Laid Back, Shmaid Back: Online Dating and the Language Barrier

The first guy was thirty-eight and outgoing and didn’t take life too seriously; he was open-minded and fun-loving and had a real passion for life.  The second one, a single, non-smoking dad, lived life to the fullest and was adventurous and curious, but also sensitive, compassionate, and faithful.  The third one was a recently divorced, laid back kind of guy who was easy going and liberal, yet hardworking and always up for new challenges.  All three men, along with 763 others, hoped that I loved to laugh and that I was positive, loyal, not into drama, and just as beautiful on the inside as I was on the outside.  And if I liked to get out and experience new things, but also enjoyed the simple pleasures in life, like a quiet night at home with pizza and a movie? Well, then, I was perfect.

The guy I finally chose said he was definitely not up for anything in life, and by the way, he hated holding hands and walking on the beach at sunset.  Laid-back, shmaid-back, his profile read, and screw all the totally trusting, open-minded, honest, compassionate, supportive, and down to earth women in the world; he just wanted someone to eat meals with.

My dinner with “Bob” (not his real name) was unexpectedly romantic.  He brought flowers and was funny and charming, and he even sort of kind of looked like the hot guy in his photo.  At one point during this candlelit meal Bob confided that more than anything he just wanted to gel with a nice woman and share some important moments with her.  He had a busy and fulfilling career as a financial analyst, and he wanted to date a woman who was secure and whose entire world didn’t revolve around a relationship.  When I told Bob that I needed long stretches of time and space to write and socialize with friends, the relief on his face was almost comical.  “Finally,” he said, reaching across the table for my hand. “I didn’t think you were out there.”

After our date Bob stood by my car and planted a chaste kiss on my cheek.  He said he was excited for our second date, but he would leave the day and time up to me.  “No pressure,” he said, squeezing my arm.  I drove home thinking my experiment was going to break records–on the very first try I had met a successful, normal guy who wouldn’t suffocate me, and who wouldn’t just buzz me for late-night booty calls.

But Bob and I never had that second date.  We talked once on the phone and then he sent me a message on Facebook.  “I’m sorry,” he wrote, “but there’s been some kind of misunderstanding between us.  I thought I made it very clear that I was looking for a purely sexual relationship.”  Apparently, “gelling” for Bob meant a great sexual chemistry, “important moments” were the kind that involved hot oils and slipknots and a lack of oxygen during orgasm, and a “secure” woman was the kind who looked forward to 2am phone requests to leave the back door unlocked.  Apparently, the records were still intact.

Since this experiment I’ve spoken with many, many women­ who said that my story is all too familiar, and that it is all par for the course now for amazing new relationships to go quickly and bewilderingly awry.  The ones who used online sites regularly, and even the ones who claimed that they’re still holding out for meeting a guy “the old fashioned way,” all agreed on one thing: dating today has been infiltrated by sites like and Yahoo! Personals, and it ain’t pretty.  Most of the women had similar stories about “the fast-tracker” (lightning-quick delivery of too many boring and intimate details on the first date), or about the three inches shorter, twenty pounds heavier, at least five to seven years older chain-smoking guy they arranged to meet offline.  But I think if we’ve all learned anything from our experiences it’s that there is an even bigger issue with online dating, and it has everything to do with language.  And it affects both women and men equally.

What these online sites have trained us to do is short-cut our language and use cliché’s and slogans and single words to describe ourselves and express our needs and desires in a partner, when men and women haven’t ever quite met on the same playing field when it comes to language and communication in the first place.  What online dating does is provide us with a lot of recognizable words and catchphrases that are meant to instantly and completely translate into the same meaning and understanding for both sexes, but they don’t; they supply a lexicon of stunted and inadequate terms that are supposed to be filled with the same implications and connotations for both men and women–but they aren’t.  Ask any woman and man to describe what “fulfilled” or “successful” or “open-minded” means to them, and chances are you’ll find more differences than similarities.  And yet these words, along with a host of others, have become the shared language we all use to express who we are and what we’re looking for in a relationship, or even in a lifelong partner.  It’s no wonder that my definition of “secure” (a confident, trusting woman who isn’t possessive in love) differed so much from Bob’s (a horny, non-committal woman who loves to be tied up).

I’ve experimented with issues of language and comprehension in my own English composition classes.  I’ve asked groups of females and groups of males to brainstorm and attach a list of single words to help elucidate meaning in other words like “happiness” and “healthy.”  I normally use this exercise midway in the semester, after our readings have provoked varied interpretations of author intent with a familiar, reoccurring pattern of disagreement between males and females.  The outcome is always startling: within minutes of writing their lists on opposite sides of the board, both sexes are not only groaning and rolling their eyes at each other, they’re also scribbling long sentences beside words in their lists to explain why their choices are more reasonable and “right.”  By the time all the groups have had their turns, the chalkboard is filled with angry slash marks and crisscrossing lines and even additional lists of words to explain the ones they originally came up with together.  The end result is a bit of shellshock for all of us.  I can’t remember a single class that didn’t erupt in enthusiastic and heated debate, and then conclude with unsettled feelings and hooded glances between the groups.  I believe one of my male students said it best a few years ago: “If we can’t even agree on the definition of a word, then it becomes meaningless.”  Bingo.

And online dating has only complicated this by making us believe we are speaking the same language, that we are expressing what we believe in and want in “fixed” and agreed-upon terms that we all comprehend exactly the same way.   We might laugh when one word drives an entire sitcom episode (“helpful” around the house is doing laundry or making the kids dinner for the weary wife, but for the bumbling husband it means sexing her up after she finally falls into bed) but now we’re relying on those same words for both simple and complex self-expression and communication about love.  Never mind if that profile photo was taken two decades ago, or his stated occupation as “media research consultant” actually translates as an unemployed, Watches-TV-All-Day kind of guy.  The real complications come when he says that he “values total honesty” in a woman, and then later bristles in bed when she tells him to slow down here and spend less time there.

What confuses this even further are the dozens of articles devoted to helping men and women find the hidden warning signs and signals in this collective but deficient language.  We have a real problem when we take the advice that his claim of being “open and adventurous” doesn’t actually mean he might like to hike or kayak or try new foods, but really translates as “I have expensive and complicated sex equipment set up in the basement and I hope you and your hot sister like to be tortured.”  When we’re trained to trust stock language to communicate meaningful thoughts and attitudes and interests–when we’re told that the real meaning behind phrases like “I’m very sociable” is he’s actually a relentless flirt and possibly an alcoholic, or her claim of being “nurturing” means she wants five kids pronto–then we have bigger issues to deal with than our dates trimming off years or pounds from their profiles.  I recently read some advice by a well-intentioned, seasoned online dater: If he says he’s ‘laid back,’ ladies, she wrote, then get out your running shoes.  He’s either unemployed or lazy or both. But what if the man is actually and truthfully trying to communicate that he can role with the punches when troubles arise?  And what if the woman who is ready for a serious relationship and states that she wants a stable, mature man isn’t (as another seasoned dater implied) “really looking for a sugar daddy”?

If we think we’ve become adept at translating simple sentences, if we can equate a dozen meanings and behaviors and histories by a single “hidden” word or slogan and we’re reading between the lines and deciphering every moment, then men and women are moving even further away from understanding each other (and exhausting themselves in the process).  The simplicity of language and intention, thanks to texting and twittering and e-mails and especially short-cutting in profiles, has paved the way for more confusion, and instead of moving forward in our quest to know each other, we’re actually taking a gigantic step back.

Last summer I met a guy the old-fashioned way who also claimed to have tried online dating once and rejected it.  During our date this man began many of his sentences with the phrase “I’m the kind of guy who”: I’m the kind of guy who believes, thinks, feels, tries, sees, treats women like, etc.   As soon as he spouted off his first “I’m the kind of guy” declaration, I readied myself for the fast-tracker, and when he didn’t appear, I quickly went into translation mode.  His third or fourth one (“I’m the kind of guy who likes independent women”) felt familiar, and within seconds I had scanned my treasure trove of advice and experiences from a dozen different sources.  This is what I came up with: spends most of his time with his buddies; afraid of commitment and intimacy; wants to have a purely sexual relationship (thanks, Bob); tight-fisted with money and will probably wait for me to reach for the check.  This was only one example of my hunting and sifting through his words, and while I didn’t even know if I liked the guy yet, by the time the check hit the table I was drained (he paid after I offered to go “halfsies,” by the way).  He could have been completely sincere and honest about what kind of guy he was, but the problem was simply my need to know what his words really meant.  And while this has always existed in some form, and not all these words are “new” or have new meaning because of online dating, I think it’s fair to say that they’re becoming a shared and universal dating language that perpetuates more misunderstandings and adds extra obstacles in getting to know the real person sitting across the table from you.

Online dating has trained men to express themselves more and women to express themselves less, and all in a familiar language we think we understand.  And if men actually are talking more, and women are getting to the point more quickly, then we have both gone into high gear with our secret decoder rings and believe all it takes is a few meetings to understand every complicated and simple thing we need to know about our dates.  And sometimes we do not.  As a matter of fact, most of the men I talked to about this said that one of the benefits of online dating was that they were more open and revelatory than ever before, but for some reason women seemed to “get them less.”   And, not surprisingly, women had similar complaints about men “still not really understanding what they want.”

Maybe what we need to remember is that it takes more than slogans or clichés to define ourselves and what we want in a potential mate, and maybe we all need less advice about what we’re really revealing when we go out on these dates.  Maybe, when a man says he’s “curious” (a friend’s code for kinky and uneducated), he really is interested in exploring the world, and when a woman admits that she can “get a little jealous,” it’s just a natural emotional response and men need to stop panicking and picturing her in full camouflage and night goggles and hanging from a tree outside their bedroom window.


  1. Wanda Ferreira
    Posted September 20, 2010 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    Great Blog Mel. I love your style of writing and the connectivity you have to the reader

  2. admin
    Posted September 20, 2010 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    Thank you!! I know it’s a long one – I was hoping I didn’t lose people along the way!! : )

  3. Elise Selph
    Posted September 20, 2010 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    It’s brilliant. This needs to be the preface to your next book! ;)

  4. admin
    Posted September 20, 2010 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    Oh, Elise, please don’t tell me I have to write my next book about online dating or love??? : )

  5. Karen Z
    Posted September 20, 2010 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    Wow Michelle, you sure have an amazing way to grab the readers attention. I’ve started reading sooo many articles only to say to myself, eh..I’m not that interested. I guess you could blame it on my “adhd-lmnop”, but it’s the honesty and frankness in your words that makes me want to read on and on. Quite honestly, I didn’t want it to end. I wanted it to be book size. Your descriptive words places the reader at the bar, restaurant, etc..and we’ve all been there.. and can relate. I love that you choose to leave in the risque words, ie. (lack of oxygen orgasms). Your writing reminded me a bit of Patinkin’s real life columns, (hope you take that as a compliment) but also different/better, because it’s younger and fresher. Your sense of humor is unique and I would love to read a book from you like this. Awesome Michelle per usual.


  6. Patty
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    Interesting experiment Mel. Maybe it is best not to look for love at all. Maybe it is best to relax and let love find you. : )This blog is remarkable on many levels. First, I can’t believe you experimented with on-line dating; Nonetheless, this particular blog generated so many laughs from me that your experiment was well worth it for your readers. You are a gifted writer Mel. Keep posting.

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