Messages the author received after matching on a dating app. (iPhone screenshot via Instagram)

How are you still single?

Even when meant as a compliment, this rhetorical question is more likely to land as an insult. It’s bad enough when a well-meaning friend or relative says it, and even worse when it’s the first message someone sends on a dating app. (It happened to me a few weeks ago; see the image above. And, no, after this opening, I didn’t feel compelled to write back.)

Women routinely receive messages that are more insulting — and disgusting — than this one. Still, when I posted the above screen shot on Instagram, online dating coach Erika Ettin noted that this one “stings every time.” And it’s easy to avoid! Just put it on your do-not-say list, along with anything overtly sexual, angry or misogynistic. This should all be obvious, but sadly isn’t. As we enter the high season for online dating (now through Valentine’s Day), let’s examine why this common and seemingly innocuous question can be so insulting.

“How are you still single?” presumes something is “wrong” with this person who happens to be single. Singles might be used to getting questions about their lifestyle from the married people in their lives, but judgment from other singles for also being single? Aren’t we supposed to be in friendly territory here?! It is possible that desirable folks are single just because they haven’t met the right person at the right time, or maybe haven’t put much energy into dating while pursuing other things. Behind “How are you still single?” is the unsaid judgment implying: “If you’re so cool and single, there must be something wrong with you.” My match didn’t get there on his own; our culture’s widely held assumption is that everyone wants to be in a relationship, that everyone is always better off in one, regardless of whether it’s the relationship for them. Additionally, our obsession with happily-ever-after teaches that anyone who’s good and desirable deserves love and therefore will find and keep it. (If you don’t, that’s on you.) When I asked Ettin how she responds to “How are you still single?,” she had quite the zingers. Her favorites? “Aren’t you lucky that I am!” Or: “I believe you’re single, too. Lucky us!”

This question presumes the person doesn’t want to be single. Even though more Americans are single than ever before, our culture still assumes that anyone who’s single doesn’t want to be. There are plenty of reasons someone might be single — a divorce or breakup, sure — but there are also people who prefer being on their own to being in a relationship. And, yes, it is possible to be happily single and still use dating apps.

This question is likely to hit women harder than men. One of my guy friends responding to my Instagram post says that he also gets this question but that it doesn’t bother him. Great for him, but let’s consider that it might rankle women more than men because we’re more often judged negatively for being single, just as we receive more judgment for not having children. When women walk around constantly being questioned about our single status, and spend our lifetimes being told what to do to catch a man and never let him go, “How are you still single?” is going to land more negatively for us spinsters than it does for my bachelor friend Sam.

When perusing the conversation that my Instagram post sparked, the trophy for best response goes to my friend Lauren, who commented: “Man, if you’re going to lead with praising someone’s apparent humor and originality, it’s wicked sad to follow up with that tired line. Why doesn’t he just say, ‘I’m also single, but not as funny as you.’ ”

Bravo, Lauren. You can take over my dating app conversations any day.

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