‘If sex is on the cards, you barely ever remember it’: non-Brits on the boozy truth about dating in the UK
All illustrations: Edith Pritchett/The Guardian
As part of a global romance special, we asked five people living in Britain what it’s really like to step out with the locals
Sat 10 Sep 2022 11.00 BST
Nobody ever makes a move, no matter how drunk you both are
Alice Pfeiffer, 37, French Growing up in Paris, the capital’s reputation as the city of love is made abundantly clear. As for the reality, only one thing is true: flirtation is everywhere. Like many French women, I’ve been given phone numbers on the Métro, in the queue at Monoprix and even at funerals. They come from men and women, and it’s led me to some curious dates, most recently one with a pharmacist who brought aspirin as gift – “In case I hurt you!” she said with a wink.
Something I only fully grasped after moving to England – first at 18 to study, and later in my 20s to work as a journalist – was discovering that la culture de la drague (hook-up culture) was not quite as universal as I thought. Neither men nor women, gay or straight, would stop each other on the street, declare their love from across the road, spontaneously ask someone out. In Paris’s bobo (bourgeois-bohemian) world, the whole population seems intent on replaying a nouvelle vague movie where love is stylised and performative, to be practised as a sport at any given moment. But over in Britain, all that suddenly seemed cheesy if not problematic – even eye contact seemed risque.
Not knowing the local gay scene – and certainly not allowing myself to sink as deep as Googling “lesbian bar London” – I thought Tinder would be the answer. Turns out British Tinder accounts resemble Myspace profiles: you barely see the person but find out about their favourite football team and band – and every selfie features a drink.
The presence of booze runs like a red thread through the dating process. After an online discussion that feels more like a chat with a co-worker than foreplay, you finally agree to meet for a drink (never, ever call it a date). Alcohol is ordered the very second you meet, in the largest volumes available, and consumed as fast as possible. Asking for the type of wine and if it is bio, ie organic (something normal in Paris), immediately gets you catalogued as a fussy bourgeoise, I found out.
At the end of the night we’re drunk, at the last fast-food place open. Bills are carefully split. No one walks anyone home
And so it goes until we’re both drunk and hungry, which doesn’t lead to a romantic hidden restaurant but to the last fast-food place open. At the end of the night, bills are carefully split and no one walks the other person home. Quelle romance.
I slowly discovered that nobody ever makes a move, no matter how drunk you both are. If anything does happen, it feels more like (as one British friend described it) “two faces accidentally colliding into each other and waiting to see if the other person will pull away”.
And if sex is on the cards, you barely ever remember the first night (or the second or the third), wondering how you landed in the person’s bed the next morning. Back in France, by contrast, everything suddenly felt much more calculated – like the time I found out, after one drink, that the cafe we were sitting at was actually downstairs from where the other girl lived and she’d already bought food.
At one point I did end up with a British girlfriend. She was awkward, I was corny. My boisterous displays of emotion on stepping out of the Eurostar, flamboyant romantic declarations and decorative breakfasts in bed would be met with blushing, shushing and a discreet giggle. Which was refreshing. I no longer needed to play the games of cat and mouse so ingrained in French culture – I didn’t need to rely on explosions of emotions and cheating to retain her attention. A pint and a chat would do the trick. I found out that in Britain, humour and sarcasm are signs of passion and endearment.
After appearing on Love Island, I thought dating would be easier
Yewande Biala, 26, Irish
Everyone thinks that dating in Dublin is like being in a Sally Rooney novel. They’re not wrong – Normal People and Conversations with Friends are a good representation of how romantic Dublin can be, but the main thing they got right was how small-town people from Ireland can never really leave their small towns, even if they end up living and working in the capital. On weekends, they still go home and go to the same pubs to get drunk, and date boys from their secondary school. It’s hard to leave it behind. I should know, because I’m one of those people.
I’m from Westmeath in the centre of Ireland. Everyone knows everyone’s business – it’s friendly like that. About 1,000 people live there, and that’s being generous. We got a Tesco a few years ago and there are two takeaways, but if you want a McDonald’s you’re looking at a 20-minute drive.
I loved growing up like that, but being young and single in a rural town had its challenges. At primary school there weren’t many boys, and my first crush was on one called Adam. Every Valentine’s Day I made him a card, and every single year he didn’t fancy me back. One year he threw the card in the bin in front of me. Then at secondary school there was a boy I knew from school, also called Adam. We had a flirtation which started on Bebo, then we “kissed” on Facebook. Except it turned out he had a girlfriend. So even though nothing happened in real life, that was that. She hated me, and I know she still hates me to this day, because they’re still together and because that’s what happens when you come from somewhere where everyone knows everyone else. From then on, I never told boys from Meath I fancied them.
A lot of Irish guys drink heavily and that brings confidence to the table. But they’re also more friendly, more fun
Still, none of this prepared me for dating in London. After I appeared on Love Island in 2019, I was single and I came here thinking it would be easier. But I always felt like I needed to have my hair done or a full face of makeup to pop to the shops. I even tried Raya (a dating app for VIPs) but everyone I matched with seemed like a psychopath. Whoever I met, in a bar or online, I wouldn’t know if they liked me because I was me or because I’d been on TV.
Irish guys always seem slightly more confident. A lot of them drink heavily and that brings confidence to the table. But they’re also more friendly, more fun. Something about their tone or how they might approach you. English people aren’t cold, but they wouldn’t come up to you unless you made it clear you wanted them to. They’re more awkward. I just want someone to take me on a picnic in a field, and I’m not sure that’s the kind of thing English men do.
Reclaiming by Yewande Biala (Coronet, £16.99) is out now in hardback, audio and eBook.
Men in Brazil are more confident, relaxed and flirty than British men
Francesca Bonatti, 46, BrazilianI moved back to London from my native Brazil in late 2018. I wanted more from life – I was living in my home town of Sacramentothinking: “Is this it?” I had lived in London for many years in my 20s and 30s, and there are thousands of opportunities here. I thought it would be easier to meet someone.
Men in Brazil are more confident than British men; they are extremely relaxed, flirty and passionate. If they like you, they will look into your eyes; they will X-ray you from your toes to your head. They won’t think twice about trying to kiss you or jump on you. If they don’t, forget about it – it means they don’t like you.
I had a first date in Brazil where I went to his house for wine. (This has never happened in the UK.) Often, when I meet someone after chatting to them on an app, it’s a bit of a letdown. But this man was far more interesting, and attractive, than I thought he would be. Things moved very fast from there.
In the UK I sometimes leave a date thinking: “He doesn’t like me”, but it turns out that he does. British men are generally more careful. It can be frustrating. But I have to say, I really appreciate a guy who doesn’t jump on me on the first date.
He had a beer, then got a bottle of wine. I had one glass, he drank the rest, then got another. The date went downhill fast
I’m currently on The League and Bumble dating apps, like I was in Brazil. I would prefer not to use them – as a Brazilian, I’m proud of our ability to be open and friendly, and to talk easily to people – but apps are the reality now. Straight away I noticed how people here take longer to meet up. In Brazil, you might message someone for a few days, but then you’ll meet. Here people tend to want to talk for longer. I’ve talked to one guy for nearly three years. But I prefer to meet up quickly so I don’t create a person in my mind who doesn’t exist.
British men are often less put togetherthan Brazilian men. Soon after I moved back to London, I met a man for a date at Tate Modern gallery. He had his T-shirt on back to front and he was having a beer when I arrived. He suggested switching to wine and ordered a bottle. I had one glass and he drank the rest. He then ordered another bottle. The date went downhill fast. On the way home, I got off the bus early to avoid being with him any more.
I had a year of dating in 2019 and then the pandemic happened. My first date after that was in April 2021 with an Italian man (I decided to date more Italian men to improve my Italian, if nothing else). It became exciting and passionate very quickly, and we had great chemistry. But a year on it hasn’t worked out.
There are so many people in London, but everyone seems a bit lost. Perhaps there are too many options: I might be chatting to 10 men on an app and a day later they’ve all disappeared. Perhaps they’re scared of a powerful, independent woman like me.
Londoners either come on strong, then cut all ties after a month, or hedge their bets across two or three women
Elle Hunt, 31, New ZealanderEvery so often I’ll be walking the streets of Norwich, the small city where I’ve lived for the past year, when I’ll see a familiar face. We avoid each other’s eyes, though we’ve never actually met. He is one of my almost-matches – the men I’ve right-swiped on dating apps who have not liked me back, or vice versa.
This is life as a single person outside a big city. In Norwich you don’t need to be swiping for long until you are served the dismal notification: “There is no one new around you.”
Such an alert would be unthinkable in London – but not in New Zealand, where I moved with my family when I was 12. It’s said that there are two degrees of separation between any two Kiwis – restrict that to those who are single and the primary barrier to finding love becomes supply. It can feel like a case of biding your time – for established couples to break up or eligible singles to move to your area.
The key difference between dating in New Zealand and the UK – other than the size of the pools – is terminology: pashes and bangs, instead of snogs and shags, is still my preferred nomenclature. But in practice Kiwis and Britons are similar, relying on alcohol and proximity – and a circuitous, if not tortuous, approach to expressing mutual attraction.
In sprawling, expensive London, dating started to seem less an exciting search for connection than unpaid labour
When I first moved to London in 2017, I made a feature of my antipodean links on my dating profile,dangling the possibility of citizenship by marriage in exchange for a drink. “Kiwi in London” isn’t much of an edge – in a market as crowded as London’s, I struggled to claim even that. But after a few years of explaining my two degrees of separation with the Flight of the Conchords over an £8 G&T, I found my enthusiasm waning. I could swipe for miles without ever running out of new faces – but if I made a match, neither of us was ever free to meet up within the nextmonth.
Though life in Wellington could be suffocating, it allowed for spontaneity and a life relatively balanced among work, friends and dating. In sprawling, expensive London, dating started to seem less an exciting search for connection than unpaid labour. And the bottomless pool always seemed to promise something better.
A friend in Norwich spent her 30s dating in London and found that the high cost of living – forcing people into flatshares well into their 40s and delaying big life decisions – enabled a “Peter Pan lifestyle” at odds with a serious relationship. Many of her dates had seemed confused, distracted or both. They’d come on strong, then cut all ties after a month, or hedge their bets across two or three women – “a bit like a horse race”, my friend said despairingly.After four years in London, I’d started to behave in a similar way. When they say love is a numbers game, that it takes only one, it stands to reason that the more players there are, the better your odds. In fact the opposite might be true.
My friend is now in a relationship with a man she met on Hinge not long after moving to Norwich and turning 40. “There’s less choice, so I think people are more settled and focused on what they want,” she says. We agree that we have the best of both worlds. And London is only 90 minutes by train.
I get along best with Scottish, Irish or northern women
Yunus Emre Oruç, 31, Turkish “Oh, I love Turkish food! What’s your favourite Turkish meal to cook?” None, Bethan. I never cook Turkish food. Just because I am Turkish, it doesn’t mean I miss or cook it. Come to think of it, I barely miss anything about Turkey. But that’s not good “chat” three messages in with a girl I’ve just met on Hinge, is it?
Since moving to the UK three years ago, dating as a 30-year-old Turkish Muslim man is not that different from when I was 24 and living in Istanbul. I have almost always dated non-Turkish women – British, American, French, Canadian, Greek and German – not deliberately, but more because I have found it hard to connect with my fellow citizens. My ex-wife was a Kiwi. That is true for friendships, too – it’s what happens when you grow up in a polarised, highly politicised country.
I’d always wanted to leave Turkey, but what pushed me was a flash currency crisis. Over two weeks in August 2018, I saw my wages plummet more than 40% because I was paid in local currency. The things I enjoyed – travelling, holidays – seemed out of reach. Add to that a general discontent with life and work, and off I went.
Doesn’t eat pork? Cue confusion, a raised eyebrow and questioning looks because I look white-passing but am also Muslim
Since moving to London, on top of a divorce-before-age-28, I’ve managed to have two failed relationships and a ridiculous amount of dates and encountersset up through Hinge, Bumble or Tinder. Some were instant hits; most were average. Assumptions about my identity and personality usually evaporate after the first couple of dates, once people hear me elaborate on how things are in Turkey. You could probably describe me as a tall, dark, allegedly handsome (though that is up for debate) Mediterranean man who is usually taken for anything but Turkish – people’s first three guesses are Italian, Greek and Spanish. And doesn’t eat pork? Cue immediate confusion, a raised eyebrow and questioning looks because I look white-passing but am also Muslim. Add a non-Turkish accent – a mixed bag of Aussie, South African, British and Kiwi – and you have a winner.
In London, Ihave been having a more varied dating experience – especially during and after the pandemic – where parks and walks feature a fair amount. Dates happen occasionally at galleries or museums, though mostly for second or later dates. It is more free flowing than in Istanbul – but it may also be that I am more mature and confident in myself overall.
I tend to get along with northern, Scottish or Irish women – I don’t know why: it could be the friendliness of these groups of people that matches mine. Women who are born and raised in London are rarely on dating apps, or I almost never come across them.
Whether or not you are a foreigner, what makes a big difference to your dating life in the UK is whether you have a couple of friends who’ll listen to your horror stories, confusions, heartbreaks and victories. Ever since I’ve moved here, I’ve found myself with plenty to tell them.