Is there something particular about our city that makes courtship especially difficult here? We present four theories.
Last month, a New York Times article declaring the “end of courtship” went viral.
The piece’s central lamentation—that technology has usurped romance, or, as one interview subject put it, that dating has devolved into “a cycle of text messages, each one requiring the code-breaking skills of a cold war spy”—probably resonates, in some way, with the average Torontonian single.
But the more relevant conversation to be had here in Toronto is about how, arguably, we’ve never, as a city, experienced anything more than a tepid pick-up culture.
In fact, the rise of digital communication notwithstanding, Toronto has earned something of a reputation for being particularly un-flirtatious—a phenomenon that residents from more sexually aggressive Canadian cities, like Montreal and Halifax, are often quick to bemoan.
The question is, why? What is it about Torontonians—or Toronto itself—that makes it so unlikely to get hit on offline, out in the public sphere?
After conferring with a number of twenty and thirty-something Toronto dwellers across lines of gender and sexual orientation, plus an expert or two, I’ve assembled a list of possible explanations:
1. Our keep-to-yourself culture: Known for being rigid, arms-crossed concertgoers and eerily silent transit riders, it follows that Torontonians are reserved when it comes to displays of spontaneous, romantic interest, lacking the requisite ballsiness to approach a stranger.
This isn’t to say that individuals are necessarily aloof, but the mores of our quite-large city have ingrained a culture of shame around talking to strangers without a “practical” purpose—and that includes flirting.
“It’s been my feeling here that people aren’t really receptive to being casually asked out in person,” says Peter, 30, a Toronto social-work student who primarily uses online dating to meet women.
“I feel like if I just walked up to someone in a bar, it wouldn’t be considered ‘normal.’ There’s no kind of known social codes around it. I wouldn’t know if the person was single, or if it would be awkward. Basically, I’d feel like a sleazeball.”
Samantha Joel is a Ph.D student in the psychology department at the University of Toronto. Her research includes analyzing how people make decisions about romantic relationships.
“I would say there’s a strong social norm in Toronto to keep to oneself in public spaces, to not make eye contact or start up conversation,” she notes.
“It’s seen as very peculiar if someone breaks these norms, and even seen as a sign they wouldn’t be a good potential partner. If a stranger expresses interest, I think people here respond to it with suspicion, and might see it as an indicator that the person isn’t completely stable.”
So, not only are we afraid to break the tacitly agreed-upon code of silence, but we may well be perceived as creepy if we do it to express romantic interest.
2. Water, water everywhere: Full disclosure: the majority of individuals I interviewed who complained about Toronto’s lack of sexual aggressiveness were relatively young, professional, heterosexual women, some of whom perceived that the romantic odds in Toronto were stacked against them.
Priya, 35, a Toronto-based freelance writer, observed that heterosexual men outside of Toronto—both in other Canadian cities and abroad—were much more forward.
“Guys in Toronto are spoiled; there are a lot of attractive women here, so men have a perceived notion of abundance, of the interchangeability of women—an ‘I don’t want to be tied down with this one when I can get this one,’ kind of thing,” she says.
She adds that the onus is on women, too, but that she’s never had much luck with asking out a guy she didn’t know.
Heather, 26, recently moved to Toronto from Halifax to attend graduate school.
“Because there are so many people in Toronto, everyone thinks about their other ‘options’ and not about what’s right in front of them,” she observes. “Halifax is small; you know what the dating pool’s like and egos aren’t as big, so people are more willing to put themselves out there.”
Shannon Tebb, owner of the Toronto dating-consulting service Shanny in the City, is a professional dating consultant, matchmaker, and life coach.
“There is lots of competition in this big city—beautiful women are a dime a dozen,” she says, suggesting that Toronto’s straight men may have something of an advantage. Assuming there is truth to this phenomenon, it doesn’t exactly encourage pride-on-the-line courting of strangers.
There’s even some statistical evidence to support this claim: According to the 2010 Statistics Canada census, women accounted for 50.4 per cent of Canada’s total population; in Toronto, the total number of women exceeded that percentage, albeit slightly, making up 50.9 per cent of the city’s inhabitants.
Further, StatsCan data from 2011 shows that, between 2006 and 2011, most provinces and territories saw increases in the number of women aged 20 to 34; in downtown Toronto, the existence of large financial, governmental, health, and educational institutions has made the proportion of working-age people exceed the national average.
One could extrapolate, then, that Toronto is particularly full of youngish people and especially youngish women (whether or not they’re interested in men), giving straight men the sense of having boundless options.
And when you’re not straight? Duncan, a 26-year-old student originally from Nova Scotia, says meeting someone in Toronto is easier than in a place like Halifax.
“Being in a bigger city’s better when you’re gay—though I do agree that out in the public sphere, Torontonians are really standoffish.”
3. We’re work-obsessed: Torontonians have a reputation for being career-focussed to a fault. Mary-Ann, 32, is a public servant originally from Quebec. Though she now lives in Montreal, she spent the last seven years in Toronto.
“I had a huge learning curve with Toronto dating,” she says. “I was used to a dating climate where things are more straightforward. In Montreal, for example, you’ll be in a liquor store or convenience store and there’s this constant flow of flirtatiousness—it’s just more part of the everyday. I didn’t get those little gems in Toronto.”
She wonders if it’s because Torontonains are simply more stressed out.
“People work their asses off in Toronto because it’s such an expensive city—the rent is so expensive.”
Shannon Tebb believes the sheer number of pedestrians that one passes each day makes it tough to connect with anyone. “The constant hustle and bustle tends to limit one from stopping and taking the time to notice an individual passing by. This notion of always being in a hurry, not taking the time to relax and enjoy sitting in the park, can really reduce your chances of finding love.”
Indeed, we may be tenser in Toronto than those in a smaller, more inexpensive city like Montreal. And, compared to a bustling yet engaging city like New York, we’re further burdened by our aforementioned, almost crippling sense of social reserve.
4. The 2 a.m. Syndrome: Some of the people I spoke with argued that, while getting hit on in a Toronto bar isn’t a total rarity, the way in which it often happens is a turn-off. Priya says Toronto’s bar scene suffers from “2 a.m. syndrome.”
“Last call hits, the level of drunkenness and energy changes, and people are seriously on the make. And then you are in danger of the gross come-on,” she says.
Perhaps we can’t win, then, and perhaps these generalizations are too vast to be relatable. And yet, I stand by the claim that, on balance, Toronto mores make it a particularly tough place to meet someone organically—outside of the internet, through mutual friends, or an old-fashioned blind set-up.
So before mourning the end of courtship entirely, perhaps we Torontonians should first contemplate why we failed to be a good pick-up city from the get-go.
Do you think it’s harder to hook up in Toronto than elsewhere? Share your thoughts and theories in the comments section below.