The Difference Between Dating and Hanging Out

So maybe you’ve been spending a lot of time with the same person, and maybe you’ve even made out, or more. Still, it seems to be on the casual side. Having a “where is this going” talk seems out of the question. So what’s the difference between dating—even casual dating—and hanging out? It can be hard to tell, but here are a few hints that should help you figure it out.

Couple riding bikes in the sunset

Do They Make Plans In Advance?

Unless they’re a super anxious person (and these days, that’s more and more common), most people plan actual dates in advance. If not the specific restaurant or movie, they at least suggest a day of the week and a general time of day (say early evening). Likewise, if you try to make specific plans and they say something like “let’s play it by ear,” you’re probably in hanging out territory.

Do You Actually Go Out?

If there’s a “WYD” text that results in just hanging out at the one of your apartments, you’re in Netflix and chill territory. Sure, every dating scenario and even relationships eventually get to a point where there are spur of the moment quiet nights in, but if that’s the only thing you ever do, even if he’s the one who pays for the pizza or Chinese food, it’s a hang out and not a date. If you actually want to date them, know that “WYD” is never a sign that they see you as a serious prospect. It doesn’t mean they don’t like your company (obviously), but don’t expect them to invite you to meet their parents any time soon.

Do They Remember Special Events?

If they know your birthday is coming up and seem excited about taking you out to celebrate, or they know you’ve got a big exam coming up and are being a great cheerleader about it, there’s a better chance that you’re dating. On the other hand, they may just be a courteous, not bad person. Plenty of good people hang out and just don’t want to get serious.

Are You The Only Other Person in The Rotation?

This one is actually a little harder to pin down. First, would you even know if they were seeing other people? If they’re mentioning hanging out with other people, it’s possible that you’re either hanging out or just not in an exclusive relationship. If you’re not really the type to date around, this may matter to you. But nothing sends a hang out buddy running for the hills faster than probing questions about who else they might be seeing. And honestly, that may not be such a bad thing if you’re looking for something a little more serious.

Can You Switch A Hangout To A Date?

You may really like your hangout buddy and be looking for more. Well…stranger things have happened, but if your early “relationship” involves them showing up at your place on random Thursday in sweats with some takeout under their arm, it’s statistically unlikely they’ll begin to see you in a different light, regardless of how clear you are with your feelings and requirements.

Decide What You’re Looking For

Hang outs are fun and definitely help pass the time, but think about if that’s what you’re looking for long term with this person. Your time and energy are worth something, and messing around with a hang out potentially takes your time away from meeting someone who’s willing to actually date you instead of texts that just say “hey.”

On the other hand this may be a good time in your life to just have a hang out. You may be a busy person, and serious dating just may not be an option right now. That’s totally fine. There’s no shame or harm in hanging out with someone who’s happy to keep up those casual spontaneous week night evenings going. But if you’re on the other end of that equation—the one who just wants a hangout—it’s tough to say out loud, but it’s kind and courteous to let them know where they stand. Don’t frame it as “just” a hangout. Let them know you like things as they are and you’re not looking for a relationship. Some people still won’t take the hint and will try to turn you into the boyfriend or girlfriend of their dreams, or may get hurt or angry if you are dating—if you are, why not them, for example—so be aware and be respectful.

Do You Even Know What You’re Looking For?

The best way to avoid the dating or hanging out question is to set the parameters right from the start. That may actually be tougher to do in person, but if you date online, it’s actually really easy to find someone who’s looking for the same thing you are.

There are hundreds of dating apps out there, but unless they’re tailored to people that are exclusively trying to ride the relationship escalator on to marriage, most sites allow for you to state up front how serious you’re trying to get.

Often there are options for either short term or long term dating, and these are, for the most part, people who actually want to date in the formal sense of getting to know each other better over time, even if they’re not looking for a long term relationship. Knowing that up front can be comforting, but know that plenty of people do check their boxes when they’re not sure what they’re looking for.

Most sites will also have a “hookup” option, which overlaps hangout a bit, but the duration is TBD. For some people, a hookup is a one time only thing, and for others, it’s a fun-physical-only option that can be repeated as often as both of you are still enjoying it. That brings up a whole other question: Is it a hook up or a hang out? We’ve given you a lot to mull over. Best of luck finding the relationship or hang out you’re looking for.

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Author: Matt Seymour, MSF

Matthew J. Seymour is a dating industry expert with over a decade of experience coaching singles, reviewing dating apps, and analyzing trends within the industry. Matt is a published author with his most recent work “Get More Dates: How to Master Online Dating Apps” that hit shelves in 2023. With a Masters of Science in Finance (MSF) degree from the University of Florida and extensive knowledge of the innerworkings of the online dating industry, Matt frequently serves in an advisory role to some of the largest dating apps on the market. In Matt’s current role with Healthy Framework, he leads the interview team that regularly interviews key dating industry leaders, and leverages his financial knowledge and dating app experience to review and share what singles need to know to get the most out of dating online.