How Dating Terms Change Meaning As You Age

When people complain about “millennial dating,” there’s always some mention about the confusion surrounding labels.

What is “talking” and is it different from “hooking up”? Does anyone go on dates anymore? And why can’t people just be straight up and either be together or not together?

Well, probably because “dating” means different things to different people. It all depends on your social circle, how you date, and probably also on your age.

It’s like when your grandma asks if you have a boyfriend and you can’t exactly tell her that you’re “talking” to this guy who lives in your dorm, you know?

To expose how ridiculous all the dating terminology we use today is, and prove that unless you’ve had “the talk” with bae, you can’t count on shit, we asked people to define some common terms for us. Pay attention to how the definitions change from age 17 to age 27.

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Olivia, 17, High School Student

The craziest thing about Olivia’s answers aren’t that high-schoolers already use the term “fuck buddies” (truth be told, I did too at her age), it’s that she somehow incorporated Snapchat into three out of five answers. Like, that’s a lot for an app that doesn’t really have anything to do with dating. It’s not like it’s Tinder.

But clearly, Snapchatting is a big deal for teens when it comes to figuring out their relationship-status with someone, and so is technology in general. Nobody else I spoke to really mentioned texting or Snapchat, or any other medium of communication, in their answers.

She’s also still suffering from the idea that boys call all the shots, which she’ll hopefully grow out of.

Talking: The guy texts her sometimes, they’ve hung out a little, but they’re not exclusive.

Dating: They go on dates, text a good amount, Snapchat, hang out. I guess if they’re dating they probs text all the time, unlike if they were just talking.

Exclusive: They can’t talk to other people and they’re BF/GF.

Hooking Up: They meet up at each other’s houses, but don’t go on dates or get food together. They rarely text, usually only Snapchat.

Fuck Buddies: The guy just snaps her randomly to “hang out,” they fuck and she leaves.

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Dan, 20, College Student

Even though Dan’s answers seem pretty straightforward, there’s still some confusion. Like, how hooking up and fuck buddies are technically the same thing by his definitions. 

Talking: It means that two people are somewhat flirtatiously talking to each other on a frequent basis even though they may not be physically engaging in anything.

Dating: If they’re dating, they’re in a more committed relationship which entails being exclusive, but generally it’s more public and may come with a label of being in a relationship.

Exclusive: They’re hooking up, but only with one another, although they may not yet be in a committed relationship.

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Hooking Up: I’d say [it] means that you’re physically involved with someone on a fairly regular basis but you’re most likely not exclusive, nor really committed to one another.

Fuck Buddies: That implies that they’re hooking up, but it’s most definitely not exclusive.

Ryan, 21, College Student

Ryan points out the key “difference” between “hooking up” and “fuck buddies” in that he interprets “hooking up” as something that could go from just sex to something more relationship-y, but he thinks fuck buddies always stay fuck buddies. He’s not the only one who had this theory.

He also points out the fact that being “exclusive” might as well just be a committed relationship, because what’s the point of not getting to hook up with other guys if the one guy you’re “exclusive” with doesn’t want to be called your boyfriend?

Talking: They aren’t in a relationship. Just casually hooking up, but nothing serious.

Dating: I would imagine most people dating are having sex, but that’s not a determining factor. They’re going on dates, and are probably exclusive unless they’re like swingers.

Exclusive: They are only hooking up with each other. Which is basically dating, so I don’t know why they wouldn’t define it themselves as dating because that’s what dating is. Unless they didn’t want the emotional attachment of dating.

Hooking Up: Still not technically a relationship. I think if you’re hooking up it’s still casual because until you define the relationship, nowadays I think everything seems to be casual. It could lead to a relationship, but I would say if they said were hooking up then it’s still not defined.

Fuck Buddies: Just for sexual stuff. There shouldn’t be emotions attached. They usually aren’t exclusive and usually things get bad when one person wants to be exclusive.

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Liz, 22, Graduate School Student

Again, hooking up and fuck buddies has some blurred lines, and we also see the confusion of “dating” in different people’s minds.

Olivia, Ryan, and Dan all saw “dating” as a boyfriend-girlfriend, type situation, but as you grow older, “dating” is just a term to describe what it sounds like – someone you go on dates with. To Liz, it doesn’t mean you’re exclusive, and it could even be someone you’ve only gone out with a few times.

Talking: They’re texting and hanging out and stuff but not exclusive. They might be hooking up, they might not be.  

Dating: Dating is when they are going out to like dinner, movies, other public places, but aren’t exclusive — just getting to know each other.

Exclusive: Exclusive means they’re only hooking up with each other.

Hooking Up: Hooking up might be fuck buddies, or it might be more than that.

Fuck Buddies: Fuck buddies implies it’s sex only with no attachment or feelings.

Alexa, 25, Nanny

First off, Alexa makes being exclusive sound so freakin’ boring. But aside from that, you get the term “official” which is generally a term that younger people use to describe that final moment where you actually decide to be boyfriend/girlfriend. If I asked some of the older people what they thought “being official” meant, they’d prob laugh in my face.

Talking: You’re seeing each other and most likely sleeping together, but you are keeping your options open. 

Dating: Dating means you’re together, but not officially yet. Like it’s probably not on Facebook & your family doesn’t know.

Exclusive: They’re fucking and aren’t allowed to talk to other people. So they keep to themselves. They don’t sleep around.

Hooking Up: Sex! Most people think it’s kissing or anything sexual. But whenever I say we hooked up, I mean sex.

Miranda, 27, Writer

Finally, some answers with concrete examples. Then again, what would you expect from a writer?

Here’s where things shift for “talking,” it suddenly becomes a term that means what it should mean — which is quite literally, just talking. Miranda considers talking to be when you’re flirting with someone on a dating app, but probably haven’t met in person yet.

When it comes to exclusive, Miranda sees it as more of a circumstantial thing. Like, maybe you’re exclusive with your current guy because you haven’t had time to date anyone else, unlike some younger people who have serious talks about going “exclusive” because they see it as a baby-step towards being “official.”

The idea of a fuck buddy also has a feminist vibe here. Instead of the 17-year-old who made it sound awful, Miranda describes it simply as a guy who’s hot, but boring or undatable in some other way – so she relegates him to just being a boy toy.

Talking: Talking just means talking. Like you “met” on a dating app and you’ve messaged each other a couple of times, but nobody’s pushed for an IRL date yet.

Dating: For me dating means he’s your boyfriend. You’re Insta official, your friends know, and if you show up with a hickey at work people know where it came from.

Exclusive: Exclusive doesn’t mean he’s your boyfriend, it just means neither of you is seeing other people right now.

Hooking Up: Hooking up obviously means you’re fucking somebody and going out on dates. But if you say you’re hooking up with somebody, it kind of telegraphs that you have expectations it could turn into something more permanent.

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Fuck Buddies: If you call somebody your fuck buddy, then you’re telling the world they’re unacceptable to date but their dick game is solid. Unless you’re a total psycho, you’re not trying to turn your fuck buddy into anything, which is good, because unless you’re a fictional character it’s never gonna happen for you.

Annie, 28, Editor

The good news? It sounds like things get way easier by your late 20’s! Or you just get more mature.

And, as she points out, the terms aren’t really necessary when you and your friends aren’t all sampling the same pool of dudes.

In college, you might want to tell your sorority sisters that you’re “talking” to John in Sig Chi so that they don’t drunkenly make out with him, but post-grad, you (hopefully) don’t need to because the odds of two friends dating the same stranger in a giant city are way lower.

Talking: Nobody I know would ever announce they were “talking” to a guy as if it were a relationship stage. Instead, it’s, “Oh, I matched with this guy on Bumble and we might go out.” Or “your boyfriend’s friend is texting me a lot.” Back in the day we would have said “we’ve been TALKING” as if it were a thing, but not anymore.

I think this is because by the time you’re in your late 20s you’ve been “talking” to so many guys and nothing came of it, you stop thinking of “talking” as a stage. That might sound kind of depressing but it’s really not — it’s freeing to have no expectations for the guys you’re talking to or matching with.

Dating: I’ll use it as a shorthand when trying to figure out if someone I know is in an exclusive relationship, like, “oh, aren’t they dating?” But I don’t think anyone would ever say, “John and I are dating.” It just doesn’t actually mean anything. You could be going out on dates with like three guys at once.

Exclusive: “Exclusive” is also not a word I hear often anymore unless we’re talking about possible cheating between other people, as in, “I thought they were exclusive.” I don’t think anyone would self-describe their own relationship as “exclusive” (unless you hang out with people who are poly or something). You’re either together or you’re not at this point.

Hooking Up: My friends and I will say we “hooked up” with someone as a one-time thing, but nobody in their late 20s will say, “Yes, he and I are hooking up,” as if that’s a relationship phase or status. It’s more like you hang out and have sex once in a while — and if you see that as an actual relationship stage with a label like “hooking up,” it’s pretty clear you’re waiting to get something more out of it, which is sad and naïve.

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Fuck Buddies: Fuck buddies are maybe still a thing in your late 20s. I haven’t heard anyone say it recently, but I think when pressed, some friends of mine would categorize some of the guys they see as fuck buddies.

Basically, I think as you get older you stop feeling a need to categorize every romantic or sexual interaction. You get more comfortable with things being amorphous. Plus you have a much larger social circle, so there’s not as much need to keep tabs on other people’s relationship stages in order to avoid accidentally hooking up with someone’s boyfriend. It’s definitely a lot better than the high school and college days when I remember girls constantly fretting about what their status with a guy was.

Michael, 29, Software Engineer

Michael seems very adamant in proving that he’s not a fuckboy, and if he’s hooking up with someone, you best believe he’s also taking her out on dates.

It’s a little extra, but also much better than a 20-year-old who thinks a “date” is inviting you over to his fraternity bedroom to watch “Bad Grandpa.”

Michael also doesn’t see fuck buddies as something that can’t turn into a relationship, which is different from girls his age. This could be because girls can usually tell if they want to put a guy in the “fuck buddy” box or the “potential bae” box right away, whereas guys are just happy to be getting some.

Talking: Talking would mean just about that. It’s not dating until a confirmation of “yes we are dating” [occurs]. Just talking would not mean you can’t talk to others.

Dating: For dating, you can definitely date others (I don’t). That can also include sex, hooking up, depends on the couple.

Exclusive: You have one person you are dating, one step before relationship.

Hooking Up: I wouldn’t say anything is exclusive at that point unless discussed. Hanging out, probably not sex. Dating is most likely, I wouldn’t just hook up with someone if I can’t take them out to dinner.

Fuck Buddies: That’s the extent of that, sex. Definitely not dating, however it’s not out of the park if something becomes exclusive. For me, I wouldn’t have someone just for sex, sounds wrong in my head. But I don’t think they are going to be seen eating dinner or elsewhere, that’s bed exclusive.

Marco, 35, Business Leader

Marco gives simple definitions, but they’re not wrong. And honestly, if you’re single at 35, you better hope you’ve finally grown out of having five labeled stages before “officially” dating someone.

Talking: They are exchanging words.

Dating: They are regularly doing things together that go beyond just hooking up and beyond just having sex.

Exclusive: Only dating each other, no other people.

Hooking Up:  Anything between kissing and sex, could mean they’re hooking up consistently or just once.

Fuck Buddies: Sex only, and maybe some Netflix.

Kind of hilarious, right?

But there are also some major takeaways.

For example, how the 17-year-old perceived all stages of relationships as a place where the guy called the shots compared to the 27-year-old.

The idea of girls having to wait around until a guy wants to progress things to being more “serious” isn’t something new, and it definitely happens with women in their 20’s and 30’s too, but as women get older, they realize it doesn’t have to be that way. For example, when the 27-year-old described fuck buddies as “telling the world [the guy is] unacceptable to date but their dick game is solid.”

This could also just happen with age as women realize they’re allowed to enjoy sex, and allowed to want it without wanting a relationship.

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In general, as both men and women get older, the vague terms like “talking” seem to go away, and all the terms seem sort of interchangeable, and therefore unnecessary. While “dating” is probably a scary term for a dude in his early 20’s who’s too immature for a relationship, for older guys, it’s just what you do when you’re figuring out if you like someone or not, and it’s no biggie.

While guys may not get better with age, some do, dating in general seems to improve. After all, things can only really go up from judging your relationship status by how many Snapchats someone sends you.

Gimme More Dating

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