In English, “I love you” can have the power of a magic spell or an atomic bomb: The words can help solidify a bond or threaten to destroy it if they’re spoken too soon. In the contemporary United States, courtship is increasingly casual, which makes heartfelt confessions of love more serious than ever before.
It isn’t just a question of language. Dating culture differs by geography and affects the meaning of those words. I asked literary translators and dating experts what “I love you” means all over the world.
Japanese does not have a direct analogue to “I love you.” The words that get defined as “love” in dictionaries and taught that way in language courses are closer to “like” (suki) and “affection” (ai). The phrase “ai shiteiru” means something close to “I love you,” but it doesn’t function as a relationship milestone in Japanese. Most people probably hear it more often in movies than in real life. Consider “I adore you” in English — a gorgeous sentiment, but who says that? Instead of saying “I love you,” a Japanese person would be more inclined to use any number of context-driven expressions of devotion and support, like “Work sounds tough” or “I can tell how hard you’re trying” or “I support you.”
— Sam Bett, literary translator
There’s definitely less pressure around saying “I love you” in France than there is in the United States, and it usually happens much earlier. Every person and every relationship is different, but I would say that most people in France say it after about two months. Dating in France is very different from the United States. We don’t have this casual dating period when it’s OK to date several people at the same time and keep your options open.
— Adeline Bréon, dating coach
“Like” and “love” are translated into the same word in Arabic. It’s not unusual, say, for a man to court a woman with “ahibbik” during a first encounter. In Iraq, the progress from courtship to commitment is marked with a family visit. The man’s family meets the woman’s family to ask for her hand in marriage. The visit is a declaration of commitment by the family and the suitor. In this sense, it might be equivalent to the commitment signaled by “I love you” in America. That said, there are other ways to express deep and sincere feelings — a’shaqich (“I’m deeply in love with you”), amoot alaych (“I’m dead in love with you”).
— Qussay Al-Attabi, scholar of Arabic literature
When dating, “wo ai ni” is the man’s signal: He wants an exclusive relationship. Before that, a woman might hold hands with him, kiss, go to the movies, go hiking, but she will generally wait for this important phrase before having sex or appearing in public as boyfriend and girlfriend. After this first “wo ai ni,” both members of a couple will probably say it to each other every day. It’s just the first time the man says it that is also his way of saying he wants to be exclusive. This relates to young people only, ages 20 to 35. Older people don’t say “wo ai ni” much at all.
— Joy Chen, dating coach and author