How Not to Write an Online Dating Message

By Katie Heaney
Eleaf/flickr

I knew, very literally, that love wasn’t going to happen overnight. I am not a patient person. Nor am I very accepting of change. But I also knew that if I really wanted to meet someone as much as I was saying I did, I might have to step outside my Comfort Zone, which is what I call my flannel pajamas, and into the big, hopeful, scary world of Internet dating.

It didn’t start out so badly. My friend Jenna came over on a Wednesday night, because it was February first, and we decided that something like this should happen on a first day of the month. We poured ourselves glasses of wine and set about describing ourselves in the best, most attractive, most unique, most intriguing ways we possibly could. We were truthful, though. Mostly. I mean, yes, technically I’m five-eleven and a half, but I’m not going to round up to six feet online, am I? Is this what guys are thinking when they list their heights as five-ten even though you know, in your heart, that they are five-seven? But in reverse? Goddammit. This is why online dating is terrible.

But that first night was fine. I had myself signed in to chat accidentally, because I didn’t even realize it was there. When a little message popped up in the bottom right-hand corner of my screen saying “Hello, tall girl,” I screamed. I checked out the profile of the guy who’d messaged me—tall, dorky, kind of funny—and though I didn’t find him all that attractive, I impulsively decided to chat with him anyway. He was a boy who wanted to talk to me! On the first day of online dating, that is sort of all you really need. I honestly don’t even know what we talked about. I think I was just overwhelmed by how much it took me back to middle school, flirting (well, talking) with boys on AIM for the first time. It didn’t matter what he looked like (or what I look like, for that matter), or if we had anything in common, or what we were even talking about. He was a boy. Talking to me. On the INTERNET.

That small, youthful joy does not last very long.

In a month on OkCupid, I received around 130 messages. I say “around” because I deleted so many of them immediately (having them sit in my inbox felt contaminating) that I cannot report with scientific precision the exact count. I don’t think this number makes me special. I actually think it makes me decidedly un-special, because to many of the messages’ authors I was clearly no more than one more female-looking thing who might be intrigued by the dashing brevity of a message reading only “sup?” Everyone was always telling me that, if nothing else, having an online dating profile would be a confidence booster because of all the flattering messages I’d receive.

This is abject bullshit.

Of the many, many things that my messages could have been called, “flattering” is not one of them. More fitting would be “trite,” “absurd,” “weirdly insulting,” and “grotesque expressions of the soul-sucking vortex known as humanity.” Some messages were innocuous enough, but these were in the minority. A few precious gems were legitimately nice and pleasant, but their presence in my inbox was so minuscule as to hardly be noticeable. If I didn’t have corrective contact lenses, I wouldn’t have even been able to see them. (Or anything, really. But whatever, you get my point.) These messages were like these little lifesavers thrown out to me, a person who was drowning in a cesspool of filth and sewage water, only to be just as quickly cast aside because, even though they were nice enough, relatively speaking, the guys who sent them were fifty-two years old or were self-described “fitness models” or went by the user name “LetsFckAround.”

Look, I know it isn’t easy out there for dudes, either. (Isn’t it? I think it actually could be. Easier, anyway. Less horrifying.) For some reason it seems like standard operating procedure, among those with opposite-sex interests, that GUYS message GIRLS and that is that. I think this is on the way out, but it’s lingering. So guys have some pressure—they’re the ones who have to “make a move” and then just wait while my friends and I gasp and laugh and email each other the complete garbage they’ve just sent us. I would feel bad, except that the authors of the messages that provoke that kind of reaction most certainly do not give a fuck. You know how I know? Because they sent that same exact masturbatory-ass message to me AND two of my friends. Word. For. Word.

So I’m not sorry. I am, however, interested in the betterment of humankind. I am interested in historical records on some of the most pressing matters of our time. I am interested in the grouping and analysis of small disasters. So I’ve come up with a few categories of messages that you’re liable to receive if you find yourself being simultaneously female and in possession of an online dating profile. May God have mercy on our souls, and may whoever invented the backhanded compliment as flirting tactic (damn you, popular MTV pickup artist Mystery!) be slowly roasted in a stew of his own fedoras, watched over by the legions of women who have to try to figure out why this person who ostensibly wants to date them just called them “pretty but not in an intimidating way.”

Types of Messages You Will Receive During Your Time in Romantic Jail

1. The Neg

For the blissfully unacquainted, to “neg” someone is to basically insult her while pretending to compliment her. It’s spitting in her face and then asking her out after. It is a statement that almost sounds nice if you aren’t listening very closely. It’s a thing you say to a woman if you are an asshole who believes that, ultimately, what women really want is for someone to be mean to them. Maybe there are some women who really like that! Far be it from me to deny a lady a good blow to her self-esteem now and again, if she promises me that’s what she wants and she’s really okay and she agrees to come hang out with me later, just girls. I just feel pretty safe saying that, as a whole, humans don’t like when people are nasty to them. This is even true for women! I know, it’s almost too crazy to believe.

Lo and behold, a few bravely delusional spirits soldier on.

Sometimes it’s clear they know what they’re doing, which is the worst possible type of neg. (The “know-neg”? I don’t know.) Sometimes it’s clear that they are just hapless goons. Sometimes it’s just clear that you should have joined the convent like your third-grade teacher suggested. In any case, here are some all-too­-real examples of negging in action.

a. “Oh man, my freshman year roommate was a total ISTJ, one of the worst guys I’ve known. However, I’ve since met some very nice ISTJs so I will give you a chance ;) Are you a standup comedian or do you like to make people laugh in a more natural setting? I actually have a room­mate who is/was a standup comedian but I’ve never heard him and don’t find him particularly funny! Anyway, I hope I didn’t insult you!”

Fine: This was before I realized that listing a Myers-Briggs personality type in a dating profile was gauche. I’m a sucker for quizzes and I was trying to save people time. But that’s not the point! What this message really says is this: “Everyone I’ve ever met with characteristics similar to yours has repulsed me to my core. I do not enjoy other people, generally. Wink face. Sorry.”

b. “What sort of writing do you prefer to do yourself? Do you have a three-ring binder filled with printed out pages of horrible poetry you’ve written over the years?”

This is such a pure neg. It’s the outline of a polite question distilled by highly corrosive acid and then sprayed into my face with a high-powered hose. “Oh, you like writing? You’re probably pretty bad at it, though, right? Wink face.”

c. “haha sci-fi nerd?”

Okay, fine, this one is fair.

The list goes on. For the record, none of these messages garnered a response. None of these messages even garnered a half-­second’s consideration of a response. I know this was a surprise to many of these messages’ authors, because I could see them returning to my profile for days afterward, checking to see if I’d been online. (If you haven’t gotten the hint yet, online dating is creepy and terrifying.) Prior to OkC, I never got the feeling that anyone who was being mean to me was laboring under the impression that doing so would give me a sudden and inexplicable desire to drop my pants. Teasing, sure—where would I be without teasing as flirtation tactic?—but nothing on the level of the backhanded assholeish-ness that infiltrated my inbox from day one on OkCupid. I felt bad enough going online to date in the first place, but the influx of negs made me feel worse. It made me feel like I wasn’t a person, and I guess to the people sending the messages, I wasn’t. I was a profile. Maybe I’m being overly sensitive! But the desire to demean someone and the desire to date her are, I think, mutually exclusive. I could be wrong about that, though, because I’m just a woman.

2. The Virus

On some level I was prepared for the assholes, because I know enough people who’ve dated online to know that good manners and 10th-grade spelling abilities are underrepresented in the world I’d so reluctantly just joined. What I was not prepared for were the copy-pasters, the virus transmitters, the people who apparently send identical messages (or gently mutated versions thereof) to the owner of every female profile they can find. I say “apparently” because I wouldn’t have known this was the case had I not signed up for OkCupid along with Jenna, and later my other friend Rylee, and watched with horror as our inboxes filled up with a not insubstantial number of the very same messages from the very same users. I might have noticed that there was something suspiciously hollow and generic about these messages, but I would have allowed my belief in the good of humanity to overrule the idea that anyone could be so gross as to think that blanket dating messages could work.

I am often wrong about the good of humanity. I realize that these young men probably don’t consider the fact that the women they’re messaging might have persuaded a few of their friends to suffer along with them, and that in doing so they will surely be comparing messages. I realize that some of them know this is the case and just don’t care. I’ll even concede that writing messages to prospective girlfriends/boyfriends can be an intimidating business, and that having an outline of a message that works well for one’s personal style is not the gravest sin to ever be committed. But I am not talking about outlines or brief boilerplate messages. I am talking about missives. I am talking about excruciatingly detailed compliments. I am talking about sickness—a viral kind of pathology that sneaks up on you, tells you you’re special, and then kills you.

Here are three perfect examples of the type of viral message I’m talking about, in increasing order of hysteria. They might look familiar. You’ve probably received them yourself.

a. “Hi howz you doin!!! Just came across your post and really its seems to be very honest and clear i would surely like to know u better  Well I am looking for a nice to be friends with and then take it from there  and i really wanna take care of her I am pretty well off and well educated...and i guess I know how to treat a woman . . . coz i am a gentleman awaiting your reply....”

We all got this message at least twice in our stays, of varying lengths, on OkCupid. This young man is overextending himself. He’s not just copy-pasting the same message to different people, he’s copy-pasting it to the SAME people, multiple times. He’s human spam.

b. “hi & how are you on this foggy minnesota night ? i must say that you seem like an intresting person from what i can tell from reading your profile and i would like to get to know you alittle better. i also must say that you have a stunning smile that would light up the darkest of nights & you look simply gorgeous in your pictures which i am sure do you no justice to how you look in person. i hope that you had a wonderful wednesday & hey i look forward to hearing back from a beautiful lady such as yourself !”

Perhaps not surprisingly, this message came from someone with whom I shared a higher enemy percentage than match percentage. Ditto Jenna, ditto Rylee. He was like our Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, but the opposite.

c. “I’m just being real here, I know this is completely random and I know you have entirely no clue who I am, but I was looking through profiles and saw yours and I was blown away. Like BOOM!!!! Absolutely blown away. You are beautiful. Not just the good looking girl you see occasionally, I’m talking like the kind of beauty that you don’t EVER see. You know how a person addicted to drugs knows his drugs, he knows the “good shit” from the “not-so-good shit”? Well I know beauty. Its my drug. And you, are good shit! So I guess what I’m saying is...you are my drug . . . and I’m addicted. Haha. Your beauty is insane.      

Like I said, I know this is random, but I had to let you know. I figured you probably hear it all the time, but hey, I couldn’t let someone as gorgeous as you get away with­out me at least telling her first. Anyway, congratulations on being so magnificent. *applauds* Sorry if it annoyed you. If you want though, you should look at my profile, I worked really hard on it, haha, but there is a lot of information on there, so only go read it if you enjoy reading or you could hate your life. I tend to ramble.”

When I first got this message, I had been on OkC for a few days and was already getting tired of the bullshit two-word messages and the negging and the total absence of shallow compliments I thought I’d be getting to at least compensate for the rest of the trash in my inbox. When this message came, and I was mildly flattered, it was only because my spirits were already broken. True, I still recognized it for the maniacal word vomit that it was, and true, I rolled my eyes so hard at “I know beauty. Its my drug” that my eyes fell out of my head and I had to pop them back in. But he called me “magnificent!” Such an underused compliment. I didn’t respond, but I’m ashamed to admit that I kept that message because I thought it was really about me.

Then Jenna got the same message. Then Rylee got it, too. And then the three of us drove to West Virginia, where his profile said he lived (that’s right, he’s copy-pasting girls in other states), kidnapped him, carried him over our shoulders to a marble slab in a deserted forest clearing, and sacrificed his blood to the devil. He tried to cry out, but it was of no use. He tried to tell us that we really were all good shit, but it was too late.

3. The Cry for Help

There must come a time, after you’ve been online dating for months or even years, when you feel your spirit leaving your body. You’ll stay online, but you won’t even know why. You’ll still sign in and look at people’s profiles, just to pass the time, but you won’t think of them as humans any longer. They might look like people, but then so do you, and you know that all you are anymore is a shell. You’ll start flailing. It’s hard to know for sure when it will happen, though my experience suggests that you’re probably getting close when you find yourself sending messages like the ones below.

a. “Aliens and UFOs huh. I saw one and when i mes­saged NASA about it they never even replied.”

I know—this sounds like a joke. A funny one, even! You can’t see his entire profile, but I could. It was definitely not a joke.

b. “I need to laugh right now, since I was broken up with on Valentine’s day. If you make me laugh it would be really cool. And we can discuss the annunaki, nibiru, and the blue spirals! That would make me happy. What would really make you happy?”

This was sent three days after Valentine’s Day. :(

4. It’s Not You, It’s Me. Me. ME.

There are some people for whom sending that first OkCupid message is like being a guy bird puffing out his chest to impress girl birds. I don’t know, I guess this works in nature. I’m pretty sure that if I were a girl bird, and I was minding my own business and regurgitating food to my kids from my first bird marriage or something, and some guy bird came up to me with his feathers all puffed out and his eyes bulging, I’d be like, “Are you seriously hitting on me while I’m throwing up?” But I guess I can’t say for sure. Animal Planet seems to think this behavior has a pretty high success rate, and I think some of the males of our own species have taken note. Maybe because they can’t make a first impression with clothing or intensely acidic cologne, some of the men on OkCupid peacock in a different way: bragging.

I like talking about myself as much as (and probably more than) the next person, OBVIOUSLY. It is my hope that by continually doing what I love to do, which is talking about myself, someone perfect will eventually just fall in love with me. So I understand the impulse to lead with yourself. But some part of me—the part that is familiar with social interactions and general guidelines of human conduct—recognizes that this is neither the most practical nor the most thoughtful way to get to know a person. Some part of me knows that what you are supposed to do when you want to get to know someone is ask him/her questions about him/herself, and not just because you hope you can then turn the conversation back around to you. Some part of me knows that I would never stroll into a bar announcing my various accomplishments and character traits to a guy I thought was hot—so why would I (or anyone in their right mind) do the same thing in a message?

It’s that “right mind” part that really makes the difference, isn’t it?

a. “well it looks like we could be friends...i think we should get to know each other. i am a kick ass son, brother, and friend but i would like you to find out for you self.”

Aside from the fact that I can’t imagine what one does to earn “kick ass” status as a son and a brother, this guy said he’d like for us to “get to know each other,” but then went on to describe only himself. Then he challenged me to believe it. Does he even care if I’m a kick-ass daughter and sister??

b. “What a great smile! Any interest in a Triathlete ;-)”

It’s like, you’re so athletic that I almost didn’t even notice you’re 43!!!!

c. “Hello, so now I’m wondering how to entice a beautiful girl into responding to my email. Hmm, maybe bribe her with the option of cooking food for her, starting with something grilled or possibly stir fried. Then pull out the cheesecake I made a few hours prior along with some yummy fruit toppings. Mean while showing my humorous side in our delightful conversation on things we’ve done and hope to accomplish in our futures. Nah, maybe we just meet up and dive into a grand discussion walking around Mall of America, grab some coffee or tea and possibly take in some people watching or I carry the bags while you shop. Hmm, if she was up for adventure, we could go shoot some guns, indoor rock climbing, or snowboarding too. Guess I’ll have to wait and see if she decides, here’s an interesting guy that shows great promise.”

I think he thinks this message is about me (or, rather, “she”) because he’s listing things he’d supposedly want to do with me, but it isn’t. It’s like some weird form of hypothetical showing off. I don’t know that he can even do any of these things, nor does he have any reason to believe I’d have any interest in participating in these things. A brief glance at my profile would have revealed that I’m not the type of person who enjoys shooting guns, rock climbing, or generally any activities in which something going wrong means that I die. Plus, it mostly just sounds like he’s going to try to make off with my mall purchases when I’m not looking.

d. “NIce pic! care to chat sometime, maybe? I work in corporate IT management and Twincities being small for management consulting, I have to be little discreet about my fitness modeling! I have folks that work for/with me and they are used to seeing me in my meetings with tie and suit and dont want them to know about the fitness side and shirtless pics online ahah”

THIS IS THE BEST. Not in a real way, obviously—not in a way where I’d ever want to respond, or meet him. It is the best in terms of the number of boasts it manages to fit in such a small message: 1) Has a “corporate” job; 2) Is a fitness model; 3) Has folks that work for him; 4) Owns suits and ties; 5) Looks good shirtless (presumably). Not to mention that he’s only writing me to draw attention to his shirtless fitness-modeling pictures, to let me know that he doesn’t want attention drawn to his shirtless fitness-modeling pictures.

e. “Are you one of those girls who won’t date someone who’s shorter than she is? If so i’ll just stop right here.”

Though this message is almost its own animal, a mixed-breed neg/cry for help/boast of sorts, I am categorizing it here because clearly this guy has been burned by tall girls before, and it couldn’t have less to do with me if it tried. Why would I want to respond to someone who has already prepared himself to resent me and my snobby, exclusive height?

5. The Direct Offer of Sex/The Best Message I Ever Received

“UFOs Don’t exist but my cock does and I’m home alone until tuesday do the arithmetic And no I’m not married”

What else can I really say? You get the idea, I get the idea, every one of us is in perfect agreement that this is the pinnacle of dating-message achievement and I got it all to myself. What’s “the arithmetic,” you ask? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. You can’t set this message up to questioning because opening that door will send you down an existentialist path from which you will never return. It’s best to just enjoy it and move on.

6. The Mediocre

Finally, though I would be hard pressed to pinpoint and describe any of them among the mountains and mountains of filth I received while on OkC, there were some nice messages. Nothing spectacular, but how many spectacular first messages can there be in nature? I’m guessing that two total are sent per year, and though scientists try to encourage breeding, the messages are never really in the mood. And really, a first message doesn’t NEED to be spectacular. If anyone is reading this and thinking that anything they send will be met with reflexive repulsion and a book chapter’s worth of criticism, just know that the chances of that are, like, SO small. Literally write anything different from what you’ve just read and you will probably be okay. 

 


This post is adapted from Katie Heaney's Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without a Date. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/01/how-not-to-write-an-online-dating-message/282919/