How Does Online Communication Influence First Date Success?

Modality switching in dating

Posted May 30, 2019

 Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

So you’ve been chatting to someone on dating site for a while and you decide to meet face-to-face.  How do we know that you are going to like the person to whom you have been chatting?  Is there anything you should do or ask which might determine whether it is actually worth meeting anyway?  Is there anything you should ask which might determine how successful your meeting will be?  

For relationships that start out online, possibly one of the most significant points is when partners decide to meet face-to-face.  One reason as to why the transition from online to offline is important is that it is the point at which factors such as facial expressions, tone of voice and other mannerisms, become evident.  Research by Monica Whitty reported that two-thirds of people who met online stated that their first meeting very much determined whether their encounter would develop or end (Whitty, 2008).  This switch from online to offline is referred to as modality switching (Ramirez & Wang, 2008).  Other examples of significant escalation points in relationship development may be the first declaration of love between partners or the first time they have sex.  Even in romantic relationship initiation, there are escalation points such as approaching and talking for the first time, which have to happen in order that a romantic encounter can progress.  Rather little like a game of Snakes and Ladders, relationship development can either progress at each point, or slide back to a starting point (Perper and Fox, 1980).

Researchers Liesel Sharabi and John Caughlin set out to investigate what the effect of a first face-to-face meeting had on those who had met on a dating site.  They also examined how the way in which a person portrayed themselves online would impact the success of a first date.

They predicted that the following things would be important to the success of a first date.

  • a person’s idea of how similar their online partner was to them
  • their own expressions of similarity to their online partner
  • their expressions of uncertainty about their online partner
  • the amount of information they asked their online partner for in their online communication

The researchers used employed a longitudinal design collecting data from respondents before and after their first face-to-face dates.  Respondents in their study had used a variety of dating sites or apps, and spent an average of 21.77 days interacting online before meeting in person.  All completed scales measuring:

  • Anticipated future interaction - the desire for future interaction and perception of a partner’s desire for future interaction.  For example, ‘I would like to go on another date with this person’ and ‘This person would like to spend more time with me’
  • Changes in attraction - social and physical attraction, such as ‘I would like to have a friendly chat with him/her’, and ‘I think he/she is quite handsome/pretty.’  A comparison score was calculated by comparing the differences between before and after meeting.
  • Perceived similarity - attitude and background similarity. 
  • Uncertainty - confidence about knowing their online dating partner before meeting them face-to-face.
  • Online communication overall measured expressed similarity, (the number of resemblances or shared interests in their communication), frequency of disclosure (the number of revealed personal or sensitive pieces of information in communications), information seeking (direct questions or interrogative statements in communications and amount of communication (the number of words in communications). 

What predicts success on first meeting?

The researchers found that the key elements to first date success were:

  • feeling one was similar to one’s online date
  • expressing the fact that one was similar to them
  • the amount of information sought from an online partner 

First face-to-face date success was also affected by the amount of disclosure which took place online before a first face-to-face meeting, that is revealing personal or sensitive information to an online partner.  For years, research has told us that disclosing information and having information disclosed to us facilitates liking.  Overall, this very much suggests that a degree of successful prior interaction before a first face-to-face date is vitally important to the success of that date. 

Furthermore, those who were the most confident about explaining and predicting their online partner’s behaviour were those who made the smoothest shift to a face-to-face meeting.  Similarly, those whose online communications asked for more information about their online partner were those who were the keenest for a future date.  One explanation for this is that those people who ask for information from their online partner reduce uncertainty and are therefore less likely to be surprised or disappointed on a first face-to-face meeting.

The bad news

However, one of the main findings from this study was that the first face-to-face date after meeting online generally resulted in a decline in social and physical attraction to a partner.  This is explained by the fact that a person’s personality, habits, nonverbal behaviour and even physical appearance may not be totally apparent until a first meeting.  This disillusionment effect simply means that we are likely to feel less satisfied than we expect on a first face-to-face meeting following an online encounter.  The effect is similar to what partners often experience after marriage, when they may feel less satisfied with their partner than they did when dating.  In such a situation, unless people are prepared to compromise to a degree, the relationship may not be sustainable over an extended period of time.  One reason why this devaluing effect happens is that daters might project their idea of their ideal mate onto the person they have met online when very often this person may not live up to their expectations on first meeting face-to-face. 

Don’t communicate for too long before meeting

Even though the findings from this study would seem to advise us to seek as much information as possible before meeting face-to-face, it has also been found that a degree of idealization of a partner sometimes occurs when daters communicate too much and for too long online, causing difficulty when transitioning to a face-to-face encounter (Ramirez & Zhang, 2007).

Overall, however, users of online dating are now making better mate choices because of the array of choice.  Therefore, despite modality switching leading to disappointment in some cases, the abundance of choice available means that we can go back to the dating site and eventually make better partner decisions.

References

Perper T and Fox V S (1980) ‘Flirtation Behaviour and public settings’ Paper presented at the meeting of the Eastern Region of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex, Philadelphia, PA.

Sharabi, L. L. & Caughlin, J. P. (2017) ‘What predicts first date success? A longitudinal study of modality switching in online dating’ Personal Relationships, 24, 370–391.

Ramirez, A., & Wang, Z. (2008) ‘When online meets offline: An expectancy violations theory perspective on modality switching.’ Journal of Communication, 58, 20–39.

Ramirez, A., & Zhang, S. (2007). ‘When online meets offline: The effect of modality switching on relational communication. Communication Monographs, 74, 287–310.

Whitty, M. T. (2008) ‘Revealing the “real” me, searching for the “actual” you: Presentation of self on an internet dating site. ‘Computers in Human Behaviour, 24, 1707–1723.