Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Why can't we talk?

Dear Jamy:

As a regular online dater, I'm finding that I am having a major problem with these men and their communication methods.

For example, say tonight I meet a man through a friend, or even at a bar. The logical thing to do would be to exchange phone numbers. Then phone calls take place, some conversations are longer than others, and eventually a date is made. Only after a few dates and a level of comfort is established do you exchange email addresses - usually as a way to stay in touch during the workday when phone calls are not an option.

I've been online dating for about 4 years now. What I'm finding with my online dating life, is that these relationships operate almost backward. You have to start off with an email because that's the method of communication provided. But, once you decide to go out on a date, the phone number is exchanged, for planning purposes only. (I've met several men without talking on the phone at all.) Then you meet, then it always goes back to emailing - you get the "thanks, let's get together again soon" email if any at all. I don't view email and other non-speaking forms of communication like the text message to be a viable means by which to court. I'm currently dating a man who returns my voicemail messages with email. Why do people do this?

Do you think that I've found non-committal men, or that this is a casualty of online dating? I've thought of turning off my text messages and telling people to just call. But, any idea inside the reasons why men do this? Any other thoughts you have on the matter would be greatly appreciated.

Signed, Old-Phone-Fashioned

Dear OPF,

Great question! In my ideal world of internet dating (now there's an oxymoron), the contact would be: email on-site, email off-site, phone call, in-person meeting. Of course, as you point out, this is the OPPOSITE of the order in RealLife™ dating. In real life, you meet, then call, then meet again, and repeat as necessary.

But you already knew that.

Let's get to the heart of the matter: why do people (it's not just men) stay in the "virtual" communication world instead of making the transition to the phone communication world (phone is virtual too, but is more reality based than the other modes)? (Aside: what did people do before telephones? Mail! That might make email more palatable--but it's no excuse for text messaging.) Here are some possible explanations:
  • You tend to stay in the communication mode where you started. If you started via email, text and IM, you're going to stay there because it's comfortable. Change is hard.
  • Phone calls are time consuming. Some people don't have time to chat on the phone or don't enjoy it. They will email because it's easier to control the amount of time it will take out of their day.
  • Non-phone people may be people who don't like it when the person on the other end of the line is multi-tasking. They want to focus on talking to you, but hear the tv on in the background or the click of the keyboard (I'm guilty of both). They may stick to email because they won't feel ignored.
  • They are lazy. It takes more effort to commit to a phone conversation thant to send an email or a text (though IM is very time consuming). The lack of commitment to phone time may reflect a lack of commitment to the relationship--or simply like instead of love.
How has this played out for me? With the last guy I dated who I met in person, we always talked on the phone. Occasionally we text-messaged during the workday to confirm plans or to say a short hello. In fact, we never emailed until after we broke up. It was decided that email was a less intrusive way to stay in touch if we needed to contact each other. (One vote for email as an impersonal communication method.)

A more recent situation was internet-based and started out with medium-length emails. After the first meeting, there was a combination of phone communication and email was relegated to planning purposes. Now that we are friends, email has made a comeback. (One vote for email as a friendly (but not romantic) way to communicate.)

In general with internet guys, I try to talk on the phone at least once before meeting. I find that a phone conversation communicates a lot more than an email. That said, sometimes I skipped that step and went straight to an in-person meeting. If it was a no-go, then I'd send my goodbye and thank you via email. Otherwise, we'd transition to phone-based communication. (Not sure what this vote is for.)

With my friends, I use both. My friend Pele and I communicate more frequently during the week on email because of workplace constraints. We talk on the phone too, but prefer the talking to be in person. However, sometimes we have just as good talks on the phone. (One vote for using the communication method that is most convenient in the given context.)

Some people, like my friend, CK, are more phone people. We use email almost exclusively for planning. If we get on the phone, we will chat for a long time. I don't call her unless I have time to talk. If I just want to confirm a plan, I'll email. (One vote for using email for planning when there isn't time for long phone calls.)

Spesh, my friend from Israel, hated using email on principle (you'll have to ask him precisely which principle this was), but sometimes it was the best option. When he was in the States, we mostly used the phone and a little IM. Now that he's in Israel we stay in touch via sporadic email and IMing. Distance imposes a huge constraint. (One vote for flexibility.)

I know that if I hesitate to call someone, it's a bad sign in a potential romantic relationship. I enjoy talking and using the phone can lead to some of the purest conversation possible. Phone conversations can be a great way to get to know someone, because it forces you to talk to him and not stare deeply into his eyes or engage in non-talking type activities. But this only works if you have met in person first and you know how to fill in the blanks of expression and intonation that are lost on the phone.

A question to ask yourself, how would you feel if this were a friend and not a potential love interest? Could you take it in stride then?

I do think that there are a disproportionate number of emotionally unavailable people in the online dating world. It's a way to get out there without that nasty business of having to deal with people in person. These folks are likely to keep you in email limbo forever and not make the steps to meet in person.

On a practical note, if you have a strong preference for phone communication, why not make that preference known? I used to send guys my phone number and ask them to call me (cell phone only so you can screen and block if necessary--also the crazies can't find your home address this way). I wouldn't always give my personal email address. After we met, I could always get his email if I needed it. (And yes, I liked him to call me, but I've been known to call first.) If he persists in emailing, you can always answer with, "I'd prefer to talk on the phone" and see what kind of reaction you get.

Good luck.


Grateful for: interesting questions.

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