I was standing on a balcony at a concert venue in San Diego when I noticed a tall, lanky guy waiting to get a drink. “He’s cute,” I yelled into my friend’s ear, attempting to be heard over the thrashing guitar riffs coming from costumed metal band GWAR, who were playing below. Then, suddenly, he was beside me. “I just want you to know you’re the cutest girl at Comic Con,” he said. Below us, 20 people were being sprayed with fake blood and a papier-mâché figure of Hillary Clinton was beheaded, but I barely noticed.
That was in 2009. While not much ever came from that romantic, blood-splattered encounter, it has remained vividly ingrained in my memory. It was my very own meet-cute—the kind of story you’d tell in a wedding toast to a resounding wave of laughter and aww’s. And nowadays, it feels like meet-cutes are a near-extinct species within dating.
In film, particularly romantic comedies, a meet-cute is the sickeningly charming moment in which two characters first meet, setting up the twist and turns that will become their love story. It’s the moment Hollywood star Anna Scott walks into William Thacker’s bookshop in Notting Hill; Natalie’s incessant potty mouth when shaking hands with her new boss, the dashing Prime Minister of the UK, in Love Actually; and possibly the most meet-cutest of meet-cutes, the moment in The Wedding Planner when Steve saves Mary from certain death after her Gucci pump gets stuck in a manhole cover just as a dumpster barrels down the street in her direction. Meet-cutes become the introduction into the characters’ most defining personality traits—a disarming moment revealing them at their most shy, quirky, sassy, damaged, cynical, ambitious, fussy, arrogant, or maybe even kind of slutty.
The meet-cute is intrinsic in romantic films. But in real life, it feels like those stories of romantically charged first encounters are becoming a rarity, and I regret to inform you that the data backs that assessment. A 2019 study by sociologists from Stanford University and the University of New Mexico found that heterosexual couples are now more likely to meet online via dating apps and websites than by in-person chance encounters, with 39 percent of straight couples surveyed reporting that they met their partner online. In fact, meeting online has surpassed being introduced to a significant other by mutual friends as far as coupling-up methods go; the researchers believe this shift happened circa 2013. The numbers are even more dramatic when it comes to same sex couples—65 percent of same sex partners surveyed met online, per the study. For trans people, online dating is a main source for meeting potential partners, though it remains rife with difficulties.
When I talk to friends, they often speak wistfully of the days where you actually had to work up the nerve to talk to someone in person, or were pleasantly surprised by someone starting a conversation with you. While they once shrugged off potential partners while drunk at a bar, they now seem embarrassed to explain that they met someone online; it hardly feels special. Back in college, when I’d hit up my local dives and clubs, guys would ask if I’d like to dance (I was once asked by a guy in a chainmail shirt!)—an act that now feels almost like almost 1950s compared to the swipe-heavy 2010s. But even then, I was often taken aback by the ask, as if I’d been handed a VCR. And the chance of that happening now seems impossible.
Those first few minutes talking to an attractive stranger have always been high-stakes. You might find yourself painfully rejected, walking away red-faced with embarrassment, or you might meet your future spouse. Sometimes, you’ve really got to take risks; would Lucy (Sandra Bullock) end up with married to Jack (Bill Pullman) in While You Were Sleeping if she had fessed up right away to not being his comatose brother’s fiancé? Probably not! online dating has offered a safety blanket from face-to-face rejection, while still offering a chance (ostensibly) at love, so it isn’t hard to see why it’s become the go-to way to meet potential partners, even though countless people who date online will tell you how much they hate it. And, as the #MeToo movement has illuminated, any time you’re approached—whether started online or out on the town—it carries the possibility of real danger, particularly for women and LGBTQ folks. Seemingly well-meaning interest from a man can quickly veer into dark territory; if a cab whooshed by and knocked me into the arms of a tall, dark stranger, I probably wouldn’t get coffee with them immediately after, even if they asked nicely. I’ve seen too much Dateline! (Buy hey, maybe I’d ask for their number or Instagram handle. I say this as someone who once had sex with someone they met on Chatroulette and another person they met on Offer Up while trying to sell a dining table.)
Because of the allure of the internet’s diluted risk of rejection combined with our growing awareness of women’s experiences of assault and coercion, real-life meet-cutes seem to have gone the way of VHS copies of Spice World. In the off chance we do find ourselves approached by a stranger, maybe complimenting a band tee or making an attempt at flirty conversation, we find ourselves increasingly weirded out. Then, it becomes a vicious cycle; our own hesitance gives us pause when it comes to finally shooting our shot with the cutie from the coffee shop for fear of coming off as the creeper. Even if the idea of a meet-cute still sounds nice, we’re in a true chicken-egg situation, a never ending cycle of negative reinforcement to those attempting to connect with someone in person. It’s exhausting to think about, and frustrating. All I wanted was a Pepsi*! (*date)
On the plus side, the internet has also given us a more advanced vetting process for meeting a potential new partner, with our old buddy Google offering at least a little protection from unwittingly flirting with a murderer, creep, fraud, or someone who collects Precious Moments figurines. It’s not foolproof, and the internet is still full of people we’d rather not encounter, let alone date. But at least we’re not going in 100-percent blind (unless, of course, you get catfished).
Perhaps instead of lamenting the death of the meet-cute, we should shift our ideas of what constitutes a meeting worthy of getting excited about—of being deemed “cute” in the first place. Here’s an idea: Online is fine! Good, even. In this trash-ass world, finding someone that gets your stupid jokes, respects your needs and boundaries, and reciprocates your love is something to celebrate, no matter what spawned it. And when it comes to staging your own IRL meet-cute, reading the room and being respectful is key. It might get you a date, or maybe not. As Michael Scott once quoted Wayne Gretzky as saying, you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.