Every Dating Problem, Solved: An Interview With Chiara Atik

Dating expert, travel enthusiast, HowAboutWe writer (and Hairpin contributor) Chiara Atik has a new book out today: Modern Dating: A Field Guide. We emailed about it.

Edith Zimmerman: Okay Chiara. Just respond with “….” if I ask you a question you probably get asked all the time, and I’ll picture you staring blankly at me with your BIG AND BEAUTIFUL eyes. Question one: Would you describe your eyes as big and beautiful?

Oh, I’m constantly describing my eyes as big and beautiful to anyone who will listen.

Question two: Isn’t it crazy to write about dating, don’t your dates get weirded out when they find out what you do?? How are you ever going to find a man this waaay, Chiara???

Last night I went to the symphony and one of the the guys sitting next to me asked what I do, and about 15 seconds later he had launched into talking about his own dating life, and how he had recently moved out of the city and was having a harder time meeting people, etc., etc. But basically, that’s what it’s like to write about dating: people are very happy to have an excuse to talk to someone about their own dating lives.

And it’s fun and funny for me, because generally I like talking to people and think I give good advice. But sometimes, the same thing happens when I’m on a date. And that gets weird. A guy will ask what I do and I’ll tell him and before you know it we’re talking about dating in an abstract sense, and he’ll tell me his thoughts and experiences and sometimes he’ll even say things like, “Yeah, I dunno, it’s been hard, dating is hard.” and it’s like, I don’t quite know how to respond to that when I am currently on a date with you.

But mostly I date guys who know what I do before I go out with them. And that usually goes okay, apart from the requisite, “Heh, so are you going to write about me? Heh.” that every single guy I’ve dated in the last three years has said at one point or another. (I rarely do!)

Hah, that was sort of a joke about question one, but that was an excellent answer. What’s an activity you did on a memorable date?

I went out with a guy for his dog, once. Like, pretty blatantly, in retrospect. He had this great dog that he was training to be a service dog (I should have told the guy at the symphony to just train a service dog) and for our first date we just walked her around Central Park for hours. Oh god, that was the best date!

Also went on a taco crawl once as a date, that was very fun. It’s good for a guy to right away see how interested I am in tacos, and let the relationship grow from there.

I like the date-ideas section (and the whole concept behind HowAboutWe), but also … who does stuff? Do people actually do stuff? No, I know. But I guess what are actual dates that people do? Do people really pick random numbers and travel that distance on the train and eat there? What lives are the rest of us living? And which is real?

Haha, I think that sounds fun?? No?? Not at all??????

There’s an element of whimsy some people (including me!) go for in their dates — Let’s go to Ikea and eat meatballs and fake pick-out furniture! Let’s take a tourist bus tour of the city! Let’s sneak flasks into the microfiche room at the library and look at old newspapers ! — that isn’t for everybody. You might be more of a dimly lit gin bar kind of girl. But I think the point (and the value) of a site like HowAboutWe is that you go on dates with people who are interested in doing the same things you are. So if the idea of renting bicycles and riding down the West Side Highway is abhorrent to you, then you probably wouldn’t gel with someone who thinks that that’s an ideal date activity. Some people like shopping for sneakers on first dates, some people like going to movies or museums, and some people like just meeting at a bar.

But I do think there is value to doing something on a date, especially if it’s a date with someone you don’t know very well. Because it immediately gives both of you something to focus on other than just … sizing each other up for romantic compatibility.

What’s a good/slightly unusual date idea, specifically for New York, say? Like, actual date. Not to disparage your ideas, because I know you had to come up with so many, but I would sooner kill myself than rent a kayak or paddleboard, you know? Well, no I wouldn’t, I would rent the kayak, I would not kill myself, and it would probably be fun and horrible and funny, and then some other active and exciting version of my life would open up. But anyway, let’s say you were taking me out on a date this weekend.

Edith! So excited for our date this weekend. We could…..

-Go see Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, which is a performance piece where you go and drink vodka and “experience the elegance and allure of Tsarist Russia” with a retelling of War and Peace.

-We could go to Barcelona in Hell’s Kitchen, which is this crazy, cheesy dive bar that specializes in shots, including a series of Game of Thrones-inspired shots.

-We could go to the Hester Street Fair, which opens again this weekend in the Lower East Side, and shop for weird little jewelry. (This is maybe more of a girl date, but.)

– We could go to DISH at Housing Works, a “four-course literary feast of readings and stories, as told by New York’s hottest chefs, restauranteurs, mixologists, food authors, bloggers and critics.” (This one is technically not this weekend, but, as an example.)

[YES!] The book is a nice size, and the colors are very attractive. Excellent cover feel!

I like the spine!

I like the tip about taking a shot of tequila before dates. Lol! Chiara!! I hadn’t thought of that. Did you come up with that? Can I take a shot of tequila before sending people email interviews? (“Can.”)

Some people get crazy nervous before first dates, so if a shot, or a glass of wine, or a series of frantic phone calls to your best friend asking if they think he’d really mind if you cancelled cause you actually don’t feel that great and it looks kind of rainy out and is it that big of a deal, is what gets you out the door, then so be it.

Who would benefit most from this book?

I like to say that this is a dating book for people who don’t buy dating books. Meaning, it’s not a book based on the presupposition that you’re doing something wrong, or that you’re unhappy, or desperately looking for a mate. It’s more of a pragmatic guide to how people are dating today. It isn’t going to teach you how to “land a husband” or change yourself in order to come across as more attractive to others — but it will show you how to choose a profile picture for an online dating site, how to pull of being friends with benefits, how to know whether or not to go exclusive with someone, and how to bring that up, and what to say, etc.

A lot of people haaaaaaate dating. The idea of it just fills them with dread and anxiety. Which is too bad, because we’re among the first generations of women in history who really get to be single and date. Like, The Single Woman is a relatively recent development when you look at the course of civilization, as much as we tend to bemoan the state of being single. We have the luxury of living our own lives and dating different people and being in relationships for a while, and being alone for a while, and really taking the time to figure out what we want — out of life, out of relationships, etc. And because many people don’t get married right out of college, there’s this built-in period of singledom — during which you’re probably going to be dating. And it should be a fun thing! Which isn’t to say that dating doesn’t suck sometimes — of course it does — but the prospect of a first date should be exciting, not awful.

So I hope what this book does is sort of empower people to feel better and confident about dating — to take out the dread and the “wtf am I supposed to do/say/think” and make dating fun.

If you’re such a dating expert why are you still single, haaa. Ugh, sorry. I guess my approach is to just ask all the stupid questions anyway.

One thing I discovered earlier this year, much to my annoyance, is that all the words for a single woman have a negative connotation — spinster, cat lady, old maid, etc., while single men get to be bachelors, which sounds both sexy and completely voluntary. The idea of a woman who is single and dating and happily so is so foreign to us. If I leave any sort of legacy as someone who writes about dating (ha), I would like it to be that singlehood for women becomes slightly more palatable, that it becomes okay for a woman to be “single” rather than “still single.” Maybe we need a different word for it. Unattached?

Do you think it’s possible to be too good at dating? And to want to keep dating forever? Would that ultimately feel hollow?

I think dating, when done right, is so fun. There’s nothing that quite matches the excitement and butterfly feeling of a first date that’s going well, the thrill of a first kiss, first everything else, etc. That spark, that rush of oxytocin, can definitely be addicting, yes. If one was good at dating, if every date was exciting and fulfilling and sexy, of course one would want to continue forever. And also, people go through different stages in their lives — it’s possible to have an entire decade or longer when you don’t want to be in a relationship, or you don’t want to date at all. Not everyone wants to be dating all the time, not everyone wants to be alone all the time, it varies and fluctuates.

But yes, I do think that would be unsatisfying in the long run. There’s something about knowing someone intimately — not sexually intimately, but emotionally — that I think is unlike any other experience. And I think most people ultimately want to find love.

Would the book make an excellent or horrible gift? (“Here, I thought you … could … use …”)

I hope it makes an excellent gift! Again, it’s not a book that’s based on the idea that anyone’s doing anything wrong, so it’s not exactly akin to gifting someone “Dating for Desperate Girls” or anything like that. It’s just a pragmatic, and hopefully funny guide to navigating the dating landscape.

What would be a good prank someone could play with this book, in regards to its placement in your bag, or in your apartment, or whatever, for someone you’re dating?

I have a good friend who’s married and was reading it on the subway, wedding ring on full display. I think she got some funny looks.

Any funny bad-date stories you can tell us?

Once I went out with a guy from the Ayn Rand dating site, for a story I was doing on crazy niche dating sites. I am, uh, not of the Objectivist persuasion, let’s just say. And I was dreeeaaaaading this date. I thought he was going to be a total creep. So I get there and he’s ADORABLE. And so polite, and funny, and well-read, and well-traveled. And the date was going so well that I started to make all these rationalizations in my head — like, maybe the Ayn Rand thing was just a phase he went through in college? Or maybe he didn’t really get it, and was just fiscally conservative, or something like that? Anyway, we were talking about Mad Men, and it turned out we had the same favorite episode. And he said, “Yeah! That’s the episode where I figured out that Don Draper is an objectivist!” And I sort of just…….nodded and changed the topic. And for the rest of the evening, every time he sort of tried to veer the conversation towards political issues I just dodged it. (“Did you watch the Presidential debate?” ‘Mmm-hmm! Wow, this calamari is great! ”) He must have been so confused, because, again, we technically “met” on a political website. I’m sure he was looking forward to some great, like-minded conversation. That date was heartbreaking because it wasn’t a bad date at all! But it was just, mutually, neeeever gonna work out between us.


Yeah! I dunno. Yeah! People do it. Sometimes people get bored on long train rides.

Modern Dating: A Field Guide is available now.