Around the World in Five Dates
Lists: The language of love may be universal, but the etiquette of dating is not. Terry Ward looks at courting from Tehran to Tokyo.
04.07.09 | 12:04 PM ET
I remember my first date. Billy was a Navy guy from North Carolina posted to Washington, D.C., to work funeral duty at Arlington National Cemetery. I was a high schooler with a good fake ID. We met at a cheesy bar in Georgetown that was all black light and booty music, and he wrote my phone number on a napkin and called a few days later to ask me to dinner. Billy arrived at my parents’ house in a silver Ford Escort and batted sirs and ma’ams back and forth at my mom and dad, then whisked me off to TGI Friday’s for loaded potato skins and nervous chitchat about our hobbies and the weather. I offered to split the bill, but he insisted and paid.
It’s hard to say what’s typical dating protocol in a country as big as the U.S., but I’d venture that many Americans can relate, in some way, to my first date.
So what’s normal in the rest of the world?
It’s hard to generalize about a topic as personal as dating in any country. Still, every culture has a norm or two where courting is concerned.
Dating Culture: The Japanese place great importance on saving face. In the nebulous world of dating, this can make it all the more difficult to know when someone is no longer interested in your affections. Younger Japanese are open to meeting potential love interests anywhere, from a cafe or club to a bookstore. But they often favor group situations—meeting together with a group of friends—as the best setting for a first date.
Don’t Ever: Arrive late for the date if you’re the guy.
True Life Tale: “Once, I really wanted to ask this girl on a date,” recalls Laurier Tiernan, 35, a singer-songwriter from Canada who lives in Tokyo, “She said, ‘Yes.’ And at the last minute, she said, ‘Do you think I can bring a few of my friends and you can bring a few of yours?’”
“I said I wasn’t cool with that and she cried. I felt like a jerk.”
Tiernan’s first date with his wife, Eiko, whose personal ad he answered, went better.
“We met at the bottom of an escalator near a fountain, near an upscale shopping center at Ikebukuro station in Tokyo. We went to a semi-posh organic buffet that I liked, with a great view of the city, and she admitted that she had given me a fake name at first. We spoke about everything under the sun, and I discovered that she had a great sense of humor, as well as the fact that we had a lot in common in terms of taste in the arts and we had both traveled a lot to foreign countries when we were younger.”
Dating Culture: In India, an overwhelming majority of marriages are still arranged by parents. In big cities, Western-style dating occurs, but overall, it’s far from the norm. And when it does occur, the intention for a serious commitment is usually there from the start.
Don’t Ever: Discuss caste or religion on the first date.
True Life Tale: “I married very late, at the age of 32, and it was a love marriage,” says Nandini Chakraborty, 36, who owns a matchmaking firm in Bangalore. “Our first date was dinner. There was no asking. It was more like, ‘Let’s go out together and see if we can have a good time!’”
“We had dinner and then caught a movie. Dinner was my choice since I am a foodie, and the movie was his, since he watched a lot of Bollywood movies. We had a great time, and then he dropped me off at home. We met each other regularly till we decided to tie the knot.”
Dating Culture: Since the Revolution in 1979, all rules in Iran are based in Sharia law. Dating is strictly forbidden by the central government—ditto for drinking and dancing. But in Tehran and other big cities, underground parties bring men and women together. The sexes are separated in the Iranian education system until university, so that’s often where couples first meet. Later, the workplace is a typical place for a relationship to start.
Don’t Ever: Be without an alibi. For single Iranians daring enough to attempt meeting with the opposite sex in public places such as parks, the risk of being busted by the moral police runs high. If you’re caught doing something nefarious with someone of the opposite sex, insist—however futile the effort—that you were, say, helping with directions.
True Life Tale: Reza Kahlaee, 35, a software engineer in Masshad, met his ex-wife at work. “We used to go out, and once we were in my car having ice cream in a small touristy city near Mashhad, and the police got us. They took us to some sort of temporary jail and called our parents, and we were there for about four hours. They started asking us questions, and as we paid some money to the first policeman, he wrote in the report that I had only been knocking on her car window asking her questions. Then my sister with her husband came to the police station for me, and they left a note that they will assure the police that never again will such a thing happen. We got married shortly thereafter, otherwise there would have been more severe punishment.”
Dating Culture: Dating in Ghana tends to start in the high school years, with teenagers meeting at school, community functions or on the street.
Don’t Ever: Think PDA is okay. Kissing—and, frequently, even holding hands—in public isn’t done.
True Life Tale: “I had gone with Jonathan to meet some friends at a bar,” says Amanda Sage, 25, of Columbus, Ohio, recalling her first date with her husband, who’s from Ghana. “Afterwards, we walked back towards the center of town, where we would get a taxi, but we walked along the beach instead of the road. As we walked near the rows of fishing boats, all of a sudden an old man came after us with a machete. It scared the crap out of me, but Jonathan just told him we were walking by, not causing any harm, and the man just smiled and walked away. He was guarding the boats and thought we were vandals!”
Dating Culture: The American concept of formal dating is fairly foreign to young Germans. They tend to take a more casual approach, meeting their significant others through friends and group social environments before escalating the relationship to one-on-one time together.
Don’t Ever: Use the weather as a conversation starter. This is a people that marvels at American waitresses who introduce themselves by name at Chili’s. Germans tend to recoil from meaningless chitchat. Talking about political or cultural topics with your Deutsch date will make a far better first impression.
True Life Tale: “My first real date was with this girl from high school. I was about 16 or 17, and we went out to dinner together. She asked me,” recalls Jan Lehmbek, 31, a neuropsychologist in Hamburg. “We met at a casual Arabian restaurant—around here, people don’t come to your house to pick you up for a date unless you happen to live close to them. We ended up dating for three months or so.”