On Anti-Incendiary Devices (Or: The Dating App Tinder Sparks Nothing But a Lengthy Blog Post)

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So because January lasted forever, and the dark and cold of winter seem never-ending and tedious, I decided to try online dating again.

I know.

I figured this time around, I’d try multiple sites, with the resolution to avoid the ones that require elaborate questionnaires and profiles and epic epistolary exchanges before you can even get decently stood up in a ghastly bar somewhere in the Financial District. Because I actually enjoy writing, and because I have just a smidgen of obsessive-compulsiveness, I find that all the apparatus of those more complex sites just makes me crazy—I end up writing and revising profiles and messages in my head, perseverating exhaustively over what I’d like to say, then scratching it out to say what I’m supposed to say to game the system in my favor (because finding your happily-ever-after soul-mate should obviously start with the bloodless strategizing of a high-stakes card game, or the amoral spin and manipulation of an adulterous politician’s come-back campaign). I figured this time around, I’d keep things simple.

So I started with the  most profile-free “dating” app of them all,Tinder. In this case, I’m using “dating” in a very loose sense of the word (and “loose” however you want). Tinder is a descendant of Grindr, an app made popular among gay men for facilitating dates and hookups; Tinder (as you can tell by the inclusion of the “e”) is supposed to be for everyone, I guess, and the company insists that its primary function is not to arrange casual sexual encounters, but rather to find fun new dates, or even true love. That latter option seems really unlikely, and I’m not all that optimistic about the middle one either.

If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of trying the app for yourself, this is how Tinder works—you’re out drinking Bloody Marys over brunch, and someone checks their Tinder account and passes their phone around so you can vet their matches and exclaim over the occasional, stupidly-explicit messages and photos they’ve been sent by people with very, very questionable judgment. Then your friends peer-pressure you into joining, and sending a flirtatious message to the complete stranger whose photo is captioned with “lifes to short lol” but who seems to own a very nice boat and an adorable chocolate lab. Complete Stranger then promptly messages you back to invite you to his house 20 miles up the coast for a live, in-person viewing of his most prized possession, the grotesquely-foreshortened private parts he’s depicted in the accompanying photo, which you’re now passing around a table to all of your gleefully-horrified friends.

And then I have no idea what you’re supposed to do with the thing (I mean the app, obviously…). You “play” Tinder by liking or dismissing the photos people post, then if they also “like” you on the basis of your photos, the app declares you a match, and you can then message one another. But to do what, exactly…? I’ve heard of friends of friends who met on Tinder (whole long months ago) and have been happy ever since. But how people are supposed to negotiate an initial date, never mind actually establishing relationships, through this medium is beyond me. You have the option of adding a bit (500 characters) of information about yourself, but most people don’t bother. I’ve been matched with several men and I have nothing in particular to say to them, nor they to me. Sure, I could lead off with, “great photo” or “love the boat” or “what a cute dog!” and add a 😉 —but I can’t believe that my soul mate is the man on the other end of such complete banality. Plus, I’ve tried it, and it goes nowhere: “hey, how’s your day going?” “Great thanks, and yours?” “Fine thank you. Looks like more snow today! ;-)” and, having had vastly more scintillating conversation with the receptionist at the dentist’s office, that’s as far as we get.

Besides, from what I understand, most of the people on the site are just there to get lucky. To which I say: define luck.

I must not appear to be very wanton in my (completely clothed) photos because I haven’t yet been overtly propositioned, as some of my friends have been. This is like being the girl the construction workers don’t make catcalls at. Should I feel relieved, or overlooked? How should my more proposition-worthy friends feel?

To be clear, if a person wants simply to hook up, there’s anything at all wrong with that. Like I said, January was really long, and there’s only so much gratification to be had from shoveling out your car. But call me old-fashioned: wouldn’t it be better to go to a bar and let your friends peer-pressure you into picking up someone there, where you can assess their looks and personality and general hygiene in person while your friends surreptitiously take a photo they can use in any subsequent police reports? Obviously, you still don’t really know what you’re getting into, but one of the many problems with initiating any kind of…connection with someone on Tinder is that you have no way of knowing if the person’s face, body, or selected parts even belong to them, until you see the whole ensemble in the, um, flesh—if that’s what you might even be inclined to agree to.

But who would be so inclined? Even if you were after a hookup, for the sake of safety and aesthetic choice, you’d meet your candidate somewhere neutral first, surely. Apparently, it’s very common for men to follow up an initial match on Tinder (and other dating sites) by sending women photos of themselves—often headless, because their face, identity, or humanity are apparently not important to us?—with the focus on what they have to offer you. Except for two things: 1) the photos are, shall we say, static. A picture of a sledgehammer, or a bicycle pump, or whatever tool you want for this analogy, is not proof that the sender knows how to wield the thing; it’s not even proof of ownership. 2) Who, upon receipt of such photos and accompanying suggestions for service, declares, “Rightee-o,” promptly drops her knitting, says goodbye to her cat, and heads out into the night? Because someone must have done, once, in legend, to have established the idea amongst a certain class of man that this could happen again if they’re just persistent enough.

Again (and I’m trying not to take this personally), I have to base these observations mostly on friends’ Tinder experiences, as I’ve yet to get past the third-grade postcard stage (hi, how are you? I am fine) of messaging. From their photos, my matches all look decent—relatively handsome and fit, out hiking and skiing with their chocolate labs—but there’s no way for me to get any sense of their compatibility, including shared motives. And these so-called, alleged matches, are the ones who made the cut—I’d estimate my “acceptance” rate at less than 10%. In lots of cases, I’ve dismissed a man because he clearly doesn’t fit my physical preferences—someone who’s quite possibly wonderful, but who I’ll probably never know because the app gives me no choice but to make the kind of snap, superficial, selfish judgements that I like to think I would resist if I met someone in real-life.

For many of these dismissals, though, I’ve just got to blame the man (of course, women are doubtless doing all sorts of awful things on dating apps, but I’ve only got so much free time to work with here).

In a Jane Austen novel, the man worthy of the heroine’s attention would be very conscious of how his person and address would interest the regard of others, whose favour he desired; he would be sensible of his position and reputation in the world, and would be mortified at the prospect of endangering that through misrepresenting himself, or through making his audience experience the briefest moment of discomfort or mortification for him.

As I’m reminded often throughout the day, we are not living in a Jane Austen novel. 

Online dating—like just about everything social that people do—is what we call a rhetorical situation, where one person shapes their communicative strategy to elicit a particular response from their audience. Successful rhetorical strategy requires the sender to be capable of understanding his own communicative needs as well as those of his audience. As I’ve suggested in a previous post—one dysfunctional response to this rhetorical situation is to fret anxiously over what others might (but probably aren’t) thinking about you all the time—a terrible constraint to live under. Excessive self-consciousness is self-imposed unkindness, a self-absorption that makes it harder to appreciate ourselves for ourselves, and consequently, to connect with others. But the opposite dysfunctional response, and what I see everywhere in online dating, happens when people aren’t conscious enough about what they’re doing. In their construction of an online persona—the photos they post, the messages they send—what they communicate most effectively is that, while they might care a great deal about what their audience thinks about them, they can’t, or won’t—they just don’t—understand either what they’re saying about themselves, or how it’s being received on the other end.

Guys, here’s what I see:

Many of you have no photo at all, or just cartoon images, or blurry, grainy shots that seem obviously scanned from 15-year old photo albums. If you have more than one photo of yourself, at least one will show you holding a can, cup, or bottle of beer. Many other guys will have photos where someone else has obviously been cropped out, often a woman. The photo is sometimes very obviously from a wedding. Or you’re posing with your arms around one or more women. Are these meant to be my predecessors? my competition? my colleagues? Many of you are posing with little children. It’s good to be up front about the fact that you have kids, and that you clearly love them and enjoy spending time with them speaks well of your character. But do you really want people on Tinder, many of whom are just trawling for sex, to see your children? Worse, do you think it’s reasonable to exploit them for their sentimental value in order to impress women, when you yourselves are trawling to get sex? Because: ick.

Then there are the body builders in their tank tops, or the guy in fancy sunglasses, or the guy reclining shirtless on the beach or riding shirtless on a horse—wait, now I’m describing Vladimir Putin… I can’t speak for all single women, but just as a matter of personal preference: the self-centered, arrogant, posturing popular amongst autocrats and known violators of all human rights prompts some other response in me than attraction. I don’t see confidence and self-respect, I see narcissism, and that doesn’t bode well for respect for me, or anyone else.

And then you have your selfies—all the horrible, horrible selfies, the stuff of nightmares. Many are your best duck-faced Blue Steel look from Zoolander—we can forgive those—but you’ve seen and understood that movie, right? Others are taken from a foot away (how long are your arms?)—you’re in what seems to be a gloomy basement, unshaven, wearing a baseball cap, unsmiling. The rest of you are looking down into your laptop webcam, or your dash-mounted cell-phone, again unsmiling. Which begs these questions: 1) What else are you watching on the laptop that prompted you to take your photo at that moment? 2) Alternatively, why do you think that being stuck in traffic is the best way to represent yourself? I can think of no answer to (1) or (2) that will make me want to go out with you. 3) Have you shown these pictures to friends or family members? Someone needs to tell you that that blank, expressionless, slightly slack-jawed look makes you seem as though you’re contemplating how to dispose of my feet once you’ve separated them from my body.

The women I know are not drawn to shame, dishonesty, vanity, or disrespect (to us, to your children, to yourselves). I don’t think you are either—or you shouldn’t be. When what you’re proposing is a relationship—and whether for a couple of hours or a couple of decades, if there’s two or more people involved, each with his or her own needs and interests, then it’s a relationship—you need to demonstrate that you’re considerate of the other person. This is not about being a conformist, about sacrificing your individuality, about slavishly giving up your own identity to please some selfish other—it’s about being as pleasing, and pleasant, as you’d like us to be in return. And about not looking like a serial killer.

Again, these profiles are not just photos—they represent a set of choices a person has made about how to represent himself to others for the purposes of physical, and perhaps emotional intimacy. These photos range from the ridiculous to the off-putting to the seriously creepy; but what disturbs me most is that all of these hapless fellows seem to be missing not only self-awareness, but any semblance of meaningful social connectedness. How come the only pictures they have are out-of-date, or creepy selfies, or so unflattering? How come they don’t have people to do things with? How come they don’t have anyone to tell them this?: “Dude, this is the picture of a guy who’s about to have his back yard dug up by a team of crime-scene investigators.”

Being a heterosexual man in today’s society comes with a lot of real challenges that we’ve yet to collectively deal with, including the fact that unattached men can end up very badly adrift. In moments of compassion, I feel badly for these men, and the loneliness and isolation they’re all trying, in their various hapless ways, to overcome on a dating app like Tinder. And yet. My friends and I are neither lonely, isolated, nor hapless. Women: none of us ever needs to risk our emotional, immunological, or physical well-being for Naked Selfie Man or Basement Serial Killer Man. Men: put some (clean, tailored) clothes on, call someone who could be a friend to you, and go out and do something, not for the sake of any real or imagined woman, or your stupid Tinder profile, but simply for yourself.

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