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What I learned about radical honesty from a year oN Tinder

This is part one in a multi-part series about skills I learned from Tinder dating. More essays coming soon!

Last year in April I joined Tinder for the first time. I had always been loathe to get involved in online dating; I had never seen the joy in OkCupid or I wanted spontaneity and romance, and I didn’t believe these things could be digitally mediated. But here I was, a year out of a five-ish year relationship, and I wanted to get out more, meet new people, maybe even have fun. And sex. I definitely wanted to have sex. 

Meanwhile, I’d been back in therapy for the better part of a year at that point, working hard on myself and my relational habits. I came from a common but not normal type of family, the kind that’s full of dysfunction, abandonment and abuse, the kind that eradicates boundaries, eschews truth, and generally fucks a kid up. I had played out those same childhood dynamics in all my romantic relationships in one way or another, including the recently-ended one. I presented myself at my therapist’s office heartbroken and desperately ready to do it differently. 

“What if,” I wondered to my therapist aloud, “I could use my interactions on Tinder to try out the new emotional habits I was trying to instill in myself? Would this be a lower stakes scenario than with people I already have complex relationships with? Could I use Tinder not just to get laid but to perhaps, become a better person?” 

I started small, taking tiny chances and slowly making small improvements to my dysfunctional habits. I set an intention to be radically honest in all of my interactions on Tinder. For me this meant telling the truth, clearly and directly, when I didn’t like someone else’s behavior towards me, even if I thought the other person wouldn’t like it. Even if they might not want to date me because of it. 

Telling the truth is no easy task. For many women and assigned-female people, being palatable is always the unstated goal. We’re taught to just be nice. Be approachable. Don’t have too many opinions. Definitely don’t tell people (especially men) what you think of them. Just be agreeable and go with the flow. Be the chill girl. This has been my unspoken way of being for basically my whole life. I was ready to start telling the truth. 

Being honest is a time-saver

Not to be glib, but being honest and direct saved me so much time. Turns out if you just tell someone directly that you don’t like something they’ve said or done, most of them just disappear into the pixelated ether, no terrible first date needed to find out you weren’t a good match after all. 

My first experience with this was with an artsy-looking Burner dude who I probably had no business swiping right on anyway. (I quickly developed a set of rules: guns, cops, military, Burning Man, white dreds, car selfie, shirtless gym selfie, mention of his penis in his profile: swipe left.) Artsy Burner and I matched, and I sent the first message. 

“Hey [I can’t remember his name], how’s your week been?” 

“Hey Beautiful! My week’s been great, played a gig with my band last night. How about yours?” 

I rolled my eyes. I hate when dudes I’ve just met address me with pet names, particularly ones that fixate on physical attractiveness. It smacks of a kind of entitlement and paternalism that is just unpalatable to me. (Side note: You don’t have to hate this. I know some people who actively like this. I’m not making a value judgement about that. Just stating my personal preference.) But, I thought, how could he know that I hate that unless I tell him? So I messaged back. 

“Hey so I’m new to Tinder but I’m trying to practice radical honesty here, and it actually really bothers me when guys I’ve just met use pet names with me. If that’s too weird, feel free to unmatch.” 

He quickly sent back a flurry of defensive messages, and before I could even read them, he unmatched. 

At first I felt sad he had unmatched. Getting unmatched always feels a little like rejection. But then I felt relieved. This person was not a good fit for me, and because I told the truth, now we knew it. He was either deeply committed to his used of pet names, or unable to receive feedback about his behavior, or both. We could stop wasting each other’s time.  

Another iteration of this happened a few weeks later when I matched with a soft butch and her cute dog. We chatted on and off for a few days, eventually planning to go on a date the following Saturday evening, details TBD. Thursday rolled around and she wrote: 

“Hey Bear, how about meeting for a drink at the Mayhaw?” 

The Mayhaw? I had never heard of this spot. I googled it. Oh shit. It was the bar inside a mammoth, expensive food court “market” that heavily influenced the rapid gentrification of the neighborhood it was in. I had enacted a quiet, personal boycott of the market since it opened, and I couldn’t see breaking it now, not even for this babe. 

Suddenly the stakes felt higher. We had spent a week exchanging witty banter and establishing rapport. I texted a friend for guidance. I wanted to tell my date the truth, I explained, but I also really wanted to go out with her.  “Just suggest a different bar instead,” my friend encouraged. “You don’t have to mention the reason why.” I considered this approach, but being clear about my politics felt important, like a litmus test of shared worldview. 

“Hey there, so I’m trying to practice radical honesty on Tinder,” I shared earnestly, “and truthfully, I can’t go to the Mayhaw because to me it represents forces of gentrification in the neighborhood that I just don’t support. I’m happy to meet you at some other bar, or feel free to unmatch, no hard feelings.” 

Within minutes and without a reply, she unmatched. 

Damn. Damn damn damn. I was disappointed. I had high hopes for this! But then, inevitably, relief swept in. Glad we got that out of the way now, I thought, before either of us hitched up the U-haul. 

Disappointments aside, this radical honesty thing was working. In just one message, I was laying out to people what was truly important to me, what I was unwilling to compromise on, and then, simply letting them choose. If it’s a dealbreaker for them, then so be it. If he is really dedicated to calling strangers “Beautiful” or “Love”, let him be. If the Mayhaw is her favorite bar and she’s never heard the term gentrification before, better to know it now. 

The thrilling flip side of telling the truth, of course, is that sometimes people don’t unmatch. Sometimes you tell someone your honest feelings about something and they want to talk more about it, try to understand you, want you to understand them. Honesty becomes an avenue for connection rather than disconnection. 

Recently I had a Tinder debate with a new match about yet another bar in the city whose owners are known to support white supremacist causes. My match said he’d been boycotting the place for years, even though it was one of the only spots for zydeco dancing in town. I countered that because of that, they also support and employ many Black zydeco musicians who have few options to play elsewhere. We agreed that it was complicated and that there were no easy answers. Maybe we’ll go dancing soon, though not at that bar. I was grateful for the conversation.

There are cultural norms, especially for women and female-assigned people, that say we should put our best face forward, hide our true selves until we’re further along in getting to know someone. How will you convince them to love you if you show them who you really are right away?, common sense seems to tell us. But in fact, the opposite is true. If you start out with half-truths and swallowing your opinion about things, you’re setting yourself up for deception and resentment. Being radically honest doesn’t solve all the problems of a relationship, but starting out by telling the truth sets you up for more truth.

And the truth, as they say, will set you free.