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Radically Honest Online Dating

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Welcome to the online candy store of love, our dystopic world of disposable dating. Internet dating can become an exercise in ego stroking and gratification, getting emails and winks about how wonderful you are. It can be a perpetual dip into window shopping for love, rather than a means to an end of actually meeting someone and patiently getting to know them. Find a flaw, and it’s on to the next person.

In cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, where online dating has been destigmatized, it’s easy to meet someone new for drinks, but much harder to build a relationship that spans longer than four dates. So perhaps the answer is not to shy away from online dating, but to transform it.

Perhaps one solution is Radically Honest Online Dating (RHOD).

Forget doing a public relations job on yourself and selectively presenting your best headshots. Post neutral to unflattering photos. Don’t brag about your achievements. Talk about your self-doubt on the way to achieving them. Whatever you have to offer, and where you need support. Unlike most people, who either lie or present a stream of bland clichés, the radically honest ad is an exercise in being very bravely honest in an ad, or maybe, in a document that wouldn’t be publicly available to everyone, but that could be shared with people who seem interesting.

We’re all dying to be accepted as we are, so why not just put it out there from the very beginning?

The idea originated in a conversation with my friend Rod, a biologist from Colorado. He told me about his yoga teacher Chad who teaches his students about “radical integrity.” Radical integrity means discovering and accepting yourself, presenting yourself to the world as your really are rather than selectively sharing the charming details. In essence, it’s about getting comfortable with your angels and demons, and being transparent about all of them.

Rod explained, “There are always places life challenges us where we have no talent. His point is that these places can be admitted or hidden. Dating his way, we are looking for someone who says, ‘Wow that's tough, but I can handle it and maybe even support you here.’ In the absence of openness, that person will not be found.”

To prove his point, Chad posted an online dating ad. He posted photos of himself entering a room, taken spontaneously at random angles—nothing flattering or glamorous. He talked about qualities he enjoyed about himself and posted eight weaknesses expressed through difficult periods: gambling and drug addiction and depression.

Three hundred people viewed his ad. Fifteen people wrote him. Most called him sick; a couple tried to get him banned from the site. Others offered advice on how to take better pictures or to emphasize his redeeming qualities. He ignored them. Rod explained, "Smoothing out his profile prevents him from meeting his goal: seeing where he does fit in. Ad if nowhere and with no one, then so be it.”

Two women contacted him with interest. The most notable was a translator from Mongolia. The first time they spoke, Chad burned through 750 minutes on an international calling card. From Rod’s point of view, their call was proof that a deep connection with a woman was possible. Or was she just looking for a way out of Mongolia? Was Chad even looking for a partner?

Rod accused Chad of doing a “social experiment.” Chad denied it, saying his effort at meeting a partner was real. If he wasn't sincere in his search, he would not have used his real name and picture.

Rod threw his story down like a challenge. Would I ever write a radically honest personal ad? The idea thrilled and terrified me. The radically honest personal ad stands so in contrast to our marketing-based approach to online dating, which I can’t say has been terribly effective. Bragging or outright lying is the natural inclination for most people when writing an ad. A Cornell study showed that over 80% of participants lie about their height, age, or weight. Authentic details are hard to come by when you read match.com profiles, which all seem to be advertising the same fun-loving, laid-back, good-hearted guy.


But what would you actually write? It’s hard to imagine radically honest details that wouldn’t be repellant. Would I comb through my journal for low moments in past relationships and post excerpts from my journal, describing sensitivity to criticism or talk about being 36 and not having a baby daddy? Or my tendency to leave just one dirty dish in the sink, never wanting to completely finish the dishes? Aren’t these admissions intimate, and isn’t intimacy earned through trust? Wouldn’t it destroy the mystery in getting to know someone to put everything out there in an ad?

To be so naked on a public dating site, I don’t know if I could handle that. I can reveal a few intimate things in this essay, but all I am seeking is to accurately express an idea. Doing it in a personal ad is scarier, because the idea is that we’re going to meet, and then, you already know all this stuff about me. (Theoretically everyone knows everything about everyone now if we express ourselves online using our real names, but that’s another story.)

When you post an ad, you are necessarily objectified, a piece of entertainment, consumed, then click, on to the next human being baring her soul. Immediately I thought of all the people who could see a revealing ad: colleagues, potential future employers, exes, and friends. Isn’t a radically honest ad potential career suicide? Online dating can feel like a spectator sport in sociology, studying how people market themselves. We all have to be careful about what we put out there.

Yet, there’s something about the idea of radically honest online dating that I love. I’m so over the clichéd way we market ourselves online and return each other so quickly. Kind of like Zappos—it’s really easy to try on those shoes and send them back in a box. It’s so easy to lie, too. You would theoretically get fewer responses but perhaps more people who really get you. It only takes one.

I don’t know that you would fall in love with someone by reading about his or her flaws. Maybe you would just be looking for the problems of a former partner for a re-do, or someone with the opposite problems to try something new. But it would be more authentic. I’d be more interested in checking out that site than trolling match.com.

Maybe instead of “who I am” and “what I’m looking for” we would be prompted to write our strengths and weaknesses.

The radically honest personal ad is a way of showing that you are a work in progress.
Radically honest online dating could make us treat people less disposably; being honest reminds us that we’re all human, not just consumer objects to be tried out for a glass of wine or a make-out session and then so quickly forgotten. We might meet fewer people, but treat them more humanely because they are more human.

Radically honest online dating probably appeals to only a self-selecting group. Self-examination is not for everyone.

Radically honest online dating reminds me of a book that my writer friend Andrew Boyd wrote called Daily Afflictions: The Agony of Being Connected to Everything in the Universe. One of my favorite daily afflictions is “Loving the Wrong Person.”

Andrew writes, “We’re all seeking that special person who is right for us. But if you’ve been through enough relationships, you begin to suspect there’s no right person, just different flavors of wrong. . . it takes a lot of living to grow fully into your own wrongness. It isn’t until you finally run up against your deepest demons, your unsolvable problems—the ones that make you truly who you are—that you’re ready to fine a life-long mate. Only then do you finally know what you are looking for. You’re looking for the wrong person. But not just any wrong person: the right wrong person—someone you can gaze lovingly upon, and think, ‘This is the problem I want to have.’"

P.S. Rod is going to post a Radically Honest Online Dating ad. In a follow-up I’ll let you know whether he finds the right wrong person for him. Let me know if you use this technique and how it works for you.

Sasha Cagen is traveling through Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina in 2010. Read more of her adventures and observations at quirkyalone.net.

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