As the coronavirus pandemic shows no sign of ending before summer, you have started to wonder whether you just might die alone if you don’t re-download at least one dating app. You choose Hinge and answer its least mentally taxing profile prompts. You respond to “My typical Sunday…” with “reading”, so people know that not only are you hot, but also intelligent. Within minutes, you are inundated with messages from men who want to date you, but also cannot wait to tell you how much better at reading they are than you. “Have you read Infinite Jest?” they say. Or: "On the Road was actually the inspiration for my tattoo."
Telling a woman you’ve never met that you’re better at something than her is essentially negging, a form of emotional manipulation usually used by pick-up artists. Inspired by the "theory" espoused in bald womaniser Neil Strauss' 2005 book The Game, attacking a woman's self-esteem supposedly pushes her to seek your approval, and is therefore easier to "pick up". Unsurprisingly, pretty much all women hate negative comments disguised as flirting. This fact doesn't seem to have reached some of the men I've interacted with on datings apps. A guy once messaged me saying, "Let's compete" after I mentioned being good at cooking. Another claimed that he had watched more episodes of The Simpsons than I had.
Alex*, a 27-year-old who frequently uses dating apps, sees this kind of "competitive banter" as different to making negative comments about someone's appearance or abilities. He uses it to suss out whether the woman he is messaging has the same sense of humour as him. “Teasing always works for me. It’s a way of being playful and having banter straight away, without seeming too forward,” he tells me.
The women I speak to seem to have a different view of competitive comments from men they meet on dating apps. Twenty-two-year-old Lexi's Hinge profile includes the fact that she can identify all of the world's flags by heart. “Men still claim they can beat me,” she says. “I’m absolutely inundated with men patronising me about my flag knowledge. Obviously, they can also know all of them, but saying they’d ‘beat me’ is dumb. Competition can be healthy definitely, but not if it’s patronising. It’s such a huge turn-off.”
Kesia, also 22, has had similar messages from men on datings apps, and thinks that trying to one-up someone about a hobby or activity is simply not good flirting. “It’s really annoying, especially when they all use the same beer pong or mini golf scenario,” she says. “The competitive spark is healthy in a relationship but it has a time and a place and straight up on a dating app is not it.”
Similarly, J, 25, says that competitive flirting is one of the reasons why she stopped trying to meet men on dating apps. “I’m bisexual and predominantly date women," she says. "Dating men is scary enough as it is, so I feel like when they exert this energy, it makes everything scarier. I definitely don’t think it’s a good way to flirt.”
Irem, a 25-year-old dating app user, agrees. It would be different if a woman tried to flirt with her via competitive comments. “I'm bi and if a lass did that, I'd be cool with it," she says. "But when a man does it, I just want to yell, ‘I get it, will you please get your foot off my neck?!'," she tells me. “I reckon they think they are being playful and lighthearted but it's just silly, considering thousands of years of cis hetero male hegemony.”
I asked behavioural psychologist, Jo Hemmings, why some men display competitive behaviour when messaging women on dating apps. As an example, I showed her my interaction with the guy who challenged me to a cooking competition.
“It’s peacocking, they’re just showing off," Hemmings says. "If they’re a peacocking type of guy, they probably won’t notice [if people aren’t interested] because they’ve probably thrown out a lot of leads anyway. But it could also be inexperience or a lack of skill. In your case, saying, ‘Let’s compete’ is very off. It’s definitely not a good technique.”
If you enjoy competitive banter with romantic pursuits, Hemmings suggests not leading with an all-out declaration of war.
“Instead, he could have said, ‘What do you like to cook?’ If somewhere down the line you had said, ‘I'm really good at cooking Thai food,' for example, and he also liked Thai food, then suggesting a competition makes more sense.”
Sadly for my competitive dating app pal, I don't think we'll ever get to that point.
*Name has been changed.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.