In The Era Of Online Dating, Why Are We Still So Obsessed With Meet-Cutes?

If this were a ‘90s rom-com, and I were a beloved (relatable) Hollywood starlet, the mediocre airport bar from which I am writing would make for a superb romantic backdrop. But much to my chagrin, I am me, and the year is 2021 — and thus far, not even one mythically attractive stranger has approached me to ask about my astrological sign or the new Sally Rooney. Which is to say, in the era of algorithmic romance, it’s highly possible that the proper “meet-cute” is dead.
If you’re not familiar, the standard “meet-cute” is precisely as it sounds: Some serendipitous, romantic origin story between strangers; a happenstance crossing of paths that is, well… cute. As defined by decades' worth of romance films, and probably the archives of Craigslist’s “Missed Connections,” it’s all about the rare act of simply being in the right place at the right time. 
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For so long, this was the standard — but at present, this particular approach is far from the norm. Now, we use The Internet. Thanks to the proliferation of dating apps in rotation, we’ve all got catalogs of pre-vetted, local suitors available in the palms of our hands at any given time. Efficient? Yes. Cinematic? Less so. That’s not to imply your run-of-the-mill Hinge date can’t be plenty life-changing, though: Countless folks have built life-long, loving partnerships from online forums.
“We don’t have any evidence claiming that couples who meet through apps are less successful than those who meet more naturally out in the world,” says Lee Wilson, certified relationship coach. “In 20 years of working with couples, I’ve found that the origin story doesn’t make much of a difference.”
Even so, it would seem that our discourse around dating has yet to catch up with our real-time MOs. Think about it: In most cases, “How did you meet?” is still the first question you pose to a new couple. No matter how quickly our dating landscape continues to evolve, we can’t seem to part with our enduring fixation on poetic, unplanned origin stories. And Wilson believes this may be a mistake. “Maybe it’s time we considered reshaping the narrative around first encounters,” he offers. “If apps are a necessary evil, then maybe we should all refer to our first dates — or other important, early moments — as our origin stories.” Or, at the very least, perhaps we should fight our knee-jerk reaction to ask a couple about their meeting scenario — and instead, find a more revelatory, up-to-date question. 
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"I’m tired of waiting for my meet-cute! The number of times I’ve ‘dressed up’ to fetch a coffee or browse around a bookstore in the hopes of encountering my dream man is far too many,” says Boston-based student Iman Balagam. “Sure, waiting for ‘something magical’ to happen can be inspiring — but mostly, it leaves me with an eternal sense of disappointment. Waiting around for magic to occur is a pretty great way to set yourself up for failure.”
Greeting the world with a romantic, expectant kind of hope is not inherently a bad thing — if arguably naive. But at the same time, our fascination with the quintessential, cinematic meet-cute might preclude us from seeing the magic in modern dating, too: There’s something to be said for exercising agency in the face of love, even if it requires a smartphone. “Maybe matching on an app is not very ‘Hollywood romance,’ but we shouldn’t discount the fact that it’s still special. It still requires that two people forge some sort of a connection that can be felt even through the fiber optics of the internet, and that’s a beautiful thing,” says Wilson. "I understand that we all wish that we could say we met at Niagara Falls by happenstance, but it’s still an undeniably special thing that any two particular people on a planet of eight billion could meet and share something real.”
So, in the interest of reconceptualizing how, exactly, we frame the standard meet-cute in 2021 — be it a question of DMs, app matches, set-ups, or Slack banter — we asked folks across the globe to share their most recent, formative, romantic origin stories. Give them a read, then ask yourself if you, too, should reconsider your rubric for a bona fide “meet-cute.”
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Lily S, 27, New York City
"A few months ago, a bunch of my friends DMed me an Instagram story from this magazine editor. It was a photo of me getting some work done in a coffee shop in Chinatown. It wasn’t creepy — the guy had just been photographing the coffee shop *scene,* but I was still featured pretty prominently. Naturally, I DMed him immediately saying ‘That’s me!’ and he responded right away — then we messaged back and forth for a bit. When the banter started slowing down, I said something coy about hoping to see him around the area and we left it at that.  
“When I woke up the next day, I was like, ‘This feels too weird. I can’t just not do anything about it.’ So, after some text-message motivation from my friends, I worked up the courage to DM him and ask him to get a drink sometime. Of course, it felt like it took eons to actually pick a time and a place to meet up — and it didn’t help that we were doing all of our corresponding over Instagram DMs instead of text messages — but eventually, we did actually set a date. 
“We didn’t fall madly in love nor did we end up dating in any particularly serious way. But we did go on two marathon dates — both of which lasted almost eight hours and involved a whole battery of different bars and restaurants. And they were two of the most fun dates I’ve ever been on. 
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“Not gonna lie, I was disappointed when it didn’t work out. But in retrospect, the part that was most exciting was certainly the meeting story. Somehow, it was both a product of the internet and a product of real life. Had I picked a different coffee shop, or checked my DMs after his story had disappeared, I might’ve missed it. It was purely luck that my friends also followed him, and that they’d recognized me right away. In a lot of ways, the internet was responsible for our meeting. But there was serendipity at play, too. And in my head, that’s a modern meet-cute, manifest.”
Bailey T, 30, San Francisco
“The date was October 15. I’d just been ghosted by this one guy I met online and I was feeling pretty down about it, so I’d gone to get my hair braided. Once my hair was done, I met up with a friend for drinks at this bar across the street. Once we’d ordered, I started telling my friend all about the ghosting scenario — then, all of a sudden, I looked up and realized that we had this insanely cute, heavily tattooed waiter. We called him Tattoo Fingers.
“That night, I told my roommate Paige about him and we decided to go back later that week in the hopes of seeing him again — but we both looked around all night, and it seemed like he was nowhere to be seen. Then, eventually, Paige got up to use the bathroom while I was signing the check, and out of nowhere, Tattoo Fingers appeared and said, ‘I hope this doesn’t come off as unprofessional but I think you’re beautiful,’ before immediately collecting some plates and turning to walk away. I was stunned. Truly floored. Nothing like that had ever actually happened to me before. I told Paige as soon as she got back and she said I should leave my phone number, so I wrote it down on a receipt and went outside to wait for my Uber — but before it arrived, Tattoo Fingers jogged up and asked me out. I know it sounds too good to be true but…we’ve been dating ever since. That was almost a year ago!”
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Harper I, 25, Vancouver
"Last year, one of my sisters was on some intense immunosuppressants, so my other sisters and I were all staying with her at our parents’ house, which is located on an island near Canada in complete isolation. Groceries were delivered, as was everything else. We had no interaction with anyone outside the house that whole autumn. 
“Enter: Brett, the co-manager of a local outdoor Christmas lighting company that my parents had hired to put up some string lights on the trees in the front yard. My father masked up and walked around the yard with Brett, then came inside and told me he wanted my opinion on the lights. I went and got my PPE and met Brett outside, and as soon as I made it into the yard, I realized my dad had an ulterior motive. He proceeded to tell Brett that he should give me his number so he could do the lights at the new place I was planning to move into later that month (my dad pleads innocent on the matter, but he knew I’d gone through a breakup a few months earlier and I suspect he very well knew what he was doing). Lo and behold, a few texts and two very in-depth lighting consultations later, Brett and I smooched (!!!!) in his truck. 
“Some context that feels relevant: The island I speak of is a rather popular location for shooting Hallmark movies, often of the holiday variety. As you can imagine, there are snow machines everywhere. As a result, driving around my new hometown from the passenger seat of a Christmas lighting truck briefly made my life feel like a Hallmark holiday rom-com — which was certainly a welcome sensation after so many months spent feeling like I lived in a horror film (due to the intense isolation). 
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“We only hung out a handful of times before I realized that I just wasn’t quite ready for another relationship — which Brett was extremely sweet about when I broke things off. But now that summer is ending, and Christmas is a mere three months away, I’ve already received Brett’s stock email about Christmas lights, requesting that all of his clients set up their time slots. And seeing his name in my inbox brought a big smile to my face. I’ll just leave it at that, for now.”
Ellis W, 24, Brooklyn
“Technically, I met my girlfriend when we were 12 years old. Neither of us can remember where exactly, but odds are we were hanging out in some park in Brooklyn, where she and I both grew up. We went to different middle schools but we had friends in the same circles, and we’d crossed paths every now and then. We weren’t close — just friendly acquaintances.
“A decade later, we’d both graduated from college and moved back to Brooklyn. One of our mutual friends threw a wig-themed party, so we showed up in costume — and we ended up talking for a while in the living room. Both of us were there with other people. I’m pretty sure I even met her boyfriend at the time. So we weren’t flirting. But I do remember thinking she was cute — and great fun to talk to.
“Then, almost a year ago, mid-quarantine, we both went through serious, intense breakups simultaneously. And for the first time, we joined Tinder — unbeknownst to each other. I’d been on the app for a month or two when I saw her profile flash by, and instantly, I was excited. I’d been on some weird Zoom dates and had some casual online banter, but I was too torn up about my breakup to feel excited about anyone.
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“I’d kept up with her on Instagram loosely. I knew she was a writer — I thought she was quippy and funny and smart, but I also thought she had a boyfriend, so I hadn’t ever given her much thought as a romantic prospect. But swiping past her on Tinder, all of a sudden, I realized the universe (or the internet) was informing me that we were both single at the same time — and perhaps I should do something about it. 
“I can’t remember if we actually matched online or not, but almost immediately, I slid into her DMs with some totally random question about playwriting that I ‘wanted to pick her brain about.’ We exchanged numbers and we chatted for a while — and I liked talking to her. A lot. So eventually, we took a masked walk around Brooklyn — and instantly, I was infatuated. I wanted to talk to her forever. For our second date, I took her fishing for the first time in Prospect Park — and now, months later, we just got back from our first vacation together. I gotta be honest, I’m completely in love with her. 
“Oh, and she hates when I tell people that we kind of met on Tinder.”
Ramsey D, 32, Rio de Janeiro
“My meet-cute story is actually about friendship. 
“I moved to Rio de Janeiro in January 2020 to live with my fiancé when his U.S. visa expired. Upon arrival, I spent a few months looking for English teaching opportunities — but there was one obvious roadblock: I didn’t speak Portuguese. Fortunately, one kind interviewer told me about a friend of his who was looking to trade English lessons for Portuguese ones. 
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“As it turned out, his friend, M, happened to live down the street from me. All I knew about her was her name and apartment number — so I had to stop by, and upon meeting her, I learned she was a 60-something, single, retired teacher serving as a full-time caretaker to her bedridden mother. I remember two things about our visit: the cornucopia of Catholic paraphernalia arranged around the house, and the deep-fried chicken ball that she served me (the latter assuaged my trepidation over the former).
On March 18, she invited me over again; I asked if we could do a video call instead. Thus began an 18-month virtual friendship: We talked for two hours every week, one hour in English, one in Portuguese, as we survived in an epicentre of the pandemic. 
In the early days, it was comforting to have some semblance of proximity. During the ‘panelaço,’ a nightly routine in which Brazilians throughout the country bang pots out of their windows to protest President Bolsonaro, I joked that I could hear M banging down the street. We talked through our indignation in both languages. 
“Our friendship was more intimate than I think it would have been in person; one class, she put her camera to face the ceiling and talked to me as she tended to her mother. One day she expressed an urgent desire to learn the lyrics to the most popular songs in the United States. I've never seen something as pure as this quarantined sexagenarian, brow furrowed, analyzing "Driver's License" by Olivia Rodrigo as if it were the Rosetta Stone. 
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“One weekend she texted me in the wee hours of the morning to tell me her mother passed away from the condition that kept her in bed. She wasn't ready to talk for a few months; when we did, she mourned the fact that the pandemic prevented her from giving her mother a proper funeral. 
“Soon after, we both got COVID, her in late 2020 and me in early 2021. We tried to be as neighbourly as possible, given the circumstances; I offered to drop off food or medicine with her doorman, texted her constantly to ask for updates. When I got it, she checked in on me constantly. By March, as Brazil entered its second lockdown, we were back to class. And maybe it sounds hyperbolic, but there are days I’m not sure we would’ve survived it without one another.
“If that’s not enough reason to keep yourself open to the notion of a meet-cute, I certainly don’t know what is.”
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