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Sioux Lookout, Ont. — I fiddle with my search radius. Fifty kilometres? That's not too far. One hundred kilometres? That's only an hour's drive. One-hundred sixty kilometres? That might get me far enough to reach the neighbouring town, or maybe even the city.
The screen refreshes, and three swipes later I am again staring at my own profile picture. Red circles radiate like sonar from my location, searching for any signs of life, with the words underneath: "There is no one new around you." It's game over for now, 'cause that's as far as Tinder will let me search.
Small towns change the rules of the game.
I am one of many young professionals who start their careers in a small rural town. After graduation I got my first job in Sioux Lookout, Ont., a town of 5,000 people in the province's northwest. With some young people migrating away from cities to find their first job, it creates a unique situation where young adults find themselves looking for love in places with limited options.
Using dating apps like Tinder in a small towns has very different issues than in the city. A rural, heterosexual, female Tinderer (me) gets to swipe through about as many pictures of fish as she does human men. The irony of "there are many fish in the sea" is palpable.
Small towns change the rules of the game. In a place with a small dating pool and even fewer date spots to meet up, some interesting complications arise.
In big city centres it is considered weird, or even immoral, to date a guy your friend had already dated. In a small town, if you eliminated all the guys your friends dated, you'd quickly run out of men. Of course, there is still etiquette. You don't pursue anyone your friend dated seriously — but even then, with permission, it happens.
Privacy is something I try not to hold onto too dearly in a place where everyone's connected by only a few degrees of separation. It feels like everyone knows everyone, and news spreads like a bushfire. Even if you try to keep your dating life a secret, try to go out in public on a date and you will most likely run into someone you know — if not your entire extended family (that actually happened to a friend of mine).
I tried to keep a relationship a secret once. I had only been in town about a month at the time, and I don't think I really understood just how small the place was.
I went to grab a coffee one morning and ended up in line directly behind a Tinder date's ex-girlfriend. I proceeded to do what anyone would do in a socially awkward situation and stared at my phone. I was brought back to attention by another women entering the shop. It's at that moment I made eye contact with his ex-wife. The ex-girlfriend must have noticed, too, because the conversation she was having with her friend went eerily silent.
So there we were: three women, waiting for our coffees in silence, heads down, phones out. Fortunately, my secret was safe and I was the only one aware of this absurd procession of exes.
A couple weeks later I was at the same guy's house having a fire. For the uninitiated, this is a common past time and a great date idea in small towns.
At one point in the night, he got up to chop more fuel. One chop, axe enters wood. Two chops, wood splits. Three chops, THUD. He let out a line of expletives and limped over to the fire. In his attempted display of manliness, he had accidentally buried the axe in his foot.
Luckily, I have a fair bit of first aid training — that's why it only took me one look to know that he needed more than first aid. This was definitely more of a second-aid gash. Slightly panicked but trying to keep my cool, I suggested we go to the emergency room. "I'd rather not, my ex's sister works there," he responded.
And that's how I learned this small-town connection thing is enough to deter a grown man from seeking medical care. It took gauze and bandages to stop the bleeding, and everything turned out OK. More importantly, we avoided becoming the juiciest gossip on the grapevine.
All this might sound like a nightmare. But there are benefits to a game with fewer players.
With reputations at stake, people are forced to play nice and be genuine. If you are rude, you can be sure the word will get out. If you lie, you can be sure the truth will come out. This pressure results in altogether more kindhearted interactions.
People are more willing to invest their time and energy in one person, and more likely to give someone a fair shot. One match asked me if I would like to go out into the bush with his rifles and shoot some targets — no sir, I do not want to be out of cell service, with a complete stranger I met on the internet and his guns. But he was my only match that week, so I suggested coffee instead. It turns out he was not a murderer, and we even dated for a few months.
Whenever I am in the city, I almost always activate my dating apps and thoroughly enjoy swiping through what seems like endless possibilities. One time in Winnipeg, I had to stop Tindering because my thumb cramped up, and it was glorious. But, I have noticed that what starts off as exhilarating quickly goes stale.
I almost always message matches — 'cause that's the point, isn't it? — but in a city, I rarely hear back. Who can blame them? I'm likely just one woman on a long list, and it's hard to stand out with my entire personality boiled down to seven pictures and 500 characters.
Whether you live in a small town where men think displaying their latest catch is key to reeling in a mate, or you live in a city with plenty of options and dating is more catch and release — whether your search radius is two kilometres or 160 — play nice.
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Remember that behind every swipe, there is a human. Be open and willing to spend a little time and energy getting to know the person beyond the profile. And if, despite your efforts, "there is no one new around you," try not to worry. Spend your energy on the friends that are around you and give other relationships some time.
Hometown is an ongoing blog series and conversation led by people who know there's more to Canada beyond city limits. If you live or have lived in a small or rural community, and have a perspective or opinion you would like to share, take a look at our Blogger FAQ to see how to get started and reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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