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Updated: 10th February 2019 09:08

Opinion

Why dating in Calgary is such a crazy mix of energy and anxiety

"For women reared to strive for self-sufficiency, finding yourself wooed by displays of traditional masculinity that, these days, are often paired with terms like ‘toxic,’ can make you feel like you’re selling yourself short — if not selling out the entire sisterhood,” Jessica Barrett on dating in Calgary.

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'I had never experienced anything like it before'

Mr. and Mrs. William David Ransom of Nanton, Alta., in 1898. (Glenbow Archives)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part one of a two-part special on dating in Calgary.


When I first moved to Calgary from Vancouver in early 2014, I had few expectations of the city — least of all that it would be a great place to date.

I was vaguely aware of the cowboy connotations, the influence of the oil industry and, of course, the ongoing (and inexplicable) rivalry with my hometown of Edmonton.

But that summer, age 31 and here on a temporary work contract, I found myself in the midst of a breakup — which is how I came to discover one of Calgary's most pleasantly kept secrets: chivalry is alive and well here.

Perhaps it was just the glow of that particular summer, but I seemed to meet eligible bachelors almost everywhere I went: the car rental place, out with friends, and of course, online.

But what really stood out was the way those meetings progressed in a respectful, timely, and appropriate manner into actual dates. You know, outings with a stranger where you both put on clean clothes, put your best foot forward and courageously acknowledge you are hoping to find romance. Or heck, maybe even love.

I had never experienced anything like it before.

For context, I'd spent the majority of my adult life in Vancouver, a city that locals know as legendary for its dismal dating scene.

For those who haven't spent time in lotus land, the chief complaints from straight-leaning women are that men seldom make a move or pick up on flirtations. And if by some miracle, you do manage to exchange contact info with a guy, he'll often put minimal effort into making plans or trying to impress you in the unlikely event that you do wind up on an actual a date — and whatever you do, don't call it that.

Across the city and the gender spectrum, the word "date" seems to cause an allergic reaction.

Instead, Vancouverites often "hang out" with their new friends for months, or even years, in undefined relationships aimed at lowering the emotional stakes but invariably leading to mismatched expectations and hurt feelings.

Madame Olga Valda of Calgary and Walking Buffalo (George McLean), Stoney Reserve, Alberta, ca. 1960-1969. (Glenbow Archives)

Calgary was like stepping into single-lady Shangri-La

This all sounds like sour grapes, I know, but Vancouver's complete lack of game is a widely documented phenomenon — for both sexes.

To be fair, the city's transient nature and high cost of living play a role.

It's tough to invest in someone who can only commit to living in their van for a summer or to spring for dinner when your rent eats up 60 per cent of your income. But the end result is the complete annihilation of anything resembling romance. Case in point: one friend had a guy offer to sell her a beer at the end of their date in exchange for bus fare home. Sexy.

Compared to all that, Calgary was like stepping into single-lady Shangri-La.

My summer here was one of plans kept, doors opened, dinners bought and, most importantly, a sense that some real effort had gone into trying to make me feel special.

Fast-forward to early 2018.

I'd left the coast behind and moved back to Calgary for a guy — potentially for keeps — only to have the relationship torpedo as soon as the ink was dry on our one-year lease. I was devastated for months.

But as I contemplated returning to the dating scene, I consoled myself with memories of that one charmed summer. I wondered if my limited experience of dating in Calgary was the rule rather than the exception. Is this city really a better place to find a mate?

Well, like a lot of matters of the heart, it turns out it's complicated.

Mr. William R. Campbell and Mrs. Campbell, Ontario in 1888. (Glenbow Archives)

Calgary 'is where a guy will really be a guy for you'

From a strictly demographic perspective, Calgary is a good place to be a woman looking for a man, confirms matchmaker Barb Sim, who has run a matchmaking business in the city since 1993.

"There's a lot of masculine energy in this city," she told me.

Calgary's demographics favour women, she said, simply because there aren't as many of us here. According to the last census, Alberta is the only province in the country where the gender balance skews more male than female, thanks in large part to the resource-based economy which, until recently, relied heavily on trades and other traditionally male-dominated fields.

As a result, Sim said, men have had to up their game in order to compete for a smaller pool of prospective mates. And, in this city at least, that often means relying on some traditional gender roles that could be considered either charming or outdated, depending on your perspective.

"This is where a guy will really be a guy for you," she said. "He will buy you lunch and he will take you out for dinner."

Now, I have to pause here to say this reality kind of makes me cringe.

Partly because it seems like a throwback to the stifling gender norms women — and men — throughout the developed world have been vehemently working to dismantle in the wake of #MeToo; and partly because I found I really liked this old-fashioned expression of courtship.

In fact, it's one of the things that made dating in Calgary so appealing: guys in this city will do things for you like open doors, pick up the tab and give you their coat when you're cold.

But the realization felt like a betrayal of my feminist values.

I'm not alone in feeling conflicted.

Lachlin and Sarah McKinnon, Calgary, Alberta in 1893. (Glenbow Archives)

Selling out the sisterhood

In researching this story, I asked several women about their feelings on the role chivalry should play in dating in 2019. Most agreed the topic is fraught with confusion.

For women reared to strive for self-sufficiency, finding yourself wooed by displays of traditional masculinity that, these days, are often paired with terms like "toxic" can make you feel like you're selling yourself short — if not selling out the entire sisterhood.

And yet, absent a new and widely agreed upon dynamic in heterosexual dating, those traditional gestures are still loaded with meaning.

Lending a coat is a far cry from denoting a man's ability to be a good partner long term, but it does tell you he at least has a base level of concern for your physical comfort. It's a good start. Because at base we should all, men and women, be looking for a potential partner's capacity to demonstrate care and concern for our emotional and physical well-being.

And in a world that still socializes men to do that through financial or physical means and women through emotional and, often, domestic labour, traditional gender norms still act as a guiding star.

The trouble is, in 2019, the same gestures that might signal romantic potential on a date can also be interpreted as a red flag in a mate.

"It's fun to be treated on a date, but the flip side is, because they paid, because I'm so used to making my own way I feel like I now have to give back," said Suzanne Stewart, a 39-year-old administrator who's been dating in Calgary on and off for the last few years.

"And it's that line you have to walk. Like is that physically?"

It's a question in the back of many women's minds when they're dating.

Mr. and Mrs. John Clark, Gleichen, Alberta in 1903. (Glenbow Archives)

Motivations and prejudice

It's never totally clear from the outset whether the guy buying you a drink truly understands that it doesn't buy him access to your body — or your time. And you just don't know if the man holding the door for you does it because, deep down, he also holds you in lesser regard.

As Stewart put it: "It's hard to trust a complete stranger."

Of course, this is not just a Calgary thing, but this city's tendency to promote a certain veneer of stereotypical manhood can put the question of men's motivations into particularly sharp focus.

"I feel like guys in Calgary, they are such city guys trying to be the best, trying to get ahead, trying to experience everything because you only live once, that I feel like there's pressure on to be this imaginary stud thing," said Stewart.

"But that may be my own prejudice, too."

Conference manager Janel Snider, 35, had similar misgivings about the dominant strain of Calgary dude she encounters. For the trained opera singer, finding someone she really clicks with has been a challenge since moving back to Calgary from London, U.K., in 2014.

"What I noticed when I first came back is that there are two types of guys in Calgary," she said, adding the caveat that her observations are broadly general.

"There are the big-drinking, very rah, rah guys — love hockey, love beer and their ATVs and their trucks. And then there's another group of men who, to me, were very meek, very docile men who were very sweet and gentle and calm and kind.

"I am not the target for either of those groups of men."

The issue?

As a self-described loud, dominant, feminist, Snider, who grew up in Cochrane, says she feels the latter group can't keep up with her feisty personality — they tend to defer to her rather than engage. The former seem to represent an inherent clash of values — she's never totally certain whether they see her as an equal or a conquest.

To confuse matters further, one of the greatest difficulties in modern dating has to be that women — at least the ones I know — are looking for men who see us as both.

Edward H. Molstad and Josephine Grasswick, Calgary, Alberta in 1904. (Glenbow Archives)

We want someone secure enough in the knowledge we are equals, and in their masculinity, to be able play with the power dynamics between men and women that allow us to feel desired, cared for and respected.

We want someone who understands that feminism and masculinity are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to be the kind of guy who can talk about his feelings, cook dinner and look after kids and also love hockey, ride ATVs, go hunting (or whatever) and hold the door and ravish us in bed.

But it's a high bar for men, and not one our culture — in Calgary or elsewhere — generally supports, encourages or equips them to clear.

The meaning of 'man'

According to Alexis Peters, a sociology professor at Mount Royal University, the duality Snider and Stewart have noticed in Calgary has a name: hegemonic masculinity.

"Especially in North America, there are competing masculinities," she explained. "One becomes the dominant form, largely through pop culture, of what it means to be a man."

Calgary, with its agricultural roots and rural influence, still harkens back to a Wild West ethos that prizes rough-and-tumble provider-type guys who aren't particularly emotionally fluent.

Not all men buy into the dominant model, Peters was careful to add, but it does pervade much of the city's dating culture.

"And of course it's always done in connection with what we call 'emphasized femininity,'" she explained. That's the corresponding standard for the opposite sex, think the classic dichotomy of the macho hockey player and the scantily clad "ice girl."

Kate and Bob Edwards in 1917. (Glenbow Archives)

The relatively small size of Calgary's population means it has fewer influences than larger cities to broaden those narrowly defined gender norms, Peters added. And while the traditional values associated with this cowboy culture have their upsides — for instance the graciousness embodied by the city's White Hat rituals, or the way some guys will still ask you to two-step — there are downsides too.

Relationships can quickly turn toxic when gender roles are limited to stereotypical expressions of masculine and feminine, Peters said.

One need only look to Stampede, where both sexes are encouraged to ditch their wedding rings and participate in a highly sexualized, heteronormative atmosphere that isn't exactly grounded in mutual respect.

But the city is changing, Peters noted.

The influx of people from other parts of Canada and the world over the last decade has begun to challenge those staid notions of sexuality and gender. So has the economic downturn as we see earning potential shift from high-paying trades jobs to a more knowledge-based economy.

And then there's the influence of #MeToo and the fact that much of the developed world seems to be in the midst of renegotiating accepted gender norms.

Sim, the matchmaker, also said she feels the city has changed since she started helping people find love 25 years ago.

"Back when I started dating, if you were a blue-collar guy, you were a blue-collar guy," she said. Nowadays, someone's job title or education level says little about their interests, abilities, income or emotional intelligence, she said.

That's why she urges all her clients to look past first impressions and give their dates a chance to reveal hidden depths. Calgary men can present a certain veneer of machismo, she admitted, but beneath the surface, they are often more complex than meets the eye.

Mr. J. M. Erickson and his wife Nola B. Erickson, Calgary, Alberta in 1917. (Glenbow Archives)

One of the biggest mistakes women make when they're looking for love is writing off potential dates because they don't fit a predetermined set of criteria, be it occupation, education level, income or past relationship status, she said.

Some women will even discount men for being too good-looking.

"Guys can look extremely handsome and women will go, 'oh, he's a playboy,' when he's not. He's really shy," she said.

"What ruins people's opportunity for meeting the right person is that they buy into the stereotype because there's always those people who break every rule."

For Snider, however, finding a good match is less about social or employment status than it is about a worldliness that, after living in London, seems in short supply in Calgary. But as the city becomes a destination for more people from around the world, she's found potential in the growing number of newcomers.

"I have only dated one Canadian since I've been back," she said.


EDITOR'S NOTE: On Valentine's Day, part two of this look at dating in Calgary. The "culture of coupledom," and what it means to be lonely.


This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at calgarytheroadahead@cbc.ca.


More stories from the series:

About the Author

Jessica Barrett

Web writer

Jessica Barrett is a freelance journalist who recently returned to her home province of Alberta after more than a decade living on the West Coast. Her work has appeared in outlets across the country including the National Post, CBC News, Vancouver Magazine and Avenue Magazine.

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