So many users post profile pictures of themselves with booze that the nondrinkers among them — former drinkers working at staying sober as well as people who simply have no taste for alcohol — get a clear message: This dating-app world isn’t for you.
It’s not just the imagery. Platforms like Tinder, Bumble, Match, Grindr and Raya thrive on, and amplify, drinking culture. “The default date is: Let’s get a drink,” says Quinn Matney, 27, a psychological testing and diagnosis technician in Asheville, N.C. (“craft-brew central,” he notes), who’s been in recovery for three years. “It makes things challenging.”
And of course, people use alcohol to quell dating jitters, to dull their inhibitions and maybe to loosen up a potential sex partner.
Life as a nondrinker in a drinking world has always been tough. From Super Bowl parties to after-work happy hours, the tantalizing call to imbibe with your fellow humans is potent. But there used to be more social mechanisms that kept single people of every drinking stripe in the same dating pool. Years ago, when a sober man met a drinking woman in a bar, he could nurse his club soda and the pair could have a conversation before ruling one another out or proceeding romantically. Friends could set up a nondrinker on dates and gently explain the drinking situation to both parties.
Now, to even land a date, you have to get through a screening system in which alcohol plays a central part. You don’t drink? You must be a drag. Swipe.
Sober people have adopted a variety of strategies to negotiate this culture, ranging from selective subterfuge to radical honesty. They deal with issues of self-presentation that drinkers don’t even think about.
Amanda Cormier, 28, an American editor working in Berlin, follows that policy, preferring to find out in person how people will react. She isn’t in recovery and doesn’t refer to drinking one way or the other in her profile; she simply elects not to drink alcohol. Plenty of people have no problem with her choice, but she’s also seen people freak out. One man, hearing that she’d rather stick with nonalcoholic drinks, shot back: “Why did you decide to stop having fun?”
Matney, of Asheville, who attends five to seven recovery meetings a week, makes a point of announcing his sobriety in his Grindr profile: “Some guys are weirded out that I’m in my 20s and don’t drink or smoke,” he says. “I just put it out there because it’s a huge part of my life.” And Lauren Wallett, 36, a lifestyle and business coach in Los Angeles, takes that approach a step further. She lists herself as a nondrinker on apps, talks openly about the joys of sobriety even on first dates — and once took a man, for a second date, to a 12-step meeting, “because I think recovery is really awesome.” (She admits she’s working on boundaries.) The two went out again, but the relationship didn’t take off.
One thing that everyone I spoke to agreed on was that telling dates you are sober fairly soon — if not in predate texting, then in an early meeting — is just plain efficient. Abstention is a dealbreaker for some people, who treat it like smoking or a political affiliation unlike their own. When that’s the case, it’s best to learn it quickly.
Nondrinkers scanning through profiles also have to decide how seriously to take all those wine-centric photos, all those declarations that whiskey ranks alongside hiking and yoga as a chief “interest.” How should you regard those people if you’re dry? For Matney, it depends. If they are signaling that they love being the drunken life of the party, “it’s a no,” he says. “But if they are outside holding a beer with a group of people, that is not an immediate turn-away.”
Wallett draws a harder line. “Once you’re choosing to have a prop, it feels fake,” she says. She used to pose with bottles of champagne herself but now thinks that a man posing with a drink to seem fun is like a guy posing with a tiger to seem adventurous. It reeks of inauthenticity, an issue that many nondrinkers take seriously. Many people in recovery see their former partying ways as hollow activities that hid fundamental insecurities, and they’re quick to suspect that might be the case with some of the “Look how much I love wine!” posturing on dating sites.
Of course, drinkers can spot online inauthenticity, too; self-puffery isn’t subtle. But something about the ruthless self-inventory that goes on in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, for example, can especially sensitize nondrinkers to the phoniness of the Tinder world. “People make a living helping other people form their profiles!” says Sulaiman Wasty, 68, a public-policy consultant in Washington, with a tone of disbelief.
Many people who pose with a drink in their hand may just be “scared they’re not interesting,” he says, and he empathizes.
For all the challenges they pose, dating apps can yield surprising moments of serendipity — like when the dreamboat you know from recovery, who you were certain was straight, shows up on Grindr. That happened to Matney, and he called the guy. Recovery programs are anonymous, and people hitting A.A. meetings in one part of a city may not know
like-minded folks elsewhere in town. Sometimes you need an app to find your people, even if you have to sift through hundreds of boozy profiles.
Meanwhile, drinkers could stand to think harder about just how alcohol-obsessed these apps can appear. Before coyly smiling for a profile pic in the reflected glow of your martini, you might pause to consider how thin the line is between seeming fun — and seeming fake.