relationships has never been more difficult. And this is all while most of us have the same end goal of being loved.
The new version of this phenomenon is something that has different layers, and in many ways is far more complex than its prior versions. Reflecting on what it was like in the past, Dr West says that in years gone by chaperones often accompanied many courting couples.  Back then, the talking stage was also a “written stage”, because people communicated via letter and sometimes responded to personal ads in newspapers (this type of dating was often done in upper-class circles, or by people who looked to find LGBTQIA+ partners). She added that “while letter writing may be viewed as old-fashioned, it may have had the advantage of not being diluted across multiple platforms as it is now, and this focus may have helped couples make decisions about each other.” Your options were also limited by people you could meet in real life when dating or talking before the internet. Whereas now you can have several conversations through your phone while you’re on the tube, out having a coffee, or sitting at your desk working.
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Known for having different meanings to both parties and being excruciatingly confusing, the talking stage can feel both wonderful and painful — especially if you both have different end goals, or if your connection and talking habits die a slow death. But luckily for those of us who are lovesick and longing for something more, the talking stage’s long history means we can definitely find ways to manage it and the uncertain emotions that arise with it.
Dr West says that the best way to ensure we enjoy it, rather than stewing over what might or might not happen, is to make sure we’re setting our own rules and boundaries — because this will help manage expectations. She also adds that it’s important to figure out how long you’re willing to let the talking stage go on for, and how long you’re willing to wait for a reply. After all, waiting around for a text from somebody who isn’t as invested as you isn’t going to get you what you want.
“It [the talking stage] can mean different things to different people,” she explains, adding that it is important to communicate your expectations from the get-go. “If you expect the talking stage to be an exclusive stage and the other person does not, this might lead to heartache down the line, so clear communication is essential.” And if things don’t feel right or you don’t feel ready just yet it's more than okay to take a step back. After all, Bumble recently found that the pandemic has made 53% of us realise that it’s actually okay to be single for a bit. Dr West affirms that it “is natural that the talking stage will often fizzle out or end. Otherwise, you won't get into a relationship with every person you connect with, and that is okay.”
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