Friday, January 7, 2011

Online Dating's Biggest Problem? It Piques Our Imaginations and Leaves Us Closed, not Open

  • Definitely a great additional tool in the dating toolbox,
  • Sometimes a crutch to help us limp back into the real world,
  • Too often a soul-crushing distraction from what we really need to do to meet high quality potential new partners. 

OK, now shelve any homo-erotic undercurrents for a moment and try to wrap your head around the example I'm about to share in relation to how online dating sets us up for disappointment.   

Recently I had the opportunity to meet face to face a political analyst (a guy) whose articles I've found consistently interesting for many years and with whom I’d exchanged some article posts/emails on a few subjects.  I admit to having imagined he and I might become close friends exchanging deep thoughts about solving the world’s problems, getting together in far flung locales to debate the nights away over rice whisky and snifters of brandy like intrepid journalists of old.  Turns out the guy is just too dry and geeky for me to make any kind of friendship connection with.  

I suspect he’d remember me if we ran into each other again, but there was no profound connection outside of opinions we tend to agree upon.  I went into the meeting thinking I was open, but realized I had already made many assumptions about what his personality would be like (i.e. that he was a lot like me!).  My preconceptions about how I believed he'd be prevented me from warming up to the way he actually was.  Such is the mystery of human interactions: what we imagine to be a connection through a one-way medium doesn't equate to any real interpersonal compatibility when we finally get face to face.

I was out on a 'coffee date' last night with a woman who's about to turn 38 (though I doubt anyone would put her a day over 28).  She was clever, well spoken/written, attractive and petite, had read my blog extensively and enthused over our shared points of view.  She'd even invited me to a potential second date in advance!  In response to one of my posts about the unrealistically high expectations that we generate in preparing for a coffee date, she'd written: 
"Errrrrgh.  it's impossible not to feel excitement, misgivings, hope, uncertainty, expectations, all of that when scheming to meet someone live, in person, that you've created, in your head, into this being made up of photos, writings, links, and such.  I know what you're saying....but curiosity has been piqued!"
Indeed.  That same thing never happens when going out to a bar, or wedding, or other social event, nor even to the same extent with blind dates set up by friends without the benefit of photos, phone calls or emails exchanged in advance.  In all of the latter cases we walk in with low/no expectations and anything that transpires romantically is a pleasant surprise.  Online dating sets us all up for disappointments that spontaneous meetings never do because of one simple difference: we're walking in 'closed', not 'open', with pre-conceived (conjured) notions about the potential mate versus none at all.

My date and I commiserated over my "funnel" even as we experienced the same familiar let-down (double-click to enlarge):

And there's the rub.  Online dating, to her point, piques the imagination.  Having been provoked, our imaginations kick in and unconsciously start constructing Cinderella (or her Prince) without us actually asking our brains to do so.  

Some have and will argue that this is not big deal, so what if we have to go through a bunch of disappointing coffee dates before meeting someone with whom we are very compatible?  MY point continues to be that it's not the ones we DO meet through online dating that are the tragedy, it's the ones we say no to based upon a shadow in a photo, or a poorly constructed turn of phrase, or the perception that they are too this, or too that.  It's my contention that of every 10 people who we 'click delete', if we met all of them at a work function we'd have gotten as far as date #3 with one or two of them.

By raising our expectations -- reinforcing our heartfelt conviction -- that each of us is going to be perceptive enough to instinctively and analytically weed out the duds from the hopefuls based upon photos and self-written descriptions, online dating leads us to discount many of the people with whom we'd connect deeply if we met them face to face, while wasting a GREAT deal of precious energy and time on analysing and interacting with people who, upon finally meeting them, we know almost immediately that we'd never have invested our time in had we seen them in person upfront. 

(As I've pointed out before, all on its own, eHarmony's advertising does more damage in terms of creating unrealistic expectations of online dating than ANYthing else.  As anyone who has tried it will tell you, the women on eHarmony are more critical of any guy who does not immediately match their fantastical imaginings of "The One" than the very same women are on any other dating site.  Too weird!  And there are 3-4 women to every man on the site, so the actual male pool is small -- there simply aren't 'plenty of fish'!)

Again, the simple difference is that, having learned a bit about the other person and having seen some photos, our social, story-telling, human nature leads us to start filling in details about them, and of course the 'filling' is in our words, not theirs!  We finally meet them with closed, not open minds.  

The biggest problem in all relationships, especially those we have under 40 (before we realize life is short, we're no longer 'hot' and that compromise is the key to solid relationships), is projection: we imagine our partners the way we want them to be, then get very angry with them when they act the way they are, rather than the way we want them to be.  Online dating feeds into the 'projection problem' (eHarmony being the worst), actually beginning the projection process before we've even met the person!

What we need, in the next generation of Internet dating tools, is a combination of real-life social clubs and online profiles to share.  If you mix in video dating (yet to be invented, but Apple's "Facetime" might lead to it), we might have a combination that actually works with minimal disappointment and maximum efficiency.  (Yes, "efficiency"!  Not a very romantic word, but wouldn't it be great to find new, truly compatible partners quickly and with minimum time wasted?  That day is coming....)

Good luck in your online searching, but rinse out that wine glass, shut down your computer and make an effort to get out there in the real world, folks.  It's out there where you'll immediately recognize and weed out the potential winning matches from the losers. 
You simply cannot do so via a one-way, two-dimensional, online medium, even though our hopeful, story-telling, social minds imbue it magically with 3, if not 4, imaginary dimensions!


  1. You just need to go in with the same low expectations you'd have with a blind date. As for those blind dates, don't knock them. I met my husband on one.

    1. Ah, were that only possible, Joyce (although it is what I tell myself going into each 'coffee date')! I think there's a fundamental difference in our complex human psyche between a real blind date that has been set up by a third party and an online 'coffee date' in terms of our ingoing expectations. A blind date is generally set up by a mutual friend or colleague who knows both of the individuals' predilections and what appeals to them and is trusted by both parties, hence one is starting with a 'leg up'. One enters the 'blind date' with few to no preconceived notions about whether the other person will 'light up' your 'visual appeal centers' once you see them for the first time. Even if they do not, you are open to chatting with them because of the obligation you feel to the mutual friend, and the trust you have in them.

      The problem with online dating is that you have been handed an 'information sheet' in advance that contains a raft of info you might not actually learn until date #3 or 6 in real-life, and it contains information that can shut you down before date #1, like 'I'm a comic book fan', or 'I have 5 cats". It is far from 'blind' as you have had an 'age box' shoved in your face that you NEVER get in real life, and you've seen some visually misleading photos that may or may not accurately portray the way the other individual really looks when they are moving around in real life.

      Net-net, those very subtle differences shut down the possibility of going on a first date about 90% of the time. In real life I can get younger, very attractive, slim women to date me, online it virtually NEVER happens due to the age box, the thumbnail photos and the lack of a trusted third party endorsing me. ;)



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