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How Your ‘Digital Body Language’ Affects Your Dating Life

5 minute read

In dating, body language has always been an essential way of communicating what might not be said aloud—nonverbal communication like a lingering glance, a turn toward another person, or a subtle touching of hands can communicate volumes. But for modern daters in an increasingly online world, these tactics aren't always available. That's why experts are making the case that we need to consider digital body language as a crucial part of modern dating.

Digital body language, or DBL, is communication in which digital interaction, like messaging on a dating app or over text, is used to express or convey contextual information. Like conventional body language, DBL is all about reading what isn't being said aloud—non-verbal subtext, if you will,—which means that seemingly commonplace aspects of digital communication, like emojis, punctuation, message length, and response time, are now important ways for daters to gauge potential interest. According to a new study by Hinge about the state of dating for Gen Z, 77% of people who use their platform say that DBL reveals a lot about a match's interests and intentions.

The report, which surveyed over 15,000 Gen Z daters, also found that 69% of those surveyed rely on DBL to decide if they want to commit to going out with someone. Hinge's Love and Connection expert, licensed marriage and family therapist Moe Ari Brown, says that Gen Z's embrace and reliance on DBL should come as no suprise, given the constant presence of technology throughout their lives.

"Gen Z daters are a digital native generation," Brown tells TIME. "They were born with technology and don't know a world without it, but that has made them pretty awesome at interpreting what the online version of verbal and nonverbal cues would be, so they are savvy at reading DBL as a way of understanding someone's dating intentions."

Though interpreting DBL is quickly becoming a necessary part of modern dating, it's presented some unique challenges for daters. Hinge reports that 56% of those surveyed said that they have overanalyzed someone's digital body language and stressed over whether or not someone was actually interested in dating them.

Brown points to the three things Hinge's research found that Gen Z was most concerned with when it comes to DBL: who initiates conversation, the timing of responses, and message consistency. For him, good DBL boils down essentially to the tenets of good communication, regardless of the mechanism.

"Good communication [in dating] is being clear about your intentions from the very beginning," he says. "Good DBL looks like not leaving a lot up to interpretation—so no one-word answers or very short responses. We want to always be thoughtful in our responses and think about how this is going to be received by another person."

Brown says it can be as simple as carefully considering what emojis you use or the punctuation at the end of a sentence. He also makes the case that a good rule of thumb is using the golden rule: treat others as you'd like to be treated.

"Doing a self-check on your digital body language is good—if you put yourself in someone else's shoes and were on the receiving end of what you send and you feel that your communication is very clear, that will probably lead to more dates," he says.

Fluency in DBL has become increasingly important as Gen Z has entered the dating pool. As perhaps the most "online" generation currently dating, Gen Z is 33% more likely than their millennial counterparts, according to Hinge, to say that they feel more comfortable chatting online with a potential partner than they would be in real life. Gen Z daters are also far more concerned with appearing cool to would-be matches. The daters surveyed were 50% more likely than millennials to delay responding to a message, in an effort to "play it cool," even if they were interested in them.

"The downside to DBL is that we might not lean in and make the possible connections that we could," Brown says. "If we're doing too much interpretation and not enough leaning in, then we're not being clear ourselves."

While DBL can be a great way to gauge if there's interest in going on a date, Brown says it shouldn't necessarily be the metric for screening potential partners. He encourages people to use possible differences in communication styles—like if one person texts frequently and the other doesn't respond—as an incentive to get to know them better. In this particular scenario, Brown says being clear and direct about what makes you feel uncomfortable can help resolve the issue and also hint at possible compatibility.

He offers up a script for the situation: "'Hey, I noticed that when we talk sometimes, you stop responding and I don't know whether to follow up with you. I'd love to to keep our response timing more prompt or would love if you respond within 24 hours, just so I know that we're going to keep communicating.'" The other person's response can be quite telling. "If they're not receptive to that, then they don't really have the flexibility that is essential for partnership," he says. "You're not going to have the same communication to begin with. It's really about that person's flexibility and willingness to change it to grow with you. Those are the cornerstones of good partnership."

Brown also emphasizes that having conversations like this can be better in person and stresses that good DBL should lead to in-person connection, not replace it. In other words, while the world is increasingly digital, it appears that there's still nothing quite like getting to know someone IRL.

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Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com