What Does Dating Look Like in Different Cultures?

To put it simply, the purpose of dating is for two people to get to know one another. But the way that process looks varies considerably depending on the culture—traditional or modern—and the country in which it takes place. Below are three examples of very different forms of dating that reveal the diversity of and need for human connection.

 

 

The Wodaabe

The Wodaabe are a nomadic people split into 15 lineage-based subgroups, living in northern Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and northeast Nigeria. They are polygamous and practice two types of marriage: Koobegal, arranged during infancy, and Teegal, chosen by the partners. Annually, family clans gather together for the Gerewol festival, when Teegal marriages occur. Men dress in brightly-colored clothes and jewelry. They apply makeup to emphasize large eyes, white teeth, a round face, long nose, and light skin. After long preparation, they gather for a dance that lasts hours. During the dance, men show off their teeth, widened eyes, and dance on their toes to appear taller.

 

Women are dressed more subtly with little to no makeup. They coyly observe the performers and give a shy tap to the man they like. After midnight and following a second, optional dance in which men aren’t allowed makeup, couples pair off for the night. There is no limit as to how many men a woman can pair with throughout the week, and she has no obligation to continue a relationship beyond the festival. Likewise, neither the potential partner nor the current husband can dictate what or whom the woman chooses.

 

That the Wodaabe continue to hold this annual festival in the midst of droughts, political conflicts, and the growing influence of Islam suggests its cultural value and perhaps also its value as a space for them to get gussied up, flirt, tease, and just have fun.

 

Tehran

Governed by what is effectively an authoritarian theocracy, Iran’s morality police and strict internet censorship restrict, or attempt to restrict, the behaviors and social interactions of its people. However, evidenced by consistent protesting online and in the streets, Iranians have and will continue to evade and resist government control. This long-fought battle between censorship and resistance has affected many aspects of daily life in Iran, including dating.

 

Although dating in Iran is now more mainstream and less of a “covert operation,” due to relaxing enforcement of morality laws since the early 2000s, it’s still more suppressed than in countries like the United States. In 2012, a Tehran Bureau article describes the phenomenon dore zadan, “a mainstay” for mostly middle-class Tehrani youth to find dates. Dore zadan, or “hitting the turn,” is when single-gender groups drive around looking for other cars driven by cuties of the opposite sex. Once sighted, they slow down and discreetly give out their phone numbers. Additionally, Tehrani singles are able to subtly mingle outside of cars more easily now due an increasing number of cafes, parks, and restaurants.

 

The growing use of proxies and VPNs has not only enabled Iranians to organize and protest via Facebook and other sites, it has also given them access to Tinder. Its use is not yet widespread, but starting around 2015, it has become yet another resource for people to defy morality laws and date in Tehran.

 

The Mosuo

The Mosuo are an ethnic and cultural minority group who live in the Yunnan and Sechuan provinces of southwest China. They are traditionally a matriarchal agrarian society. Meaning, familial households consist of multiple generations of women and only directly-related men. Children “belong” to their mothers alone and are raised by their maternal relatives. However, they are best known for zouhun, or “walking marriages.”

 

After a coming of age ceremony at 13 years old, the Mosuo are able to enter into relationships with lovers known as axia. But rather than shacking up or getting married, couples continue to live with their own families. Men visit their axia at night, hanging a hat on the woman’s door as a “do not disturb” sign to other men, and leave in the morning. There is no expected length for these relationships to last, ranging from hookups to life-long partnerships, although they commonly enter into long-term relationships with one sexual partner at a time. Hannah Booth for The Guardian points out that because there is no interest in or expectation of marriage, “the only reason for men and women to have anything resembling a relationship is for love, or enjoyment of each other’s company.” It also means that couples don’t have to go through the painful process of disentangling their lives if they breakup.

 

The straying of younger generations from Mosuo traditions like zouhun shows the impact of globalization on minority cultures. It’s also an example of the universal curiosity that leads kids and young adults to step away tradition and explore new ways of living.

 

The take-away?

Albeit a tiny sample group, these different cultures show that there isn’t any one way to experience romantic or sexual relationships and that people will always find a way to date. If you don’t like how you’re “supposed” to date in your culture, who’s to say you can’t do it like the Mosuo? The goal is human connection, and that’s all that matters.

 

Charlotte Lerner-Wright graduated in 2018 from Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. An apparent masochist and downright nerd, she will return to school in the fall of 2019 to get her Master's in history at the University of Edinburgh. Outside the classroom, you can find Charlotte cuddling her three tiny dogs, drinking Thai iced tea, and drawing while binge-watching Netflix. She hopes to one day use history to empower the disenfranchised and invoke lasting change.

 

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