How to suss out an online suitor


by Cyn Collins | March 12, 2009

Dear Cyn,

I’m a woman in my mid-20s, venturing into the world of online dating for the first time. I’m meeting some interesting guys, but some matters of etiquette and protocol are still eluding me. How much online interaction should I have with a guy before moving to the real world and giving him my number?

Starry Eyes

Dear Starry Eyes,

It’s always best, once you’ve developed a rapport with someone online, to meet with them ASAP to find out for real whether a relationship is going to sizzle or fizzle. After you’re taken the online dating questionnaires (which are as thorough as a Meyers-Briggs test, if not more so), checked profiles, and exchanged e-mails, you will have a pretty good idea if you want to meet in the real world.

I have a friend who’s been using eHarmony, and she’s been happy with how thoroughly you get to know potential matches and can quickly suss to move forward or to eliminate them—because there’s anonymity, if you follow some guidelines of etiquette, you’ll reduce the potential for disappointment. My friend noted that she moves on to meeting in person pretty soon so as to know one way or the other, and decide whether or not to pursue more online suitors. She also never gives out her land-line phone number (some people still have these?)—that’s traceable. Her cell phone allows her to monitor the calls.

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Since online dating is a relatively recent phenomenon, the rules of etiquette are still in flux. eHarmony has excellent advice sections, available to nonmembers for free as well. I recommend checking out their etiquette and e-mail do’s and don’ts. A few highlights: set clear communication guidelines from the beginning, such as how many times per week you’ll send messages. Keep your first few messages short, no matter how many gajillion questions you’re dying to ask, space them out over time. Similarly, don’t divulge too much too soon, for at least a few reasons: 1) Maintain the sense of mystery and excitement leading up to the meet-up. Leave him wanting more. 2) It’s easy to reveal more in an e-mail than you might in person early on. Beware of TMI! 3) If you indulge in verbal diarrhea, it will be overwhelming and a turn-off. Write your e-mail, step back from it for a few hours—or better yet, sleep on it—then reread it and be ruthless with yourself. Hack away at it, and only then click send.

Don’t lead him on. If you’re only lukewarm, politely note, as my friend did, that you appreciate their time and interest, but it doesn’t seem right for you. You don’t have to go into the reasons why. Make sure the e-mail writing is a 2-way street—never write more than two emails without a response, so as not to appear in desperate pursuit. Even if the guy seems to like you, he’ll quickly shut down if this occurs.

It’s very important not to get caught in the lull of a passive e-mail exchange—it’s less emotionally risky than meeting in person. You need to meet as soon as you know you are both interested, even if you have to initiate the meeting. While this may be a nail-biter for you, keeping it simple will help. Make your first encounter an afternoon coffee rather than drinks and dinner. Then you can leave fast if it isn’t working out, and you aren’t out several bucks and several hours you’ll never get back. If there’s chemistry, you can make a second date. And safety first! Never give away your personal information. Have a back-up plan—let a good friend know where and when you’re going out with this guy.

You may want to check that you are both on the same page in levels of how soon you each seek to move potentially into a serious, committed relationship. Is the guy seeking marriage within a year, while you’re not looking for marriage at all? That sort of thing. My friend found, as she was trying to date three guys casually until she got to know them better and could choose among them, that one wanted exclusivity within only a few weeks!

Best of luck in the online dating world! If nothing else, you’ll end up with a few good stories.


Photo by Rebekah Pavlovic (Creative Commons)