By Amy Alkon
Q: My girlfriend and I broke up recently, so I’m back in the dating pool. Do you think online dating is a good way to meet people? If so, which are the best dating sites?—Diving In
A: Asking, “Which dating site is best?” is like asking, “Is pro basketball a viable career?” That question can only be answered by asking other questions, such as, “Aren’t you a 47-year-old, 5’2” Ashkenazi Jewish woman with 20/80 vision and bad knees?”
To put this another way, context matters—which isn’t what they tell you in Datingsiteville. Save for specialty sites—like those for farmers, the disabled and people who relish a good flogging—the advertising for these venues tends to be context-free: “Hey, everybody in the entire galaxy, get your lasting love here!”
Annoyingly, though most of us have a sense of what context is, nobody’s done a very good job of defining it—either in the dictionary or in Researchville, where I found a herd of dueling definitions, all so unhelpfully worded that they seem to be in secret code. So here’s my definition: Context is a combo platter of the particular situation at hand, plus the details relevant to it that affect how you understand or experience the situation. In the context of online dating, the relevant details include age, sex, the quality of the competition and one’s desired situation, as in: Do you just want casual sex, or are you holding out for something a little more, uh, black tie?
There are sex differences in when people are at their most appealing, because men and women tend to be at their highest “mate value” at different ages. This comes out of how male sexuality evolved to be visually driven. Women, however, evolved to go for “providers”—men with high status and earning power. So, online dating tends to be more fruitful if you’re a hot 23-year-old female espresso jockey or a 43-year-old male VP of a successful startup, but it can have some challenges for the 43-year-old female startup star or the 23-year-old dude who’s the senior vice barista.
So the question is not whether dating sites work but whether the qualities you have and the situation you’re seeking add up to more than a few tumbleweeds blowing around in your inbox. Because online dating success is shaped more by personal context (and plain old luck) than by the particular site you’re on, you might experiment with two or three. If things go poorly, use online dating as a supplement to meeting women the retro way, like at cocktail parties, where you won’t be competing with the 362 more genetically blessed males within a 35-mile radius. This vastly increases your chances of dazzling the ladies with your personality—distracting them from how Mother Nature zoned out when she was handing out necks to your family.
Q: This guy asked me out and suggested we meet up after his dentist appointment. He said he’d call around 2pm. Well, at 9:30pm, I got a “Hey” text from him and didn’t respond. A friend said I shouldn’t write him off so fast. Am I being too harsh?—Dependability Fan
A: Individual bits of behavior are like cockroaches. You might see just one lonely roach twerking atop the toaster oven, but its presence suggests a whole colony of the buggers … gluing sequins to their exoskeletons and practicing their moonwalk behind the baseboard.
No, you can’t always judge someone by a single thing they do, but this guy’s one-word text—seven hours after he said he’d call—speaks volumes: “Holy moly, wouldya look at the time. It’s 9:30, and I could use some sex.”
How a person behaves is driven by their personality traits, which social psychologist Brent Roberts describes as habitual patterns of thoughts, feelings and behavior that are relatively consistent across time and situations. Granted, there are occasions when impulse gets the best of us, and we’ll say something like, “That wasn’t really me.” But, at least in some way, it really was, because even impulsivity is part of personality.
A person can resolve to act more conscientiously, but personality has a strong genetic basis, so they’re unlikely to be as motivated to be conscientious as someone whose genes make them feel icky when they aren’t. In other words, you were probably wise in nixing this guy, who couldn’t even be bothered to fake respect for your feelings by supplementing that “Hey” with “Carjacked!” “Carried off by a raptor!”