When millennials rely so heavily on their smartphones to make and maintain romantic connections, could I get a budding romance to bloom without one?
Two Nokia 3310 phones (yes, the ones with no Whatsapp and no social media) and two prepaid SIM cards, each with a $15 limit.
George*, 25, civil servant
THE GROUND RULES:
For a month, all communication had to happen via the Nokia phones, and there’d be no busting of the SIM card limit. That meant rationing SMSes (which cost five cents each) and no pictures (sending them via MMS costs between 11 and 86 cents each time, depending on image size).
Only a day into the experiment, we ran into a problem. I got a Whatsapp text from George on my iPhone, telling me that the Nokia phone wasn’t working properly. I quickly texted back: “OKAY LET ME DEAL WITH IT, STOP TALKING TO ME ON THIS PHONE, IT’S CHEATING”. I arranged for a new phone to be sent to him, and was assured that it would reach him by noon the next day.
As 12pm came and went, I wondered if the phone had been safely delivered. I fought the temptation to text him on his smartphone and, instead, sent him an SMS via the Nokia to check if he’d received the phone. I felt so handicapped – my smartphone meant I was used to getting answers almost immediately. In this case, I had no choice but to sit and wait for George to text me an update. He did – five hours later. Turns out, he had put the battery in the wrong way, and hadn’t realised it.
In that time, I tried to distract myself from wondering what the hold-up was. I went for lunch, then met with a friend – but at the back of my head, I was waiting to hear the jingle from the phone to tell me that a message had come in.
George had fewer problems than I had making the transition back to a non-smart phone. He’s not much of a texter, and prefers conversations face-to-face. “With texts, it’s hard to tell the emotion behind them,” he told me. “So for me, it’s not the best form of communication. I’m a bit old-fashioned, and prefer having quality time with the person I’m seeing.”
On the other hand, I felt the difference more keenly. First of all, the character limit made long conversations via text almost impossible. I would struggle to tell him about how my day went and, given my job as a writer, you could say that I’m not very good with a word limit.
Meaningful connections can’t be made just over text
Instagram has to be the most used app on my phone (other than Whatsapp), and I often mindlessly scroll through my feed just to pass the time. Usually, when I’m dating someone, I tend to stalk their profile to find out what makes it to their feed, what hobbies they have and, of course, pictures of their exgirlfriends. Going back to basics with the Nokia meant none of this was possible and, indeed, when my friends asked me what George looked like, I didn’t even have a single photo of him to show them. Tall, I said, feebly. Um… skinny?
Disadvantages aside, I learnt some lessons in dating. Without the pressure of needing to keep up a constant stream of cyber-communication, I felt I could take things slower, and wait to meet George to find out more about him in person.
The thing about 24/7 texting is that it creates a false sense of intimacy – you might not have met the person more than a handful of times, but smartphones (which allow you to constantly stay in touch, while keeping tabs on what the other person is doing) make you feel closer to the person you’re seeing. I learnt to appreciate dialling it back down – which meant not spending a lot of my time dwelling on when his next text would come in, and saving the deeper conversations for our face-to-face meet-ups.
With this in mind, I sought to foster a more authentic connection with George, even when we weren’t meeting in person. And he, in turn, did the same.
I have back problems that I need to regularly seek treatment for, and one night, I texted George to tell him that I had received my X-ray results. He surprised me by calling to ask how I was doing – something even my closest friends no longer do in the age of Whatsapp. George’s effort to call showed that he cared. I had forgotten the effectiveness of such a small gesture – after all, these days, I only speak to people on the phone for work, or to demand the whereabouts of my friends when they’re late to meet me. But during that 30-minute conversation – where we chatted, laughed and got to know each other – the ability to simply hear someone’s voice and tone felt far more intimate than a slew of text messages.
Grand, romantic gestures make things more exciting
After a couple of weeks, George gave me a heads-up that it would be a busy period at work for him, which meant that the texting would slow down significantly. I understood that he was stressed, and thought about what to do to show encouragement. In any other circumstance, I would send cheerful texts or gifs to keep his spirits up, or maybe buy a gift online and have it shipped to his home for a cute surprise. But with him being so busy, and it being less-than convenient to shop online with the Nokia phone, I had to get creative. I decided to do something that I have never, ever done: show up at his house with a handwritten card, and some ang ku kueh for sustenance.
Just before I headed over, I confided in a friend and told her what I was planning to do. “He’s going to think I’m a stalker!” I despaired. “Who turns up at the door these days??”
“Well, that’s what people did when they were trying to woo someone 10 years ago, and it’s a sweet gesture,” she said, as she egged me on.
So that was exactly what I did. My original plan was to drop the stuff off in his mailbox – which turned out to be locked. I told myself I had to see the mission through, and decided to leave the gift on George’s doorstep.
Unfortunately, there was no graceful exit for me. His mother caught me loitering outside their home, while I ended up startling his dad, who was walking around shirtless. Long story short, George was summoned and I handed over my gift in person. I blushed bright red as I awkwardly told him that I thought he might need a pick-meup. If he thought I was a grade-A creepster, he certainly didn’t show it.
While I don’t advocate appearing unannounced at your date’s door on a regular basis, the experience showed me that I didn’t have to fall back on just texting to show affection. I could put more effort into planning little things, which adds a romantic touch to a budding relationship. The effort paid off when he later texted and told me that I was “sweeter than ang ku kueh”.
Not obsessing over him makes you more interesting
During this time, I made a new friend through a swimming class I was taking – Mr Goh*, a sprightly grandfather who’s in his 60s. Over lunch, I asked him to tell me about what it was like when he and his wife were dating. “Let me tell you, it took an entire year of dating before we even held hands,” he said.
I was gobsmacked.
“I saw her once every weekend. I would call her and ask her out, and that was that,” he continued. And how long did these phone calls last, I probed. “Not long at all! It was literally to fix a day and time to meet, and then we hung up.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I asked him how he managed to stay so patient.
“It was easy,” he said. “I spent the rest of my time doing what I loved. I would go out, see people, do my own thing.”
It got me thinking. While I’m not about to wait an entire year to hold someone’s hand, Mr Goh’s words still hold true. Our smartphones afford us so much speed and efficiency (which has truly made life easier), but maybe when it comes to romance, it doesn’t hurt to be a little more old-fashioned and take our time to get to know someone. Instead of staring at a screen stalking a potential love interest, or obsessing over when he’s going to reply my text, I can build on my hobbies, do my own thing and be content in that.
And when I do see the person, I’ll have so much more to say to him about what I’ve been up to, and we can make the time spent together truly count.
Oh, and if you’re wondering, George and I are still texting on our Nokia phones… well, at least, until our prepaid SIM cards run out of cash.
*Names have been changed.
This article was first published in the February 2018 issue of Her World magazine.