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What does the ‘talking stage’ really mean?

woman standing in the kitchen holding a cup of coffee and texting on her cell phone woman using a mobile phone at home
This is what the ‘talking stage’ really meansLuis Alvarez

Dating, sex, and the language we use to talk about our romantic lives, has totally transformed over the last century. Where once there was commitment-oriented ‘courtship’ and couples ‘going steady’, ever since the sexual revolution of the 60s, ‘hook-up culture’ has become increasingly dominant. And, while casual sex is now firmly the norm, the advent of the internet and, duh, dating apps, has brought about a new, very convoluted language to describe the tumultuous stages of modern relationships. Think: ‘friends with benefits’, ‘situationship’, a ‘slow burn’ romance, or being in the ‘talking stage’.

If you’ve ever wondered what the slight but distinct differences are between these phases, you’re not alone. In fact, a group of researchers from New York’s Binghamton University have conducted a whole study into what exactly the ‘talking stage’ means, and what the use of this non-committal language says about our attitudes to and understanding of romantic relationships today.

Published in the Emerging Adulthood journal, the research surveyed 403 university students to find out what definition, purpose, and communication methods they’re referring to when they describe a stage of their romantic and sexual interactions as “just talking”. Unsurprisingly, definitions of the term varied, but participants largely referred to it as a romantic stage that can include sex or other physical intimacy, but is inherently non-committal – though it can be a precursor to a longer term romance.

a woman holding a phone
Tim Robberts

Later in focus groups of 37 students, researchers delved deeper into the nuances of the ‘talking stage’, asking participants to answer 11 further questions based on their previous responses. The study concluded that “just talking” typically starts with interactions via social media, and signifies a stage of exploration and gradual intimacy building that differs from ‘hooking up’ because it has the potential to become something more serious (via more intimate conversations about shared interests and values).

Not just that, but the term “just talking” allows people to build intimate connections with little to no commitment, meaning they have free reign to see other people. It also minimises the potential seriousness of the relationship, so, if it does end (and especially if it ends in rejection), they can avoid the social stigma that’s often associated with a break-up.

“In hook-up culture, emotional attachments are taboo,” researcher Melissa Hardesty explained in the study. “‘Just talking’ allows students to form emotional intimacy while downplaying the significance of such intimacy – they’re just talking. It’s striking to me that students have difficulty recognising courtship, which is a process rather than a status.”

She continued: “I think this may be because a gender-integrated social environment allows people to meet potential partners without a formal courtship strategy in place. Students almost certainly courted one another outside of hook-up culture prior to the emergence of ‘just talking’, but there didn’t seem to be a dominant or recognisable strategy.”

Just like in FWB or situationship scenarios, there’s ambiguity in the ‘talking stage’, and its interpretation could be different for everyone. Some might view it as a promising path to a potentially more serious relationship, while others might see it as a casual flirtation that, say, passes the time until they meet someone else. Essentially, it’s just a digital-era version of courtship – fuelled by 24/7 access to each other and often defined by our graveyards of dating app chats – only with an added underlying fear of both commitment and rejection (fun!). It’s not all bad, though. The ‘talking stage’ can be genuinely exciting – giving you a buzz of amorous delirium every time your phone pings – even if it ultimately doesn’t go anywhere. But there’s nothing worse than a dry convo, so make sure you brush up on your conversation skills so you can continue just talking.

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