I’m telling you this at the risk of revealing more of myself than I really ought to, but: I like to keep a meticulous contacts book. (“Like” is generous; it’s more neurotically urgent than that.)
In my phone, everybody I know is listed by their full name and arranged in alphabetical order by surname. Some exemptions do exist, though the threshold for qualifying is high: “Mum”, “Dad”, “Uncle John” and so on. There are no emojis. There are absolutely no nicknames. Within each contact, numbers appear in their correct category, which is invariably “mobile”. Don’t even get me started on profile pictures.
Suffice it to say that dating has been an enormous emotional weight on me, thanks to how it has upset this painstaking fealty to order and exactitude.
Sprinkled throughout my contacts nowadays—he says wincing, grimacing—are dozens of single and mysterious names, permanently unrepairable: a Thea here and a Helen there, a Megan and a Haley, a Pauline and a Nancy. Some are embarrassing reminders. Most elicit no response in me at all, as if they were the names of centuries-old dead people. Who, for example, is Niamh? I have no recollection of matching with, speaking to or dating anyone with this name. Our WhatsApp chat is empty. Her profile picture is blank. Should I not just delete this number? Well, would you throw away a key before knowing what door it’s supposed to open?
Even in situations when these names became tied to an actual flesh-and-blood individual—for one or two dates and no more, of course—still they were seldom uttered or had any life beyond my address book. Among friends, these dates habitually acquired some other name. Since there was usually no time for them to develop naturally, like a genuine nickname, most are based on the most superficial things. And so there’s been “the Banker”, “the Poet” (unemployed), “the Academic” and “the Journo”; there’s been “America”, “America Two”, “Spain”, “Greece” and “Brazil”, the latter of whom was also “the Poly” (but let’s not get into that). Occasionally, real inspiration has struck. After one date ran out on me for the inexplicable reason that her flatmate’s grandmother had suddenly passed away, my friend christened her with a name that I, at first, refused to accept.
“Stop,” I said to her. “You can’t call her that.”
“Yes I can,” said my friend.
“No,” I said. “You can’t.”
“Look, it’s easy,” said my friend. “All you have to say is: ‘David went on a date with Grandma’.”
To anyone who’s done any online dating this habit of nicknaming comes naturally. For a short period, another friend found that her charisma was such that every man she met was driven to reach for the farthest corners of the globe just days after the first date: in a row she had a Kenya Man, a Canada Man and an Oman Man. Some of them never came back. (I can’t boast that my own record, which involves most dates going nowhere in more than one sense of the phrase, is much better.) Yet another friend dated Manchester Man, because he went to Manchester one time; before that was a posh boy called Amusing! after his habit of using this word to describe literally everything; Scotch Egg, because he had the image of one tattooed on his chest; Mr Connect, after he beseeched her to “connect with me”; and Six-Two because, well, he was six foot two.
It might all sound a bit flippant—or, worse, dehumanising. But would we really be talking about these people—and thus giving rise to the necessity of another name—if we really didn’t care? The truth, I reckon, is that these nicknames are the remnant of an early hope we harbour, possibly even before the first date, that this time things might actually go somewhere—and a useful defence mechanism when they invariably don’t. To make conversation about somebody new is to talk with anticipation and expectation; to keep them nameless is to keep that anticipation abstract and easily withdrawable. “Spain? Don’t get me started. That didn’t go anywhere. She didn’t even have a name!”
Dating apps didn’t invent any of our bad habits, but they’ve certainly made a lot of them worse. What in the past might’ve been one or two nicknames here and there is today a seemingly endless stream. Now before even a first meet, I know what somebody does for a living, what university they went to, where they are from, how tall they are and what their star sign is, whether they do drugs “always” or just “occasionally”. From these bare facts, I construct an equally bare name that, really, reveals very little about the actual person I’m presented with. Partly that’s the point, but it’s also suggestive of a bigger problem. I haven’t exchanged mystery for more certainty, which I’m guessing is what all this app information is meant to provide. Instead, I’ve exchanged it for abstraction and arbitrariness.
And isn’t that a little boring, after a while? I can’t wait for the day I no longer feel compelled to refer to people as Banker, France, the Writer, the Vegan or any name other than the one saved in my address book. (Better still if—just imagine—they acquire a surname in the process!) Meanwhile, I guess I can only hope for the best. Which, in this timeline, means not giving anyone any reason at all to call me anything other than “that guy who works for Prospect”.