Thursday, January 6, 2011

Unsolicited Advice On: Online Dating

Online dating has been the topic of several columns recently (well, sort of recently: we are so behind!)

Coincidentally, November 16 saw the misrepresentative-photo-from-online-profile problem in both Amy Alkon and Dr Lovemonkey. The questions, respectively:
I've been on about 20 dates with girls I met online, and 15 of them were much heavier than they were in their photos. I'm getting a little tired of this. Is there some acceptable way to ask a woman how much she weighs before you meet up?
I have recently tried online dating... my last few dates have all lied about themselves in some way that was not revealed until we met... I understand that everyone ages and people often gain weight, but we're talking fairly dramatic differences here (like Cheers-era Kirstie Alley vs. late-model Kirstie Alley). That people physically change is understandable and I have flaws and am not that rigid about how people look. It is the blatant misrepresentations (a lot like lying) that I have trouble accepting. Am I a jerk because I feel this way?
Lovemonkey agrees ("Someone who would send out 15-year-old pictures of someone 25 pounds thinner leads one to think, what else would he/she misrepresent to get the date?"), but doesn't offer specific advice. Alkon says to keep trying, in spite of the misrepresenters: "Just think of them as a price you have to pay for the easy access -- a sort of high technology fee. In the future, assume everyone's lying and be pleasantly surprised when someone isn't. To keep your emotional costs down, try to get women to meet you as soon as possible for a quick drink instead of carrying on at length by phone and e-mail."

Even though I often shake my fist at Amy Alkon's dating advice because it often boils down to "do not ask a guy out if you are a woman because blah blah blah cavemen blah blah thrill of the chase" (tell me, if me-Tarzan-you-Jane dawn-of-man savannah impulses are so powerful, how come I only like willowy, effeminate, beautiful, poor, weak, sickly men?), I've been continually agreeing with her stance on online dating. In a December 29 column, someone wrote in:
I've had some good experiences with online dating, but I just can't get over this feeling that it just isn't natural or sexy.
Amy responded,
...with Internet dating, instead of waiting for that chance meeting, you have increase-your-chances meetings. With a few keystrokes, you can connect with countless people you probably never would've met, and select for the right religious beliefs, smoking habits, and/or weird sex habits instead of spending hours trying to tease the answers out of some guy in a bar.

Where people go wrong is in turning what should actually be called "online meeting" into online dating. The same woman who'd go home with a near stranger she met in a bar will spend weeks e-mailing a guy to assess how good his grammar is before she'll feel safe enough to meet him. She'll tell herself she's vetting the guy, but what she's probably doing is getting attached -- not to the actual guy, but her idea of the guy, and maybe how smart and funny she is when she's talking to him. Investing all this time and emotion makes it somewhat devastating when she finally meets the guy and finds that he looks wrong, talks wrong, dresses wrong, and smells like rotting liver.

So, sure, there are pitfalls in online dating, but it can be a great tool if you use it wisely.
I have been internet dating on and off for a few years now. (Er, this is Lulu, by the way. Ashley has a "real life" boyfriend who is a "knight" and has an "IQ of 209". Whatever.) While I'm possibly a terrible person to give advice on it because it's never gotten me a relationship of more than a few weeks, I would argue that that is simply because I am terrible at dating. The Internet part--from profile to first meeting--I would say I'm pretty decent at. So without further ado, here is my unsolicited advice for online dating!

The Profile

Do: Include one or more clear, recent photos in your profile (or send them with the first message, if you're using a personal ad/message board style site like Craigslist). By "clear" I mean that your face should be plainly visible--no weird close-ups of your eye or artsy black and white shots showing only your lips--and by "recent" I mean "taken within the last year." More recently if you have recently drastically changed your hair or become covered in pustules.

While it's clearly not in your best interest to post an unflattering picture, it's also not in your best interest to try to rope people in with a non-representative photo. Ideally, this person will actually meet you. Not only will they feel lied to, but they will lack the necessary tools to recognize you in a crowd.

Do: Include some basic content in your profile--your main interests, hobbies, and pastimes are good ones. "I will fill this in later" or "if you want to know about me, just ask" do not make good profiles.

Don't: Write a novel. (Yes, I'm aware of the irony: this post is long.) OKCupid, in particular, rewards you for a long profile, but really, people don't have the attention span to read through a list of every movie you've ever seen or a ten-paragraph essay on how complicated you are. It's hard to sum yourself up in a few sentences, but you really don't have to: you just have to provide an icebreaker.

Don't: List what you don't want in a potential mate ("no mind games, no judgmental bitches, no fatties"). It makes you seem negative. (YES YES I AM STILL AWARE OF THE IRONY.)

Sending a First Message

Do: Send out first messages. Don't be shy! The system doesn't work if you're shy. Like the profile, the first message doesn't have to be long, but it should give them something to respond to. "You seem cool" is fine to say, but by itself it's insufficient to start a conversation. (I feel the same way about "woos" or "winks" or whatever. I never respond to them, because I don't know how) Comment on something they mentioned in their profile; ask a question.

Don't: Look at the person's profile and comment on everything everything everything that is there.
Darnell: This is something I have to curb in my own writing of messages. I am easily excited, and tend to defy your don't write a novel rule. I also switch very easily from "writing a hello" to "writing for my own amusement."

Lulu: Same here, really. But it can be confusing to be on the other end, because you start to assume that the fact that they wrote so much to you means they really like you. But they might just like themself!
Don't: Pin all your hopes and dreams on the person responding. You may not receive a response, and that is okay. There are many face-saving reasons why this might be--perhaps the person is extremely popular and can't possibly respond to everything without a personal secretary; perhaps they are no longer interested in online dating because they have an exclusive girlfriend or boyfriend or they've become a monk, but they forgot to update their profile; perhaps they are secretly only interested in a specific physical type, e.g. morbidly obese with tiny tweety bird ankles; perhaps they died. Hopefully.

Receiving a First Message

Don't: Respond if you know you're not interested. I can see the argument against this--it's only polite to respond rather than ignoring somebody, and I will contradict myself later by advising you not to cut off contact without warning or explanation after a few messages. But it seems to be standard practice simply not to respond to first messages if you know you have no interest in following up, such that to do otherwise would just get the person's hopes up.

Do: Respond if you're not sure if you're interested or not. Only time will tell!

Don't: Overanalyze the person's first message. It can be hard to know what to say. Cut them some slack.

Do: Look at the person's profile, and find something there to comment on or respond to in addition to responding to their ice breaker comments or questions.


Do: Sign off messages with your real first name. It's silly to have to think of somebody you're becoming fond of as "xMEGATRONx412".

Don't: Message obsessively, ie. instant messaging or more than two letters per day, in advance of meeting. I agree with Alkon that the goal of online dating should be to meet somebody, not to form a whole relationship through messages. There are so very many ways for things to go off the rails when you meet them (what if you have nothing to talk about in person? what if they look nothing like their photograph, and you are shallow? what if they have the exact mannerisms of your evil ex?) Similarly, don't make plans for the future, other than meeting for coffee.

Do: Arrange a meet-up as soon as possible, for the reasons outline above. When is as soon as possible? Obviously it's silly to propose meeting up in your FIRST message, before you even know if they will respond to you. I can see proposing a meet-up in your response if you are the recipient of the first message, but that feels premature too, and to immediately follow up your own first-contact message with a request to meet feels pushy, too.

Therefore I posit that the sweet spot is when a total of 4-7 messages have been exchanged, or, in other words, when you have received two messages from the other person (whether you started the correspondence or not). One message could be seen as randomness or politeness, but two messages, to me, indicates a certain baseline level of interest.

Do: Explicitly decline a meet-up invitation if you are not interested in meeting up. Unless they've asked you to coffee in their first message like a weirdo, by the time you are asked for a meeting, you're at a point where I think it's impolite and cold to simply not respond. It's not necessary to go into details--"Sorry, I'm not looking to meet up in person, but thanks for the offer" is sufficient.

(Telling them the real reason also has its pros and cons. Letting them know, "I'm put off by your bad grammar" or "I found your racist manifesto on Google" may help them change their ways for a future potential date. But it also gives them room to argue. You're by no means obligated to respond to an argument, but it's probably simpler to just follow the usual Miss Manners advice for turning down an invite (example: vague, but firm.)

Do: When in doubt, agree to the meetup! Isn't that what you're there for?
Darnell: Along the same lines as not assuming you'll want to date them because you found their messages intriguing: even if you didn't find their messages intriguing, maybe they really shine in person!

Basically, if you have nothing better to do, meet them anyways. Worst case scenario they murder you. Realistic worst case scenario, you get to tell your friends a funny story about your terrible date later at the bar. You become the toast of the town due to your humorous anecdotes and take over for Fallon in the late night spot when he is fired due to low ratings that are not Jay Leno's fault.

...This is starting to read like the end of a choose your own adventure book. "If you go on the bad date, flip to page 51."

Lulu: Online dating--dating in general--is kind of like that! You find yourself back on page 5 a lot. Easy come, easy go.

Darnell: And you just cannot figure out how to get to Page 15 where you become a spaceman.

Lulu: Right! You saw that part...

Darnell: Because you cheated. But then you felt bad about cheating.

Lulu: That's exactly what dating is like.

Meeting Up

Dan Savage has a list of tips about meeting people from the Internet (example) and while he usually focuses on meeting for no-strings-attached sex, his advice is good for all kinds of meetings:

Do: Meet for the first time in a public place, such as a coffee shop or bar.

Don't: Meet for the first time for the activity itself (sex, erotic foot massage, starting a relationship...) You shouldn't consider the first meeting a first date. It is just a first meeting. No matter how good the messages were, you really won't know, until you meet them, if you will want to date them or not.

Do: Have somewhere to be afterward. That way, if things go badly, you have an out, and if things go well, you are not tempted to pressure the other person / bow to pressure to make it an actual date.

Do: Let a friend know where you will be and who you will be with.

Do: Counterintuitively, I'm going to advise you to give the other person your real contact information (full name, phone number). It looks and feels skeevy to be given false information. I'd think twice about meeting someone who refused to reveal their real name. Plus, it's just a bad idea to try to meet someone you've never met without having some reliable, instant way to contact them if, say, you're running late or can't find them.

After the Meetup

Don't: Initiate further contact if you're not interested. This is another case I think where quietly disappearing is okay; in best case scenario, the other person also quietly disappears and you're golden. However,

Do: Respond if they initiate further contact. At this point, the person is asking you on a date unless otherwise specified, so respond accordingly. You don't have to give them a whole break-up speech like you've already had a relationship, but you should specifically turn them down if you don't want to go, using the standard methods ("No thanks," "I'm reeeeeally busy," "I just want to be friends", etc.)

Do: Initiate further contact if you're not sure whether you're interested or not. The other person could be in the same boat, and if so, it's better to give it a shot than give up too soon. I AM BAD AT THIS.

If you do go out again, congratulations! You are now on a date with an actual person, and it no longer matters how you met.

And that's it! That's all I know.


  1. As a former on-line dater, YES. I compiled a very similar set of rules for myself, but damn, I wish I had this two years ago.

    Also, it explains much about Darnell that he defines worst case scenario as ending up hosting a major network late night talk show.

  2. Amendments:

    I just realized the oktrends blog sometimes goes into a lot more detail backed up by data, as far as possible (I especially liked "what to say in a first message").

    Also, I think my timeline for when to bring up meeting is actually too quick and feels like jumping the gun to some. 6-9, maybe, might be better than 4-7. Still, my general point stands.