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I can’t really remember when I created my first profile on a dating website. It’s been a very long time since I was active on any them. What I do remember was how conflicted I was about doing it, and how that made every step of the sign-up process really irritating. When my chosen username kept coming up as already used, and adding digits didn’t seem to help, the result was a username that reflected my irritation. (No, I’m not posting it here.) I told myself I would change the name later, but I forgot. Soon, the first question I received from any women I contacted was about the name. For a time, I entertained the notion of changing it, but I soon realized something. The women I actually connected with found the name humorous. Those who didn’t like the name weren’t going to stick around long anyway. So, if my sarcastic username was a deal-breaker, it was probably just as well that the deal was broken anyway. It was a useful lesson, one that served me well, I think.

Another lesson, I don’t think I really got at the time was just why I found the whole thing so irritating to begin with. Oh, there can be lots of reasons to be nervous about dating sites (or dating in any context), but at least one of them would be this, it’s hard to tell people about yourself. Really hard! Of course, doing so for the purpose of making a personal connection ups the stress level considerably. So, in retrospect I really think a good deal of my discomfort was probably normal. Internet dating begins with a whole bunch of writing, writing about yourself, and that is bound to make people uncomfortable.

It’s been a long time since I’ve scanned the pages of any dating sites, and even longer since I did so for reasons other than idle (possibly morbid) curiosity, but a few of those thoughts that formed in those odd days of trying to find a match are still with me. I could tell a few horror stories. Hell, I’m probably featured in a few horror stories myself! More to the point, I keep reflecting on all those profiles from back in the day. They were an education of sorts. I may or may not have gotten the lesson right, but whatever it’s worth, I thought I’d share a few observations on those profiles.

Note: Just about all of my observations would relate to the early 2000s, which is when I was on these sites. If things on the net-dating scene are now different, well then get off my lawn anyhow! (Age happens.) Hell, I don’t even know if people are still doing this. I think so. Anyway…

First and foremost, it’s hard to escape the notion that most dating profiles aren’t all that accurate. Most seem to see this as a reflection of dishonesty, and I can certainly think of a few women who may have deliberately misrepresented a thing or two on their profiles. Mostly , I think the problem is a bit deeper than that. The vast majority of us (both men and women) aren’t all that sure how to describe ourselves. We may have a notion or two in mind, but these rarely stand up to scrutiny. If someone describes themselves as ‘outgoing’, they probably have a vision of a certain kind of context in which they really will be outgoing. What they don’t think about is the many contexts which will find them sitting in the corner quietly. That’s not even all that much of a problem for most people, not until they meet someone who thinks they are outgoing because they specifically said they were on a profile designed to help you figure out whether or not you want to meet them in the first place. Thus, ordinary human frailty comes to look like outright deception. Now multiply this by countless other descriptive themes and you have plenty of cause for suspicion, frustration, and general noncallbackalation.

The pattern that always stood out for me was pretty simple; time and again, I found that women had not described themselves in their profiles so much as an idealized version of the person they wanted to be. I really don’t know if men do that same thing on these sites (or if we have some completely different and possibly more irritating quirk), but I certainly saw this self-idealization in a good number of the women I met. In particular, I remember someone who had one of the most positive profiles I’d ever read. I’m not normally a sucker for warm and fuzzy sentiments, but I couldn’t help smiling when I read this woman’s profile, and it wasn’t just the ten-year old photo. She really seemed to capture a sense of what it meant to wake-up with hope and carry that hope with her all day. A few weeks after we began making phone calls, I found myself thinking this person complains more than anyone I know. Hell, she complained more than I do! (…and that IS saying something.) She wasn’t the sunny positive person in her own profile. If anything, she was chronically depressed, and probably had been all of her life. None of the positive themes in her profile made it into any of her communications with me. So, had she lied? I don’t think so. I think that bright and happy source of positive energy she put in her profile was what she truly wanted to be. That she wasn’t that happy person was sad, and I found the difference rather jarring, but I could never really hold it against her. Like so many others, she had imagined herself in terms of aspiration.

The gap between our own character and that we hope to have can be a problem, but how much of a problem it is varies. Some people have a constructive relationship with their ideals. It shapes their actions in meaningful ways, and they seem at least to move toward those ideas over the course of their lives. Others have long since relegated their idealized self to a kind of fantasy life. They don’t even hope to achieve that version of themselves, and they cannot even begin to think about what it would take to become a little more of what they would like to be. Here, I’m thinking of a woman who billed herself as a writer in her profile. She was working on her life story. When she shared the first page of that story, it contained more grammatical errors than I could count, to say nothing of poor stylistic choices, vague word choice, and a generally incoherent narrative line. Hell, I make plenty of mistakes in my own writing. So, I try not to cast too many stones. Her response to polite suggestions told me everything I needed to know about her project. She couldn’t even begin to grasp questions about how to tell her story. Spelling and grammar were beneath consideration, and she didn’t get any considerations about stylistic choices. In her mind, that story was so compelling that she didn’t need to worry about the craft of telling it. Anyone who might bother her with such things clearly didn’t get it.

…and I didn’t.

Really.

Yes, the world is full of wanna-be writers (guilty as charged), but this one wasn’t even on the case, so to speak. Her idealized self wasn’t even an ambition. It was an indulgence. Like the depressive woman with a sunny profile, I could hardly blame this lady, though I did think for awhile about what it said about her approach to life. Being a writer for her was about getting away from the daily struggles of life, a chance to imagine herself as someone else for awhile, someone with more to show for all her struggles than she had at that time. To actually take seriously the task of writing her life story would make that too into a struggle. As much as she needed to be writing a book, she needed that writing to be free of hard labor. And thus, the appearance of a lifelong ambition within her profile turned out to be a lot closer to naming her favorite television show. Sometimes profiles are like that; information just shows up in the wrong places under the wrong labels.

One thing that came to jump out at me more and more over time was the number of pointless descriptions that never seemed worth reading. So many lay claim to being open minded, down to earth, and intelligent in these profiles. Almost everyone tells you they have a good sense of humor, even a great one. It gets frustrating to read such things, especially when the rest of the profile contains absolutely no hint of any of these qualities. When you see counter-indications, the whole thing just gets sad.

Somewhere along the line, I recall going through my own profile and taking out any the direct descriptions of my own character. I don’t think I included many of these claims to begin with, but I do remember making a conscious effort to get rid of any that I might have been boring enough to write in the first place. I figured the old writing idiom that you should show people instead of telling them also made a good rule of thumb for dating profiles. If you want someone to know you have a good sense of humor crack a joke. To show that you can appreciate humor, explain what you like about your favorite comedy. Want someone to think you’re intelligent. Tell them what you think about something important to you. As to down to earth and open minded? …I got no suggestion for these cliches, other than simply dropping them. The point, is that people will decide for themselves whether or not you are smart, good looking, humorous, or anything else. It just doesn’t work to tell them these things.  So, just like you put your best picture in a profile in the hopes someone will find you attractive enough to want to chat, I reckon you do the same for character. You put things in the profile to display the character you hope you really do have. Whether or not that works will be a judgement your prospects make for themselves.

…which of course brings us back to the first problem, knowing yourself. It really is the tricky part to these profiles. I don’t say this in order to set up internet dating as a voyage of self-discovery. (Blech!) Really, I think the lesson here is a lot closer to a kind of humility. Most (probably all) of us don’t really know ourselves all that well. This is another reason to be a little restrained about your own self-descriptions. It’s also a reason to be a little compassionate when you discover the difference between the profile and the person you are actually meeting. That difference is going to be there. So, I at least tried not to be too harsh when I noticed it. That probably applies to a few other contexts as well.

***

It should go without saying that none of my comments here should be taken in the spirit of authority. Like many I found internet dating to be a rather frustrating experience (which, I suppose, makes it an awful lot like ‘regular’ dating’). I met a few women this way whose presence in my life was a genuinely positive experience, but the majority of contacts were disappointing to at least one of us. So, these aren’t the pro-tips of a champion internet dater, not by any means. They are just the observations of a rather awkward fellow who happened to do this for awhile.

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A couple random observations:

  • When speaking to women about their profile pics, I found an awful lot of them favored one of their least attractive pictures. If there was a pic that I particularly liked, it was often one she was thinking about deleting. There is probably an interesting lesson in there about self-perception and physical beauty, but I wouldn’t be too quick to suggest it applies to women only. In my case, the pic I liked the best (or hated the least) was the one that almost cost me a few replies. Some pic I hardly thought twice about was usually the one they liked. Guess maybe it’s hard to tell what others really find attractive about yourself.
  • It’s easy enough to see that people may not want to meet too quickly. Lots of reasons to take it easy! In time, I realized that meeting up too late could be an issue as well. Actually, the process of meeting seemed to involve a few stages; a transition to email, another transition to phone conversations, and finally a meeting with perhaps a second and so on. Anyway, I think the transition to phone and then to actually meeting can come too late. The issue here is imagination. You just can read too many messages before imagining all the rest. You fill in your sense of the other person with a voice, a sense of body language, intonation patterns, etc. In the context of dating, this too gets filled with hope. So, if you’re not careful, the person you meet won’t be able to compete with the one you’ve imagined while messaging back and forth. …and of course, visa versa.
  • Kids are fine, but they don’t belong on the first date. …and you will probably regret making an exception. (At least I did.)
  • People often make multiple contacts on dating sites, partly because most contacts come to nothing. If someone stops responding, there is a good chance that they have begun seeing someone in real life. That may sting, but it probably shouldn’t. More to the point, the transition to actual dating is full of hazards. So, if you wait a week or two, there is a good chance that things will have already gone south and she may be free again. She may even be wondering how to re-initiate. Whether or not that is a prospect worth following depends on a lot of variables, but sometimes it’s worth considering.
  • Lots of people put way too much stock in personality tests.
  • Shirt off and/or posing with guns or weights may work on some women, but the ones I met sure did spend a lot of time griping (and laughing) about men with that in their profile.
  • I figured it was always best to meet in public for an event planned to take an hour (lunch, dinner, or drinks work just fine). Optimism regarding a first meeting should take the form of leaving time open afterwards, NOT committing yourself to spend hours together at some event from which neither of you can easily escape.
  • I once said to one date; “I can be nice to anyone for an hour.” The next woman I met put that claim to an awful test. …speaking of self-awareness!
  • I met a couple women who circumvented many of the problems mentioned above by letting someone else write their profiles for them. This might have injected a little more objectivity into the narratives, but in the long run, I don’t think it was helpful, because their descriptions didn’t carry their own voice. I just had to get that much further into an exchange with them before I gained a sense of their approach to things. …which may be an important lesson in itself. People don’t really learn about each other by collecting a set of facts about them; they do it by interacting, by seeing and hearing the other person in action. What you communicate yourself, or what others may say about you, will never be quite as important as how you say it, and that only works if you yourself are willing to be the one saying it.