Why the French Don’t Have a Word for “Dating”

There’s a story that’s been making headlines in the U.S. in recent days about two close friends in New York, Jessica and Timothy, who have decided as an experiment “to date” each other for 40 days. They’ve created a website and post daily updates on their “relationship.” The entire concept of this controlled upgrade from friendship to dating is un-translatable in French, not least because there isn’t really a word for “dating” in France.

What is “dating” for Americans exactly? It’s something that’s not platonic, it’s not friendship, but it’s not marriage or necessarily committed or even monogamous. It’s definitely sexual or has the expectation that it could potentially be sexual. Dating also holds the promise of leading to “more,” whatever that is. But above all, dating is a pretty official status: if you are dating, you are not friends; you are something else.

If a man and a woman are dating, the rules are different than some other form of relationship, the expectations are different – and these rules and expectations are petty formally ritualized within this framework. For example, dating is not friends who hang out and might possibly feel attracted to each other. If you are dating, that possibility of attraction must exist: that’s part of the deal. If it is a date, then all parties involved have tacitly acknowledged the possibility of this attraction and the expectation that it will eventually be acted upon. To know it’s a date is to know that, in the end, we might potentially sleep with each other and that if we don’t, then “dating” won’t have worked out. It will have been, to some extent, a failed experiment. Happily, it’s part of American culture to embrace failure!

“Fail Fast” is a mantra among entrepreneurs. It means that if it becomes clear that a given project isn’t working, the best move is to pull the plug quickly so you don’t lose more time you could have spent on something else. It’s based on minimizing opportunity cost, and it assumes a certain amount of failure as a feature of the system.

                            – Matt Dean, Insidehighered.com

Image 2In this New York experiment, the couple have been friends for years, and as they describe on the fortydaysofdating.com website, “have opposite relationship problems.” Timothy is commitment-phobic and Jessica jumps into relationships too fast. Finding themselves single at the same time, they decided to try dating each other as an experiment, “an attempt to explore and hopefully overcome their fears and inadequacies”—an attempt, presumably, to exorcise these alleged “relationship problems.” Their description of what an upgrade to “dating” entails is, quite literally, “going through the motions of a relationship.” They describe dating as playing out those ritualized rules, and they even define explicit rules, including things like seeing each other every day, going on at least three dates a week, and not having sex or hooking up with anyone else.

The French might wonder how it’s even possible to be friends who decide suddenly “to date.” For the French, all this relationship stuff is more of a continuum, a kind of seamless spectrum of possibility without clear demarcations between the different zones of relations between men and women. Without, if you will, “dating.” What exactly is, the French might ask, “going through the motions of a relationship”? It’s a good question.

One of the received ideas among the French about Americans is the view that they tend to be, as the French say, cash: they pronounce it “keh-shah,” and use it to mean direct and straightforward, or blunt. Something about the term cash feels transactional (obviously), and so does something about this whole 40-days-of-dating experiment (maybe less intentional). It plays perfectly into the caricature that the French might paint of Americans’ relationships, as a little stilted and artificial (“going through the motions”), and their caricature of American culture in general as results-oriented.

Image 1

The word “cash,” used in French, means direct or blunt.

Jessica and Timothy are both designers and this experience is also, partly, a design experiment for them, so they are obviously playing things out literally for effect. But the script they’re following is pretty much the classic rulebook of dating. We don’t yet know how the experiment will play out (Jessica and Timothy are only on their 18th day of dating, they nearly ended the experiment on the 15th day, decided to stick with it, and last night they made out), but it already does highlight some of the artifice of the dating custom.

And it also suggests that if the French don’t have a word for “dating,” it’s probably because they probably find it too keh-shah.

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