That Certain Something: Looking for love online

(published Herald Sun 15/5/10)

But he wrote so well! We liked the same music, the same kinds of books, the same films, his job was interesting enough, he was left of centre, and in his photo he looked boyish and charming. On-line, he looked perfect. But across from me, enjoying a beer, seemed to be an entirely different man. He was somehow wrong in a way I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It’s not that he had facial moles with hair growing out of them, or that he smells, or grunts, or is wearing socks pulled up to his knees with sandals, it’s just that he is just not it. Welcome to the tricky world of Internet dating, where just like in Alice in Wonderland, what appears to be, just isn’t at all.

Finding love in the modern world seems to me to be harder than ever, but for many of us, love is still what makes the world go around. The divorce statistics might declare that love keeps ending, but they don’t reflect how many of us keep leaping off the start line, hearts in hands. My mother and father jumped into marriage young, as many did in the 1950s, and they have made it last. My mother was at a dance, in Nelson, chaperoned by an older female friend, when she met my father. He lived in Christchurch and she lived in Timaru. He would drive down and take her out, but there was never an assumption that he would be able to stay, let alone sleep in the same bed as her. Old fashioned courtship, old fashioned marriage, and not one that I necessarily want. But it seems that the rules of courtship were known by all, and stuck to by the great majority. These rules seem to encompass respect, patience and a little bit of fortitude (needed by Peter and Mary when an elderly aunt switched the outside light on when they took too long saying goodbye). But there’s no use getting all nostalgic. The world has changed irrevocably, much of it for the better, and so has dating.

RSVP is a huge and hugely successful on-line dating site for singles. There are other sites on-line, but this is the one I have personal experience with. I have been active on RSVP three separate times and have always found interesting men, and many of my friends have also joined. Between us, we have notched up hours of kisses, emails, phone calls, dates and relationships, all begun at RSVP, so with all that experience on board, I thought I might cobble together a set of guidelines to help you through the maze.

But firstly, why on-line dating? Because it feels better to make the effort, and you might meet someone fantastic. Look at it this way. You’re in a job you hate. What do you do? You get the paper and you go on-line, and you check out the jobs available. Yeah, sure, I also know about women in their forties who have met single men in their forties at parties and Bob’s your uncle. But it hasn’t happened to me for years, and for most of us, as we age our social circles contract. Friends (possible lovers) get married, have children, and settle down. We all get busier; work, hobbies, fitness, all these things take up our time. Only the most outrageously social amongst us continue to party like it’s 1999. The rest of us nurture our small circle of friends and wonder why, on Saturday night, we’re out with our girlfriends, or home alone on the couch yet again. Put it this way – you go gold panning, are you going to find some black sand, or pan in clay? RSVP is where many of the single men and women are gathered, all together. It’s the black sand of dating, and there is gold in that sand, you just have to persevere. I should know.

So, some do’s and don’ts for those considering venturing into this for the first time (and to amuse those of you lucky enough to have a sweetheart all of your own).

Monsters, losers and perverts

A friend of mine once told me that she thinks RSVP is for losers. I know it’s horses for courses, but I’d rather be out there trying to succeed than waiting home alone. Through RSVP I have met a comedy writer, a solicitor, a barrister, a graphic artist, a web content producer and an architect, all single and looking for love. A friend of mine met a helicopter pilot, a man who brought trains for Connex and an African academic. There are doctors and creative people, teachers and mechanics, of all ages. We are just ordinary people who believe that happiness is not something you wait around for, but something you actively seek. If you’re still not convinced, check out the site. There are a number of inspiring success stories on it from people who have met their love match, as I have.

Write with your heart

The great thing about RSVP is that you have to belong to play. This means you have to post up your profile under an anonymous name, and sweat over every little word, before you get to play in the single’s sandpit. The site helps you a great deal, with prompts where you can list favourite films, music, books, and other useful categories. Men, don’t skip these, women love all that detail, and they help us see if there is any possible connection. After all, someone who lives and breathes death metal might not be a great match for a dyed in the wool Celine Dion fan! However, when considering OPLs (other people’s lists), don’t worry about the odd slip in taste. We all make them. What can I say? I have a Neil Diamond CD.

My girlfriends seem to like the profiles that were chatty in tone. If you have a sense of humour, show it. Try not to skite, even if you are incredible. Self-deprecation is a wonderful attribute, and very attractive. Think about activities you like to do, which your prospective partner could readily join you in. Really think about what you like, the particulars of it. Walks on the beach and a glass of red in front of the fire just do not cut the mustard. What kind of beach? What kind of red? What kind of fire… you get the idea. And do you really like doing this every weekend? Or are you happier fishing off the end of the pier? Tell it like it is. I struggled with my ‘name’ and finally came up with ‘ecrire’, the French word for writing. I know, it’s not great, but it seemed to do the job. Remember this is your storefront; it’s where people make the first evaluation of whether they might like to approach you. They will mull over your words. But they will also stare at your photo.

Put those breasts away: photo etiquette

You can opt to have a profile with no photo but I don’t recommend it. It makes you look like you’ve got something to hide, like two heads. But do choose carefully. Photos are very revealing of character, sometimes more so than the subject intended. Men posing in expensive cars suggest their worth is their net worth. Breasts spilling out of tops are distracting, and send a sexual message. Some people are on the site just for a bit of sex (RSVP does do it’s best to weed these people out) but if you are one of the majority who wants a relationship, practice restraint. Once I saw a photo of a woman reclining – I kid you not – over an expensive car in her evening dress. Classy. Make sure we can see you – a distant figure in a paddock is going to be hard to find in a café. Don’t pick a pic with your ex-girlfriend or wife in it. It looks like you are lazy – couldn’t be bothered finding another photo – or not over her yet. Photos at parties are also a bad look, unless you are 22. Heroic top of Everest type of photos are off-putting, unless you want someone who is as much a nut about your hobby as you are. Get your friends to help you pick. You want to look like yourself, but also approachable. Break out that smile!

Keep it honest

Everyone I have talked to about RSVP is surprised by all the lying. This is really the major difference between the old fashioned meet at a dance/party/pub kind of date, and on-line dating. When you meet someone in the flesh, there they are, warts and all. They may be having a good hair day, or be in the slim part of an enormous roller-coaster diet cycle, but odds are what you see is what you get. I don’t know why so many men and women on RSVP not only lie about their age, they put up misleading pictures of themselves. They dig one up from years ago, or digitally enhance their waistline/boobline/hairline. What, you think once your date meets you, even though you look completely different, you will win them over with your sparkling personality? Actually, no. They will feel ripped off and mad. Tell the truth and show the truth and trust that someone will like you for just who you are. After all, isn’t that what we all want?

Cut to the chase: meet sooner rather than later

The way RSVP works is logical, but in a way flawed. First you search in your city, under the criteria you choose, for someone you might like the look of. When you find a likely sort, you can either send them a ‘kiss’ (free) or email them (which you have buy ‘stamps’ for). A kiss lets them know you think they look good. They can then click through to your site and either laugh aloud, reply to your kiss, or email you. So it’s a little game of flirting, and a way of slowly getting to know each other.

In my first RSVP session, a number of years ago, I was so flattered by any ‘kiss’ that I would strike up a long and involved email conversation with them all. I was like a kid let loose in a sweet shop. I even met one man for coffee because he kept insisting that I wasn’t ‘real’, but an RSVP mole or some such thing. In my later sessions I got more discerning. Partly because I had narrowed down what I was looking for. And I had also worked out lesson number one; meet them sooner rather than later.

I know this is scary. Many of you have been in a long-term relationship, and the thought of going on date sends you into a cold sweat. Try and think of it as meeting a new friend. Keep your expectations in check, but be ready for a surprise. Because the person you meet will not be the person you have conjured up through their profile, emails and telephone conversations. The emails may have been charming, the phone call brilliant, the texts perfect, but please, don’t book the wedding venue yet. Because this is the weak spot of on-line dating – you really don’t know anything until you meet face to face. It’s what matters. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s smell, it’s certainly attraction, it’s that certain something, and you won’t know if it’s there until you meet. For me, it was sometimes ridiculous things that spelt an end to the whole thing, such as a hideous jumper. For a friend of mine, it’s voice. She’s a sucker for a beautiful deep voice, so the squeaky man on the phone didn’t even get to coffee! So be brave, make that coffee date sooner rather than later. The longer you leave your fantasy to build, the more expectation there will be when you meet.

Eyes, ears and hearts open

Notice I said ‘coffee’ date. Not ‘meet in a bar at seven with dinner afterwards’ date. I learnt this one the hard way too. You know that story about it being so bad you would gnaw your arm off to escape? Picture this. It’s eight o’clock, and I’m at a restaurant with an advertising executive who has an ego as large as a house, and I’m stuck unless I can think up some fantastic excuse. Or I could just set off the fire sprinklers and bolt. Let’s face it, more than one hour of conversation with someone you are not attracted to is painful, and it requires alcohol. Trouble is, alcohol numbs all your senses, and you need those, on a first date with a stranger. My mother worried that I was going to meet an axe murderer. I never did meet one, but I felt safer and more relaxed when I switched evening dates to a coffee first up. Then you can comfortably part ways after an hour, and consider whether or not you want to go there again.

But how do you know that? Someone I know looked for ‘signs’ that he and his prospective partner were meant to be. When he met one woman, they worked out that as children they had lived opposite each other! Now if that wasn’t a sign, what was? Unfortunately that story does not have a happy ending. I have made mistakes myself, not listened to that little inner voice. Sometimes it takes a few dates before you realise your heart just isn’t in it. For me, it’s like running your hand down a piece of wood. It should be smooth and easy, but when there are knots and snags and bumps (in the conversation) take these as a warning. Like my friend who went on a date with a woman who wanted a glass of water then sent him back for another when it had ice in it, made them change seats, and controlled the conversation. Someone might like this kind of behaviour, but it wasn’t for him.

Keep your knickers on

This advice is for women. I think it’s generally a good idea not to shag on the first date. Or the second and even the third. Again, this is just personal, but it was always helpful for me to sort out some of my feelings about the person before introducing sex, because, for us, that just complicates things even further.

Be firm but polite – a string along is no fun for either of you

After three different times on RSVP, I have gotten very good at being polite but firm about meeting again. Again, for us women, I think it’s hard to say to someone face to face that you don’t want to meet them again, but it’s not so hard to send a polite text or email. A woman I know, who recently met a lovely man, sometimes felt treated like a disposable commodity. She said that if she didn’t answer her email or text quickly enough, she got dropped. So men, be patient. We may be nervous and trying to sort through our own complicated feelings about dating. But for all of us, it’s good karma to try and treat everyone with the respect you would like to be treated. And if someone is rude to you, consider yourself lucky you found that out now, and not a year into a relationship when you’ve just moved in!

Keep the faith (and your sense of humour)

I have found someone wonderful on RSVP, as have friends of mine. But another friend, a very sensitive man, could not stand the expectation and resulting disappointment, so it’s not for him. I think you have to try and treat it in a light-hearted way, because there is inevitable disappointment. And you do make yourself vulnerable. My girlfriend, a veteran, says ‘RSVP is not for the faint hearted.’ Keep your expectations realistic. I used to set myself a goal of 5 dates, and then have a break. Time away helps you get back your confidence and spark. Also, be discerning about whom you meet – a near miss is more encouraging than a total misfit. But understand it is a numbers game, it may take a while. In the meanwhile, be encouraged that you are giving it a try, and know there are a lot of people out there just like you. Be brave, take the plunge, and I wish you good luck!