Jackie had recovered from the dissolution of her marriage and wanted to meet someone new. This was years ago, when lonely souls turned to personal ads to find a date. Unlike today’s online dating sites, the print personals were always considered a bit sketchy.
So when Jackie started gushing about a guy from the personals she’d been talking with on the phone, I was skeptical.
“Don’t reveal too much,” I said. “You have no idea who this guy really is, and he has your phone number.”
But they had so much in common! They shared intimacies for hours on end—of course she knew him! Anyhow, she was going to meet him; they’d made a date for dinner.
“Ugh,” she said afterward. “The restaurant was seedy and he was greasy and obese—a total loser.”
Just thinking about it makes me want to take a shower. She’d told this guy everything about herself, divulging more than she ever would at first meeting. The best she could hope for was that he’d forget it all…including her number.
I’ve told Jackie’s story many times as a cautionary tale: don’t become intimate electronically. Meet in person before you decide you know—and like—someone.
I’ve tried to adhere to my own advice, although I can’t say I haven’t experienced the type of disappointment Jackie did. Perhaps because I’m a visual person as well as a writer, I can’t help but flesh out a guy in my mind based on his photo and e-mails. Using those building blocks, I’m apt to create a picture of someone clever, interesting, and attractive. Who wants to envision their date as less appealing than they really are?
The prospects don’t like to think of themselves as unappealing either. Take Dan, who I met last year on Match. Though I tried not to chat too much with him, I found his e-mails zingy, and we had a great rapport. In his photo he seemed good-looking, with a devilish charm. His listed height was 5′ 11″, and I like a tall man.
With each e-mail he sent, I built him up a little more. I knew I had to press the live date before my imagination ran too wild. Even knowing the perils of e-mail, though, I was certain I was going to like him.
Certainty made a speedy turn to doubt once I saw him. It’s not that he was unattractive; he just wasn’t the guy in the picture, which was at least five years old. Beyond that, the photo captured an expression so unlike him it was hard to believe it was even the same person. The scamp I imagined was replaced with a presence more like a cab driver’s. He wasn’t 5′ 11″ either. (Men can’t seem to resist giving themselves an extra inch or two, can they?)
Even so, I went on a second date with him to see if the witty personality would emerge (he was clever enough to bring me to an Elvis Costello concert, after all—did I mention Elvis is my favorite?), but halfway through the night I realized I was rolling my eyes at his attempts at humor. Plus, he kept quoting from Legends of the Fall—which is to film as Hollywood Wives is to literature—even after I told him I thought the movie pretentious swill. At the end of the night, he made a clumsy pass, and no third date.
I kept this experience in mind as I got to know Mr. S. We started e-mailing for business reasons, not romance, and weren’t quite strangers because we had friends in common. After a couple months of passing notes, I found myself relying on him for support, friendship, and male attention. I knew we had to meet once the conversation seemed to want to get more personal.
When we did meet, I didn’t find Mr. S to be at all like his electronic persona. The difference was hard to reconcile, though as a writer I should understand how different the writing self can be from the speaking self.
After that somewhat flat first encounter, our e-friendship continued to flourish. So we arranged more meetings in human form, and I soon found that, though different, the flesh-and-blood version appealed as well.
Had we become too intimate on e-mail before we met, the disconnect between the e-person and in-person would have seemed greater, and I suspect the friendship would have crashed and burned. So yes, I did get to know my boyfriend through e-mail, but I submit that the lesson still holds: don’t confuse a virtual guy with the real thing.