How Your Class Affects The Way You Date

Photographed by Laura Chen.
The following is an edited extract from The New Laws of Love: Online Dating and the Privatization of Intimacy by Marie Bergström
Marie is a researcher at the French Institute of Demographic Studies in Paris where she has researched online dating platforms and interviewed their users. 
To present yourself in a positive light, with just enough spice to arouse interest and intrigue but without boasting or going overboard — this is the uncomfortable challenge facing anyone who wants to create an online dating profile. Two fears must be confronted: the fear of coming across as trite or vain, and the fear of being ridiculous. Needless to say, the outcome is fairly conventional: there are codes and ways of going about things, and profiles tend to look pretty much alike. This was already the case with personal ads, as sociologist François de Singly observed in the 1980s. 
Today, online dating is more common and less suspect than matrimonial ads, but users must still prove that they are normal and likeable, not too desperate, not too uptight, and especially not “crazy.” Even today, conventionality is the price to pay for an “impression of normality.”
Whether we like it or not, there is a code of conduct governing self-presentation online; but, rather than a single code, there are several that coexist. And, as you might expect, my research has shown that everything from a person’s age, their race, their job and, yes, their social class comes into play. Some mainstream consideration has been given to the ways in which racism exists on dating apps and there has been much talk about gender, too, but little attention has been given to class. 
But, of course, it should come as no surprise that class discrimination occurs on dating apps. The codes — the ways people give and receive information on dating apps — will vary depending on their economic and cultural capital. 
Consider this interview with a male student. It sheds some light on the social judgments that are made in appraising and decoding online profiles.
COLIN: I “like” girls who are attractive, or with a funny description…
INTERVIEWER: What do you mean by a funny description? 
COLIN: I like good cultural references. References to films can be funny. I like bad puns; I think: she’s got a sense of humor, so that’s good, it’ll be fun. I also look at the content of the pictures, not just the person, to see how the picture was taken.
INTERVIEWER: Have you noticed some things you like more than others?
COLIN: There’s one thing I don’t like, for instance, it’s like ten selfies in a row, you know, with a duck face like that [he mimics a pout and laughs]. It’s horrible to mock them, but it’s like, “well, you’re so in love with yourself, but…” So … I’m not going to “like” a girl, even if she’s very attractive; it’s simply that I find it ridiculous. […] Some things I like… I like beautiful photos actually, photographs that were taken properly, not overfiltered from Instagram but just a pretty photo. There was one that really stood out for me, with lots of things I liked. It was a woman who was sitting by her piano, it was a black and white photo, not a photo that had been edited, it was a camera that took black and white pictures. Very attractive. She had her back to the camera. I think there was a cat on the piano, and she had a super attractive tattoo, everything was perfectly symmetrical. And the photo reached out to me, and I “liked” her. 
(Colin, 22, student; parents: salespeople)
Colin was a student at a music conservatoire but his parents, whose low cultural capital he commented during the interview, were salespeople. He found himself in a situation of ascending social mobility and entering a different social class to that of his family. As a result, he was making multiple judgments about taste when looking at women’s photos, he was looking for clues about their social position and lifestyle — whether they used filters, took selfies as opposed to ‘beautiful’ photographs and, even, whether they could play a musical instrument.

Dating is often described as a 'game,' because of its conventions and highly ritualised nature. Being able to play this game together, by the same rules, is crucial in the decision to take things to the next level.

Class distinctions come into play in the written part of the profile as well. In the same interview Colin stressed the importance of the “description,” something the upper classes are particularly attentive to. Even a concise bio can be rich in cultural references and exhibit puns or other wordplay that individuals put in to distinguish themselves from the mass of registered users. Confident in their writing skills, the upper classes play out and enjoy displaying their cultural capital by crafting descriptions that, in many cases, simply cannot be decoded without the requisite cultural keys. Users from less privileged backgrounds, on the other hand, often post far more modest bios — or none at all. To make a written self-presentation is considered not only difficult but also pretentious.
Consider this quote from a young woman:
I left it blank. Some people write a presentation, but like two pages! […] I gave it some thought, but it was hard, and I asked myself how I was going to post something in there. I just couldn’t! […] So I thought: no, it would only make me look foolish. 
(Fatima, 34, social worker)
So, what does this all mean for users of dating apps? We know, because of the distinct social codes governing self-presentation, that users will ignore profiles that are radically different from their own or dismiss them as incomplete, unappealing, bizarre, ridiculous, boastful, or vulgar — and they will focus instead on people who present themselves “well” according to their own standards. However, not everyone will necessarily swipe past and reject a user from a different social class. I also interviewed people who stressed that they interact with “all types, from every social and cultural background” (Virginie, 29, social worker) and that online dating makes you “talk to people you might not naturally speak with” (Audrey, 22, student; parents: bank executives).
However, while people may contact individuals from different social backgrounds, they predominantly pursue contact with those with whom they share a common ground. Unlike ordinary offline dating, which often involves other activities such as dining, drinking, dancing, and so on, online interactions are initially strictly limited to a verbal exchange, and that is without face-to-face communication or body language. This can make online courtship more of an “intellectual” than a “sensory” experience, and as such, it relies much more on social conventions than instincts. 
What begins as a simple question-and-answer ritual can continue only if the participants find a subject they are both familiar with and willing to discuss. At this stage, questions often involve what the other person does (study or work) and what the other person likes (hobbies, pastimes and passions, or tastes in music, films, or literature). The communication is facilitated if both share the same interests and, more broadly, the same universe of cultural references.

Because writing is intimately but also unconsciously linked to social class, users have no problem with expressing their dislike, or even their contempt for bad spelling.

MARIE Bergström
This can mean that people are struck off for basic mistakes and the implication is simple, even obvious, but crucial: online dating is built upon a highly discriminatory mode of communication, in which writing is much more than just a medium. Indeed, even spelling turns out to be a criterion of selection for users with a higher education, regardless of their degree, level, or academic discipline. It is also the only social criterion that is bluntly admitted as such. These two interviewees make it clear: “if someone can’t spell, there’s no chance!” (Yannick, 31, secondary school teacher). “If I see spelling mistakes, I’ll move on directly” (Élodie, 20, student; mother: secondary school teacher; father: engineering manager). 
Because writing is intimately but also unconsciously linked to social class, users have no problem with expressing their dislike, or even their contempt for bad spelling. Consider this interview:
"I’ve had conversations with people who were very different. A firefighter, who seemed very young but was actually about my own age. One who was in IT, I think. And then there was one who was in aeronautics and one who was in catering, an oenologist or something like that. So, between the fireman who was adorable but couldn’t spell, who spoke like a really young person, I just gave up […] We wrote quite a lot of emails to each other. The reason I finally gave up on him, I admit, was his language… he really wrote like someone in the first grade! [laughter]."
(Delphine, 32, social worker)
Condescending attitudes toward culturally underprivileged users are common. Judgments related to writing encompass the entire social hierarchy in values expressed by opposites: mature–immature, well educated–crude, serious–lazy, intelligent–stupid, refined–vulgar, and so on. 
Dating is often described as a “game,” because of its conventions and highly ritualised nature. Being able to play this game together, by the same rules, is crucial in the decision to take things to the next level: the face-to-face encounter. And, the more we understand about dating apps, the more it becomes clear that class is a deciding factor. 
 The New Laws of Love: Online Dating and the Privatization of Intimacy by Marie Bergström is published by Polity.

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