Chris*, a 25-year-old graphic designer, was on the train home after a date with Jen, the 24-year-old media planner he’d met on Tinder a few weeks before. It was their first meet-up and there’d been a flirty spark on both sides: the “quick drink” had graduated into dinner, and even in Chris’ last-minute scramble to jump on the train home, he had leaned in for a kiss against the train’s doors. Then, just before he reached his stop, he received a text saying, “I enjoyed tonight – let’s do it again sometime.”

But Chris didn’t reply. Not because he was about to get off the train. Not because he hadn’t also had a great time. Not even because he wanted to wait another day to play it cool. “I saw an opportunity,” he admits, somewhat cowardly. “By not responding to her message, I would get the upper-hand.” So, he just never did…

Dating around is the new sleeping around
Chris’ lack of interest in following up on his Tinder date is the cyber world’s equivalent of sneaking out of a one-night-stand’s house before they’re up; communication (or a lack of it) equals power.

“The big ‘chess move’ in dating is how quickly you respond to messages,” explains Aaron, 27. “Contacting someone is like losing power, so no-one wants to seem eager. And 90 percent of the time, the other person will exactly match their response speed to the time you took to reply. If a convo isn’t going anywhere, I always walk away for a day or two to get them more interested.” 

But while Aaron’s approach is on the tactical side, others’ are just plain dirty. Evan*, 29, withholds communication to claw back gender superiority. “In almost every social scenario, women have their pick of men,” he explains. “At parties, the ratio of single men to women sucks. Male friends on Tinder don’t get many matches when they swipe indiscriminately, while female mates get whoever they want. Having the power to ignore someone is the only way guys keep the upper-hand.”

Behavioural scientist Dr Christie Hartman is quick to point out the hypocrisy. “Online dating and apps do tend to favour women – but it’s because men are more easily interested based on a picture and will pursue women, thus giving women choices. Some men have decided this is unfair – despite the fact they’re causing it – and engage in games to gain power again. At their core, dating games are used by people who feel powerless with the opposite sex.”

More from CLEO:
3 Ways To Add Spark Into Your Relationship Again
How To Leave A Toxic Relationship
A DNA Test Can Prove If Your Boyfriend Is “The One”

The vulnerability myth
So where does the powerlessness come from? The interfaces of Tinder, OkCupid and social media sites creates a “band-aid confidence” that protects us from exposing our vulnerable real selves. Yet Dan Bacon, founder of men’s dating-advice service The Modern Man, doesn’t believe men fear living up to the digital persona they’ve created.

“Apps like Tinder have actually made a lot of men feel more confident about meeting someone for a date, because if it doesn’t work out he can set up another,” he explains. “Both men and women use technology to boost their self-esteem by getting as many people to ‘like’ them as possible, regardless of whether they’re actually interested in them.”

And at its (cold) heart, that’s what today’s dating games are really about – racking up likes and controlling your dating follower count in the most ego-boosting way possible.

David Evans, consultant to the online dating industry, believes part of the problem is that dating apps make communication easy, but without establishing manners and protocol around it. “You can’t teach users how to be better daters because then nobody would join the service,” he admits, frankly. With a recent study by two online dating sites** finding that men believe a woman should text first – while women believe a man should text first – it’s no wonder that communication has become a battle.

Reclaiming your hand
While Chris may have convinced himself he had “won” by leaving Jen in a contact-less state of limbo, if you work on the concept of “followers”, he’d just lost one very influential one.

It’s a loss Martin, 31, thinks is pointless. “I’m always telling mates to stop saying things like, ‘I never message a girl first because if she’s interested, she’ll text me.’ It’s an excuse to try to justify being terrible with women. Fact is, most ladies won’t be that into you, but being assertive and confident means they at least might be.”

The rules around making and breaking connections are vague and fluid. But by continuing to communicate – fearlessly, bravely and honestly – you will always be the stronger party in the power battle. With the right partner, communication won’t be complicated or confused. No cute meeting story ever began, “Well we met, then I thought he’d text me, but he didn’t, so I texted him, heard nothing…”

“Most people are just hacking their way through the jungles of dating, looking for a real connection,” adds Dr Christie. “The game-players are people who aren’t ready for that yet, or who’ve experienced repeated failure and have decided that going gamey may yield better results. Honestly, it’s just sad for them.”

*Names have been changed for anonymity.
**Study by JDate and ChristianMingle.

Text: Gemma Askham