23.05.2017

Breadcrumbing; decoding a 21st century phenomenon

The 21st century dating vernacular is crammed with baffling terminology. From ghosting to breadcrumbing, cushioning to slow fading, it all seems a bit coded. Here we pull apart this peculiar patois and dig a little deeper into meanings. As it happens, it turns out things aren’t as jovial as they may seem.

Getting in on the slang

Needless to say, the modern dating vocabulary is replete with a variety of puzzling terms. Last year, ghosting – abruptly severing all communication with someone after a period of intense and promising contact – was the word du jour. Akin to Oxford Dictionaries’ bizarre eulogy to emoji meanings, Merriam-Webster hopped on the bandwagon and recently added it to their esteemed lexicon1.

There are also a host of terms that, though not adorned with dictionary status (yet), are still used with a fervent zeal. For example, slow fading - an act similar to ghosting where you ‘slowly fade’ someone out by gradually reducing contact with them - is another pop-phrase2. The dreaded friend zone is also another stellar case in point.  

However, two of 2017’s top trending terms are breadcrumbing and cushioning. Confused much? Let’s take a look at each separately before getting to the core of what’s afoot.

Breadcrumbing; emotional tenterhooks

Like most trends, just as one fades into obscurity another is thrust right into the limelight. If you’ve had even the most perfunctory of glances at this year’s dating developments, you’ve probably seen breadcrumbing being discussed passionately across a plethora of respected media outlets. So what’s the story with this contemporary occurrence?

It’s wise to start off by clearing up what breadcrumbing actually means. One of the most commonly referenced definitions is Urban Dictionary’s effort, though we decided to come up with a more inclusive offering. Simply put, breadcrumbing is when a person sporadically sends messages to someone so as to keep them interested, without committing to anything serious.

It goes without saying that today’s technology facilitates a breadcrumber’s non-committal antics. Nowadays it’s so much easier to send a smiley or like someone’s Instagram snaps without engaging in verbal communication. At the same time, it’s interesting to ponder the psychology of social media and how it feeds into the emotional value placed on something as pedestrian as an electronic thumbs-up. 

Another prominent aspect of breadcrumbing that goes hand in hand with flakiness is ambiguity. If you’re the breadcrumbee, you may well notice that the culprit is extremely vague when it comes to answering questions. Making plans only for them to be reneged on soon after is another telltale sign - getting on swimmingly in the ether of endless instant messages is no substitute for a real, face-to-face rendezvous.

Cushioning the blow

One of the most current modern dating words to materialise, and one that’s expected to mimic ghosting’s popularity, is cushioning. Though there’s something undeniably comfy sounding about its name, there’s nothing nice about being cushioned. In fact, depending on your moral compass, it’s maybe more dubious than breadcrumbing.

In essence, cushioning is all about offsetting the loss experienced when a budding relationship fizzles out (or an established one breaks up for that matter). A cushioner will have a number of potential partners ‘on ice’, ready to swoop in should catastrophic failure occur in their main relationship; it’s effectively synonymous with not putting all your eggs into one basket and spreading your bets. 

In practice, a person may well be texting other individuals and keeping them interested with flirty messages or suggestive signals. It’s not beyond the realms of reason to see how breadcrumbing could be used by someone who’s cushioning; occasionally keeping contact to ensure there’s someone there to fall back on if things turn sour.

There are definitely some large question marks looming over cushioning. On the one hand, it could be a shrewd tactic to deal with the uncertainty of meeting someone new. It may also be a defence mechanism from opening up too soon and risking being hurt. But to be frank, it hums more of cheating, maybe not at the physical level, but certainly at the emotional.

So what’s actually going on here? Is there valid reason to believe that there’s a societal bent towards flakiness, or are we just becoming a bit more sadistic as we amble off into the 21st century? 

Unravelling the harsh reality 

The crux of the issue here is a little bit more troubling than the superficial light-heartedness of these words. Yes they are banded about in a distinctly casual manner, but all the breadcrumbs and cushions mask an underlying tendency in modern dating. You could even go as far to suggest these fads are representative of a shift in the role love and relationships play in society.

As mentioned earlier, there can be no doubt that the emergence of technology is integral to the way in which we found and forge romantic relationships with other people. Dating apps have largely enabled people to meet others who they’d probably never encounter otherwise. 

Even although social media, IMs, emails and text messaging have fuelled the hyperconnected world in which we live, bizarrely they’ve also made us drift further apart. It’s far easier to change plans and avoid replying now; firm arrangements are subject to flux and fluidity.

There’s also a case to be made when it comes to demographics.  It could be that Generation Y’ers, the 18-35 year old cohort adopting these terms most eagerly, operate within a different normative framework to baby boomers when it comes to dating habits. Maybe we’re just witnessing an evolutionary step in the way people date?

For sure, there are tangible trends that signify wider societal changes, declining marriage rates being a good example3. People are simply faced with much more choice nowadays, from where to buy groceries, what internet bank to select, or who to settle down with. 

This surfeit of choice is directly related to the pressures associated with individuality. Creating an identity through work or lifestyle choices appears to be at loggerheads with the compromises needed for successful relationship building or marriage. It follows that the fear of losing personal autonomy makes people less committed when trying to reconcile their own unstable lives with choosing and subsequently devoting themselves to one partner.

Within this context, it’s not hard to see how trends like ghosting, breadcrumbing and couching come about. And it’s unlikely that this terminological trend will ebb anytime soon. It’s important to be wary of these behaviours as none are particularly pleasant. At the same time, it’s also crucial to grasp why they’ve emerged, and to understand how they relate to the shifting sands of time and society.

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