A few springs ago, some friends sat me down on their couch, ordered peanut noodles from our favorite Chinese restaurant, and co-opted the online dating profile that I had unceremoniously activated earlier that week. While I slurped dumplings, they methodically scrolled through all of the potential matches in the Tri-State Area, and wrote a list of usernames on the back of an envelope. We came up with ten people that looked intriguing or cute or exciting, people that I’d be interested in learning a little more about, and I agreed to email one a week. That’s it. No expectations, no Olympics of online dating, just an envelope that I shoved on my fridge later that night in between embarrassing clippings from my college newspaper and photo strips.
A friend once said woefully, “Dating feels like paying to interview for a job you aren’t even sure you want.” Okay, that can be true. But if you want to be in a relationship, you’re going to have to suck it up and get down to the business of finding someone you like enough to date. And online dating is an excellent way to do that, because chances are a hunky feminist is not actually going to show up at your door (unless you are seriously lucky, I suppose). Over half the people in my extended community, from cousins to best friends, have met serious partners online (with the exception of one notable couple who met over a plate of Munchkins at a lesbian speed dating event at the LGBT Center—come on that’s amazing).
Now, I realize that as a wedding and marriage website, APWers probably aren’t firing up their online dating profiles (unless you’ve negotiated some great open relationship rules, and I officially nominate YOU to write that post). But when I finished putting together this list of suggestions for acing online dating, I realized that I live by most of these mantras anyway in order to stay simultaneously grounded and open to taking the risks that seem like they’ll pay off. So here are my suggestions, ready to email to your sister or best friend, on how to dip a toe into the world of internet dating:
1. Change your attitude.
You’re online dating. Period, hard return. That’s it, that’s all! You’re neither desperate nor undatable. While you may feel like you are turning to online dating because you’ve dated everyone in Brooklyn, reframe your thinking. What you are, actually, is creative, curious, and a little tired of trying to meet people in bars because you go to bed early/are sober/can never hear in bars/all your friends are paired off and don’t go out anymore. By throwing a profile up online, all you’re doing is expanding your social circles. Not everyone who online dates is super extroverted and could talk to a wall; in fact, lots of them are as quiet as you and find the idea of sitting down with a total stranger as nerve-wracking as you do. But everyone was a stranger once, right?
2. Calm down, and don’t get carried away.
If you give good email, oh wow, can you woo me into taking off my pants without even thinking much about it. That’s why, after re-learning for the 39584th time that an entire future can be built via written prose before ever seeing words come out of each other’s mouths, I shut it down until I’ve met potential suitors in person. It’s not that I’m not hopeful and excited about you. I just prefer my online dating emails to stay on the succinct, mostly business side of things, so we can get to the good stuff and see if we have any chemistry, rather than sending each other tomes that hint at meaning behind every vulnerable yet confident sentence. Here, from the annals of my now-dormant online dating profile, are two real life succinct business-y examples:
You appear to like bourbon as much as I do. Have you tried Hudson Baby Bourbon, which is like a cool sip of spring water? Let me know if you want to meet up for one sometime.
Anyone who describes themselves as pretty much awesome and interested in seeing the hidden corners of Brooklyn is probably someone I should know. Sounds like you’re new in town, let me know if you’ve been to the Brooklyn Farmacy and if you want to try their pretzel straws.
(Um, re-reading those makes me want to date myself a tiny bit.)
Also! Please don’t g-chat me before we’ve met just because we’ve popped up in each other’s chat listing. That makes me uncomfortable and I have to immediately lie about a meeting and then block you. How inauspicious for our future!
3. Stay busy.*
I am, actually, one of those super-extroverts who can talk to a wall, but even I run out of things to say when it’s just you, me, and a three-course artisanal dinner. That’s when you and I are going to start having uncomfortable pauses and then circling around to talking about our cats, or worse, one of us is going to hit the zone of no return and over-share about our ex. So instead of staring at each other across a table, try activity dates instead of meals. And they don’t have to be a twofer for the Manhattan Trapeze School, either. A tour of Brooklyn Flea, a walk on the High Line, the Barge Museum, taking the East River Ferry to Brooklyn Bridge Park for an ice cream cone; all of these activities are mostly free, and it’s easier to talk about a shared experience, and bonus, I will enjoy them even if there’s no spark between us.
*I broke this rule almost immediately when I met K, because we met up for a drink and then there was a huge rainstorm so we were technically stuck at the restaurant until the rain passed, also because I wanted to kiss her on the mouth. So, there you go.
4. Your profile matters, but not that much.
This one is tricky, I think. Isn’t there some statistic that college admissions counselors spend something like two minutes on college applications? That means that everyone is spending .42 seconds on each other’s online profiles. So don’t get overly serious and pour yourself into your online profile to strike the perfect balance of quirky versus confident. Since it is the first thing potential daters see about you, just aim for authentic. Make an effort to show your real self. There’s a section on OK Cupid that asks what you think people notice about you right off the bat. After seeing dozens of profiles that detailed, “my eyes, which are like limpid pools,” I finally put down that I have a lot of plans. Yup, now and forever, that’s probably the first thing people notice about me. And it will either exhaust or excite you, so better that you know upfront that I have a lot of plans, ranging from dinner parties to decoupage to visiting the fjords of Newfoundland.
No matter what you decide to write, though, the business of writing about yourself in a public forum is an important, useful skill. What is your public personality? What do you notice that you’re putting out there, and what are you holding back? I think the stuff that people feel nervous about sharing makes for the best profiles.
5. Just because they’re the first doesn’t mean they’re the one.
Just because someone writes to you, or writes you back, or also wants to have children, or also likes cats and feminism and Pedro Almodovar, which after conducting a scientific study I believe at least eighty percent of online daters do, does not mean you should get seriously involved. I know this sounds obvious, but you may feel overwhelmed from all the possibilities you’re seeing. Or you may feel like you’ve hit upon someone who could be a good but not great lid for your pot. Or you may have found someone who is super into you. So why not stop here? No. Don’t do it. Don’t settle! Don’t stop until you find someone you’re really jazzed about. It’s okay to be picky, and you should not feel badly or obligated to continue corresponding with someone who’s not a match for you. If you realize someone’s not a match for you, be honest and kind so you can feel good if you bump into this person on the street: you’ve enjoyed your time together, you like them, and you do not see a romantic future.
For me, the key to all of this, to tackling any of the scary stuff, actually, is taking seemingly infinitesimal steps while not getting down about any perceived lack of progress, and staying grounded in realistic optimism. So that list of potential dates that my friends and I put together stayed on my fridge for a long time while I slowly followed through on my commitment to email them. Some never wrote back, I had fun first dates and not-so-good second dates with some of them, and then who do you think popped up as number seven? K, a recent transplant from New Orleans to Brooklyn who was not yet thirty (breaking my rule of not dating down), liked dogs (I am scared of dogs), and baked-in-shell eggs and had just finished conducting a personal historical study of Genghis Khan. Uh, weird. As it turned out, that was a pretty damn good risk to take.
Photo by APW Sponsor Gabriel Harber Photography