Modern dating can be a minefield. As if keeping up with an ever-changing set of rules regarding how long you should take to reply and exactly how dangerous it is to send the dreaded double text wasn’t enough, it also comes with a vocab lesson: If a date disappears after weeks of texting, you’ve been ghosted. If this spectral suitor starts liking your social media posts, they’re an orbiter. A submarine dater is a ghoster who resurfaces by sliding back into your DMs weeks or months down the line, while an ostrich might block you if you don’t respond to a message within 24 hours.
And then there’s breadcrumbing, which has been called “the lowest form of digital communication” and “the worst dating trend ever.” The practice of sending flirtatious but non-committal messages to a romantic interest — laying a digital trail just tempting enough to keep them interested without ever actually meeting IRL — is almost universally criticized as cruel. “Why do people really breadcrumb?” asked Cosmopolitan. “Well, that’s like asking why people are terrible.”
In light of this, one might call this a callous confession: I am a serial breadcrumber. I don’t mind being on someone’s backburner, and, sometimes, I put others on the backburner, too.
There’s a simplicity that comes with messaging someone without worrying where things might lead. In an increasingly opaque and complex dating landscape, it’s refreshing to have that person in your contact list who expects nothing from you but will always respond to a late night “WYD?” text. A cheeky exchange can be the perfect pick-me-up after a bad first date. And a quick sext a few glasses of wine into Friday night can be a welcome ego boost.
Breadcrumbing is dating without the investment. A 2016 Hinge survey found that only one in 500 swipes led to so much as an exchange of phone numbers. With those kind of odds, I figure, why waste an evening swiping? Right now, I’m more focused on my career, my friends and my family. Breadcrumbing allows me to pursue all of those aspects of my life while also scratching an itch that my other interactions aren’t able to.
There are, of course, crucial caveats. The kind of breadcrumbing I advocate is a mutual arrangement, where intentions are clear from the outset. Recently single and not looking for anything serious? Say so early on. Curious if a former crush might be down for a steamy text sesh? Ask. Perhaps you’re both too busy to date but could do with a flirtatious distraction from the pressures of your day job. Only one way to find out! If you want the frisson of seeing your phone light up with a frisky message, and also know that dating is off the table, then you might find mutual breadcrumbing satisfying.
There is a common tendency to break interactions with romantic or sexual overtones down into binary categories — is this a relationship or not? But (responsible) breadcrumbing is somewhere in the middle — a flirtationship, if you will — and just one of the many complex and varied types of human interactions you can maintain. So what if dating simply isn’t for you right now? You might find that breadcrumbs are the perfect meal for one.
Katie Bishop is a book editor and freelance writer based in Oxford, UK. She writes on topics including feminism, mental health, the social impact of technology, and the business of being a millennial. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
Graphic by Madeline Montoya.