The Evolution of Dating and “Pick-Up” Guides

From strict rules back then, to deciding which online dating site is the best for you today. Dating has changed over the last decades and so do dating guides and the (sometimes unwritten) doe’s and don’ts of dating. Today, we literally “place an order for a perfect partner” online, deciding by ourselves which rules to follow and which not. But despite our dating freedom today, dating is such a social construct that society and culture have a huge influence on the written and unwritten rules we follow on dates.

The current dating generation has a very clear picture of what they want. Size, eye color, height, hobbies, profession…there is almost no difference between the search engines of online dating sites and those of Amazon. With endless choice come more and more dating guides to help us navigate the dating war field…pick-up artists like Neil Strauss “The Game” and notorious feminist authors like Ellen Fein and  Sherrie Schneider The Rules: Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right were the pioneers of modern dating and many self proclaimed experts followed suit.

But before I try to summarize the (often very funny and useless) dating rules of today, I was interested in seeing how we got to these magical “formulas”-what popular advice did our grandparents and parents follow? (only speaking of the Western culture here).

20s and 30s:

Here is an excerpt of a dating guide in the 30s for women:

  • Don’t be sentimental; men don’t like tears, especially in public places
  • Don’t sit in awkward positions and never look bored (even if you are)
  • Don’t talk about your clothes-instead, please and flatter the man by talking about what he want’s to talk about
  • Men deserve and desire your entire attention
  • Wear a bra if you need one!
  • Don’t drink too much! (something that is still a common piece of advice in today’s dating etiquette) The reason for this advice as given by the dating guide in the 30s seems quite legit: ‘Drinking may make some girls seem clever, but most get silly.’…fair enough…
  • Another golden piece of advice: Don’t talk to him while dancing, for when a man dances, he wants to dance. (How did our culture go from dedicated dancers who don’t want to be bothered to strict non-dancers, but dedicated drinkers who definitely want to be bothered by women??…I generalize here, I know – but if you recall your last night out at a nightclubs, you will probably agree.)



That’s right – in the 20s and 30s it was still all about HIM. Women just started to be more active and think about a career instead of being “only” a mother. In the dating sphere though this trend was barely recognizable. In short: women had to be perfect, i.e great conversation partners, well dressed, conservative-letting the man lead and without any “drama”. Men on the other hand had to do the first move, pay all bills, introduce himself to her parents. To say that this was the standard script of the 20s and 30s would be incorrect, but this was the “perfect dating scene” the society and media pictured at that time.


The retro romance of the 1940s was marked by war. From 1939 to 1945, men were out of the country. Eligible men were shipped off to war, and women were left to either run the household, or live in their parents’ home praying that her boyfriend returned home safely. There were two types of single men left in the early 40s — those who wanted to sleep around because they knew they could die tomorrow, and the ones who wanted to land the love of their life, because they wanted something to have faith in if they died tomorrow 😉

The first half of the 1940s was a proud era for women. Bucking tradition and heeding their patriotic duties, ladies finally left the proverbial kitchen to enter the workforce while the men were overseas. But by 1945, the war was over and the great baby boom was under way. By the end of the decade, many women were married and pregnant — the invention of the bikini in 1946 may have contributed to this development.


The war helped the economy bounce back, but in the early 1940s the food people could afford had to be rationed. Post-war, men and women began going back out and restaurant business took off. Advice columns informed young women that their suitor should handle all the restaurant transactions, like ordering and calculating the check.

In the 1940s, it was common for young people in their late teens to go out with a different person each weekend. The more dates someone had lined up, the more they displayed their popularity. Men were obligated to ask the women out, and sometimes they had to schedule a date weeks in advance. By the time a woman was ready to settle down, she would have gone on many dates and even had experienced “going steady” with a fellow or two. Women who smoked or had sex were considered easy. “Thankfully”, Hollywood and a man called Edward Bernays took up smoking in the mid-40s and suddenly cigarettes became acceptable and even, well, sexy! Bernays, who was the godfather of PR as we know it today, helped the tobacco industry to fix their bad image by advertising cigarettes as the “torches of freedom”…thanks, dude!


When the men came home from the war, they married and bedded their girlfriends faster than you could say “baby boom.” Birth control options were still somewhat limited, so young, newlywed couples were having more children than they may have intended. Divorce rates were down, and society was entering the 1950s — an era marked by the adoration for the classic American family.


Post-war, the presence of teenagers and young adults became readily more apparent because they were granted more freedom than previous generations ever were. They were given a chance to redefine the ways things were done in America and throughout Western Europe. One of the conventions they revolutionized, is the idea and practice of dating. The 1950’s set up precedents in dating that led to what many consider “normal” dating today.

In the fifties and surrounding decades, handbooks and other books exploring relationships described dating as a fun activity in which teens are allowed to meet and mingle with many members of the opposite sex.

In the 1950’s, it was still unheard of for a young lady to ask for a date or to initiate the dating process. The men were supposed to do the asking and calling. Lines (combarable to todays “pick-up” lines) were very often used by men to test if a woman is interested. More often than today though, women would accept the compliment and at least look as if they are flattered. Women were still expected to be nice all the time. Blind dates were another big trend, which were often used by younger people if they were too shy to ask somebody out. Double dates were another “thing”.In general, people who went on dates and especially those who “go steady”  (i.e.: go on dates with the same person) were very popular among their peers.

Many handbooks for young ladies were published in the post-war time period that addressed the issue of how to attract boys and how to get a date. One handbook entitled Always Say Maybe suggests ways in which a woman can attract a man. Some of the chapters focus on how to approach a man, how to earn a date, how to start interesting conversations, and how to be interested in what they are interested in, like sports in particular. The book gives advice on how to act around men (long before all these somewhat stiff practices were replaced by a generalized “be yourself” approach”).  One chapter reads, “Be gay, be charming, be thinking.” Continuing on, it says for girls to be “surefooted, silver-tongued, and stout-hearted” in conversation with men. For men, there were basically no dating guides, because the only dating rule for men at that time seemed to be: be yourself, show off good manners and pay the bill.

In the fifties, there were many options for a young couple looking for a good time. The most popular places to go were those that were cheap yet fun, much like dates of today. The September 1959 issue of Seventeen pointed out that the most popular places were ice cream parlors, pizza parlors, drive-ins, bowling alleys, coffee houses and record shops. The most popular and economical activity available for teenagers was watching movies. Perhaps, if the movie was played in a drive-in, you would not even have to watch the movie to be entertained!


Other places young people went for fun were dances and school sporting events. Dances, in particular, made up a large part of dating. Women who went dancing, usually stayed with the date that brought them. But it was perfectly normal, even preferred (by older generations at least) if a young lady was “passed around” the dance floor. If you were not cut in on, you were a social disgrace.


Back in the fifties, it was pretty much understood that men pay for the expenses of the date. The concept of Dutch dating was still not acceptable back in the fifties. Both boys and girls were embarrassed by this idea.

But despite all the pressures to fool around, virginity was still a virtue in the fifties. There was still an emphasis on preserving it as stressed by magazine articles and handbooks for young ladies.


The post World War II baby boom flooded the US and Western European countries with a new generation of more liberal-minded people.
The decade began with bouffant hair and knee-length dresses that were required wear in most public places. A few years later, miniskirts, go-go boots and hot pants were all the rage as the sexual revolution took off in the mid 60s. The anti-baby pill was approved in the US and with it came new possibilities!


Art Unger’s “Datebook’s Complete Guide to Dating” was one of the most popular dating guides (again: for ladies only) in the 1960s. One chapter deals with the tough question “How To Avoid Saying No” (to a man who tries to get into your pants) – interesting that this was even a topic. Apparently, women were, despite all the sexual liberation, still expected to be polite, nice and “yes-sayers”.

There were many dating behaviours considered etiquette in those days. The man had to open the door for the woman. He was expected to pay for the movie tickets and any after movie refreshments. Because the boy had paid, it was presumed the man had the right to hold the woman’s hand or put his arm around her during the movies.
Women knew that as much as they liked a guy, they should not permit a kiss on the first date. Women were also advised that they should not appear more intelligent or more knowledgeable than their date. Tough times for smart nuts!

drive in


Gloria Steinem, arguably the women’s movement loudest activist, was quoted as saying “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” Here’s what dating was like in the 1970s…Society was changing, and dating became more casual. People started referring to going on dates as “hanging out” or “hooking up.” The expectation that dates were part of the path leading from meeting to marriage had begun to wither, and premarital sex was becoming more common. Single people were participating in more casual relationships, just for fun. The concept of couples living together without marriage had begun to gain acceptance among young couples not willing to make the plunge into marriage.



Now we get really scientific! As technology and science moves forward, scientists and less scientific pick-up artists constantly try to explain the most basic human need rationally. What is going on in the mind of the opposite sex, what attracts him/her, which “techniques” make you irresistible?

Our today’s literature on dating guides is packed with “hard facts science”:

  • color: when women wear red, they become more attractive to men, whos subconscious mind tells them: you want her!
  • scent: perfumes with pheromones draw us unknowingly closer to a person of the opposite sex
  • a perfect hip-to-waist ratio makes women more attractive to men, because its a sign of fertility that man (again subconsciously) react to
  • by using subtle touch, we can establish comfort and trust in the opposite sex
  • body language – the “right” pose, for example “mirrowing” someone, can help building rapport

The list goes on and on. There are plenty of advice and endless ebook dating guides, self proclaimed dating experts and pick-up artists who went from a shy zero to a (douchey) dating machine! Maybe its because of the endless possibilities we have today to meet new people and therefore the increased “competition”. With the onset of the online dating, everything seems more commercial and capitalistic in todays dating scene. We have so much “choice” that men suddenly started to need those dating guides to survive in a cruel dating world with exorbitant expectations. Whereas in the previous generations dating guides were mainly written for women, today men seem to be the main consumers of those guides.

The Game, along with other volumes by figures within the movement, has put forth a jargon associated with seducing women. For example, the “7 Hour Rule,” which dictates that an average of seven hours should be spent with a woman before reaching “full close,” their term for sexual intercourse. “Negging” refers to giving a woman a backhanded compliment; “pawning” is the use of a woman to show one’s social value to other women; and “going caveman” refers to the strategy of minimizing conversation and maximizing physical contact in an encounter.

At the same time, there is another movement emerging…a radically honest one where people throw all the dating guides, “good” advice and “rules” overboard and follow their own head and gut feeling, leaving questions like “should I call”, “shall I wait until the 3rd date?” and “is he into me?” to Hollywood! What is waiting for us in 10, 30 and 50 years?


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