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Signaling Your Politics on Tinder Is a Messy Business

Rainesford Stauffer
And some people are trying too hard.

Long gone is the notion that it’s impolite to talk politics on a first date. Nowadays, people likely won’t make it to the first date without knowing what a potential partner does at the ballot box, or at least having a strong indication. Especially if politics is something that carries lots of weight for you, waiting until the second or third date to discover your date doesn’t “do” politics, or doesn’t share yours, isn’t the best use of time—especially given that dating-app users spend around 10 hours a week swiping as is. But professing your political affiliation isn’t as simple as selecting it off a drop-down menu, even if some apps offer that option. In fact, trying too hard to signal your wokeness can backfire. What's going on is more complex: It goes back to how we choose to represent ourselves to the world and the slippery distinction between what we say and what we actually feel.

Following the election of Trump in 2016, an OKCupid study found a 64 percent increase in political terms on user profiles, and before the midterms similar data released by the company found that 85 percent of millennial men and women cited voting as “extremely or very important” for finding a partner. But it’s not just dating, either—the increased significance placed on politics is something we’re seeing play out in pop culture, at work, even within our own families. It’s due to a phenomenon called “sorting” that’s occurred in the last 40-50 years, according Neil Malhotra, a professor of political science at Stanford University who’s contributed research on how political similarity impacts relationships.

Because partisan identification has inched even closer in alignment to social identity, now when someone says they’re a Republican or Democrat, we take that to represent an approximation of their entire worldview. Then we use that to make further inferences (and predict potential landmines) about the future of the relationship—will this person split housework equally with me? Would they be open to living abroad? Would they want our family to attend church every week? Of course, you can’t glean all of this from a singular label, but you could probably make some educated guesses.

“Specifically, at this cultural juncture, where political consciousness and partisanship is high, we think of political identity almost as a master identity,” says Skyler Wang, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at UC Berkeley. So that master identity paints a rough outline of who a person is, and daters then use additional signals as a tool to add layers to their bios and go deeper than the political name tag.

“Social media and online dating are all about signaling,” says Wang. This means instead of saying, “Hey, politics are important to me,” people might opt for photos that demonstrate their views (see: everyone adding selfies with Elizabeth Warren, or posing in red hats that say, “Make America Read Again”). It then becomes almost like an inside joke: If you know, you know. And if you don’t, well, someone else will.

Of course, signaling on dating apps isn't just political. We make declarations about who we are (or, more accurately, who we’d like to be perceived to be) in just about every domain. Maybe you claim to be an “oxford comma enthusiast” to signal your bookishness, or you prioritize photos in front of waterfalls to announce your adventurousness. Even citing certain TV shows or movies, like referring to yourself as “Assistant to the Regional Manager” à la The Office, is an attempt to communicate a personality.

Due to the substantial importance placed on political identity, even seemingly benign signposts can take on a political bent. Some people I talked to for this story admitted they side-eye pictures featuring guns or someone decked out in hunting garb, interpreting them less as snapshots of a hobby and more as a proclamation of a potential match’s feelings about the Second Amendment. Others confessed they bristled at pictures featuring “pussy hats,” which have come to be synonymous with Women’s Marches, or phrases like #MeToo appearing in men’s bios, even if feminism and women’s rights were causes they considered important themselves.

One person I spoke to, Elly, 24, feels the need to put more explicit political statements in her profile to give people clarity on what matters to her. Her bio invites interested parties to “talk to me about prison abolition and Taco Bell,” a half-joke that says something about how left she is, because it rules out people who might not share what for her is a fundamental perspective.

Despite being a hyper-political person, Adam, 24, finds it off-putting when potential matches include phrases like "if you voted for Trump, swipe left,” because he says it reads like someone focusing their identity on being “anti” something rather than “pro” something else. “It may also be that I find being anti-Trump rather obvious,” he adds. “One may as well say, ‘If you love kicking puppies, swipe left.’”

What complicates this political tango, though, is sometimes the hyper-curated quips and photos intended to signal allyship turn out to be a kind of faux-woke facade. “I get pretty turned off by men who use the phrases ‘#MeToo’ or ‘I'm with her’ or ‘Elizabeth Warren’ in their profiles,” explains Candice, 22. “It's so obvious you are saying that to pander to women.” While being played by someone who seems like a great fit, only to see true colors (and real issues) beam through later, isn’t endemic to online dating, the rise of identity politics has granted would-be manipulators additional means to signal all the “right” values: They’re progressive. They’re feminists. They get it. Unless they don’t.

Especially for women, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming individuals, scanning for signals that a potential date seems safe is hugely important. That’s what makes the faux-woke dance especially unsavory: When you’ve shouted about equality in your profile, it’s extra disorienting to realize behavior doesn’t match up in person.

“I've gone out with quite a few people who either claim to be leftists, or they claim to be neutral but say really screwed-up things,” says Elly. She mentions a date with a girl who claimed to be “neutrally liberal.” But after the first half of their meeting, which was lovely, Elly found her date “saying some pretty homophobic things about sexuality and identity.” Elly says she felt bad judging her date on it—because you never know why or how someone has internalized something—“but it was just weird because we were literally on a gay date,” she says. “And then she said something bizarre about how ICE wasn't really that bad, and it was very clear to me suddenly: This is one of those people who states political opinions and claims identities that she hasn't really done enough critical thinking on, and that's not the type of person I want to date.” That’s why she’s more careful now, she says, to date people who have shared specific opinions on policies or issues, as opposed to those who just state they’re leftist or liberal, “because I've learned a lot of people don't actually know what those things mean.”

“Politics [are] so emotionally driven nowadays that many of us have learned the art of strategic silence,” explains Wang, referring to what he calls “deceptive self-representation” in online dating. If a conversation turns to politics, it wouldn’t be hard for someone to bluff their way through a discussion by simply echoing their match’s opinions. Thanks to the nature of online dating, people can cherry-pick what they want you to know or downplay the full breadth of their opinions until they get to know you better. For example, Candice has a theory that men who claim to be “moderate” are usually Republican but too afraid to say it.

And sure, someone might be able to Google their way to the "right" political views while exchanging messages on Tinder. It's possible to seem like you talk the talk. But Wang points out that keeping up this performance offline is a different story. Still, Wang says that misrepresenting ourselves is a natural part of existing as a social being. It’s an attempt, he says, to match our social settings and adjust when we’re out of our depth.

There’s also an element of geography that factors into how political views are emphasized, or not. For folks who live in places where their political views are the minority, representing politics in dating-app bios provides a much-needed opportunity to weed people out. “I was having trouble finding someone with the same views as me at a bar, at school, or at work,” says Macauley, 25, who lives in western Kentucky. “But with a dating app, I could immediately find a handful of men with roughly the same beliefs as me.”

Dr. Jess Carbino, a sociologist who has worked for Tinder and Bumble, did a study to analyze which signifiers on dating-app profiles had the most impact on user behavior. Sharing political views, her survey respondents reported, was not a strong deal-maker. That is, just having the same politics wouldn't make them much more likely to match. However, conflicting political views were a strong deal-breaker. “Significantly more so,” Carbino says.

Of course, there are plenty of successful couples out there whose political ideologies don't match up completely, if they do at all. But for most people, politics is one arena in which opposites don't attract.

Originally Appeared on GQ