I have taken a poll of my friends, and the results are in: no one who actually knows me finds me intimidating. In fact, it seems I have a reputation for putting people at ease in conversation.
I felt the need to conduct this research this because I have been getting some strange results in online dating world. I wanted a reality-check. I wrote back in January that I’d changed my online profile to be less about likes and dislikes—the usual stuff—and much more a straightforward statement of what I was seeking. In January, I wrote about the first of five qualities I listed there, “Vitality and Chemistry.” Here are the other four (which share profile space with sections on work, music, and so on:
Expansive consciousness. I am seeking a man who is also versatile and fluent, moving easily between realms of feeling and intellect; a man who is grounded in his own perspective, and also willing and able to see from a woman’s perspective. A man who isn’t identified with certainties, but is willing to talk about everything, without defensiveness.
Erotic life. I am seeking a man who is also drawn to and appreciates beauty in other human beings, in the natural world, in music, film, visual art and all creative forms. This isn’t code language for sex, although sex is definitely part of it: a man who is alive in all his senses and revels in the beauty of the world.
Creative mind. I am seeking a man who also loves to play with his brain, who delights in riffing on an idea, in the spontaneity of real dialogue, in the pleasure of making meaning. You won’t like me (and I won’t like you) if you don’t like brainy women and wild and wonderful conversational flights about the meaning of absolutely everything.
Deep awareness. I am seeking a man who is also interested in experiencing the world in all dimensions: physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual. I am drawn to a man who has awareness of his time of life, not as a dwindling down, but as the supremely interesting completion (no rush, mind you) of the lifelong project of making meaning. I am seeking a man who also desires to remain wide awake, engaged, curious and true to himself; one who also wants to see and be seen; love and be loved; move and be moved; meet and be met.
I expected the rewrite to vastly reduce the volume of coffee dates; I also thought the connections would be deeper. I’ve been happy with the results. Indeed, I inactivated my profile for a few months while I dated the first person who responded to my new profile, a delicious interlude, fun but not forever. But when I went back online a couple of months ago, along with some promising responses, I began to receive fairly regular messages that fell into two categories.
The first category is hard to peg: the messages seem to be intended as advice; but they also seem to be responding to a challenge I hadn’t consciously issued in my profile. They say that I am asking the impossible, for example:
extremely well written is your profile … 🙂 … having read it several times I am compelled to ask – have you ever met a man with an abundance of all 5 attributes you describe? ….. because I don’t think that man exists …. altho’ maybe our Pres Obama strikes me as that kind of man … what do you think?
The second category comes from men whose messages I’ve responded to, or who’ve responded to a message from me. When someone wants to connect with me, I’ve learned to first send that person to my Website. It gives a fairly good account of my interests and obsessions; there are videos of me giving talks; and it has had the salubrious effect of preventing awkward encounters with men who find my politics or spiritual life distasteful, for instance. I haven’t done an exact count, but my guesstimate is that half of my correspondents drop away at that point. Perhaps a third of those who do reply, though, are somehow cast down by what they find there, as in these snippets:
I think I’m nowhere near the man you want….
Compared to you, I’ve accomplished very little. I wonder how long I could hold your interest….
It is rather staggering how much you have produced and are still producing….. I am afraid my life seems rather mundane by comparison.
My Website is mostly devoted to my work. And since I am on a lifelong mission to change the world—or at least disturb the peace of complacency—I’ve generated a lot of it. It’s the long lists of talks and publications that trigger these responses, I think. Because as far as I can see, it isn’t anything I’ve said.
You see, online dating sites match people up based on responses to questionnaires and quizzes, any of which might attract or repel prospective partners. You often have an opportunity to specify the professional status, education, and income you desire in partner, and also to offer this information about yourself. I know that some women are guided by these standards, because I’ve heard them say so. But I always leave those parts blank: what I care about are the five things I listed, not outward signs of status or achievement. Neither in my profile nor my Website do I display a preference for position or credentials—or really, elitism of any sort.
Of course, I take my correspondents’ demurrals at face value. I am a fairly confident person (in certain realms, that is: I’m awed by how much I don’t know, but I trust myself to admit and ask questions, which is a kind of confidence too). If it is in a man’s nature to measure himself by others and find himself wanting, it seems wise to take his word for it. But that doesn’t mean I comprehend it fully: your resume is too long; it makes me doubt myself. What’s up with that?
I wonder if this happens to men, too. My perception is that women aren’t put off by a man’s accomplishments, although I suppose the gap can be too wide. (You really have to see William Holden and Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday before you make up your mind.)
One of my friends says it’s basic evolutionary psychology, that some men have to feel more powerful in all realms, not just the physical. Another said it was the legacy of the women’s movement of the 1970s, when politically aware men of my generation (at a formative stage in their own development) often heard that they were no longer necessary, or even that their maleness was intrinsically problematic, inculcating self-doubt.
Another said the phenomenon is particular to my age group. Many mature men on dating sites have been through one (or more) difficult divorces, making them gun-shy. They are looking for ease, and my impassioned productivity doesn’t promise it. The frequency of self-descriptors like “no drama,” “easy-going,” and “laid-back,” and of seekers after a “no-hassle relationship” suggest there may be something to this.
All of those explanations seem a little sad to me. I suppose it’s because they are all defensive, when it seems to me the fun and interest in this enterprise is opening oneself to possibility: trying things on for size rather than rejecting defensively. What I like best about online dating is the freedom I feel, at this point in life, to be real. My prior experience with dating was a long time ago, both in chronological years and in terms of my own identity. It was hard back then for girls and women to entirely escape the desire to be liked that generated some sort of false persona. Nowadays, showing up without a mask is delicious. Even when it leads to the exit-door, it feels good.
But then, I’m not a man, so can’t know how that feels from the other side. Nor does everyone, regardless of gender, share my taste for realness. I tend to see maturity as a process of bringing the person and persona into congruence, dissolving the space between them. But I think some people see it as a process of perfecting the mask.
So I’m not planning to change a thing. Counterintuitive though it may be, I still recommend that online seekers after love give potential suitors enough information to make them decide to pass if they are so inclined. After all, if everyone who shared your love of walks on the beach and Scrabble in the rain were a likely life-partner, who would need dating sites? Real matches are rare. I don’t expect to find one with someone who takes himself out of the game on account of intimidation.
The current issue of The New Yorker has an interesting article on online dating by Nick Paumgarten, who conducted most of his interviews with women, finding them more informative and their desires more complex:
Men want someone who will take care of them, make them look good, and have sex with them—not necessarily in that order. It may be that this is all that women really want, too, but they are better at disguising or obscuring it. They deal in calculus, while men, for the most part, traffic in simple sums.
There is something about the way I’m wired that makes me hate any sentence that starts with “Men want” (or “Women want,” for that matter). Like the dating sites, this sort of generalization turns on statistics. If, say, 60% of the men on a site seem by their responses and behavior to want only these simple things, that number seems to justify a meta-statement scooping up all men. No doubt, the men I’ve met have wanted some or all of the things that Nick Paumgarten lists (I venture that very few people looking for love online don’t want someone to have sex with them). But they’ve wanted dozens of other things too, each with its particular flavors and nuances. Attraction is a mystery. Thank goodness, I say: how colorless the world would be if it could be reduced to an algorithm!
I’ve been listening a lot to Lucinda Williams lately, starting with “Sweet Old World,” a beautiful, heartbreaking song sung to me by a wonderful friend I met online—a friend with whom I feel a depth of connection that seldom arises in either real or virtual worlds. (Most online daters I’ve met have connected with friends as well as lovers, a little lagniappe that comes with the enterprise.) Williams’ “Something About What Happens When We Talk” captures some of the mystery and intensity of the online search for love. I hope you enjoy it.