Sunday, 6 October 2013

What’s with all the questions?

Do you remember the Seinfeld episode where he was driven mad by a girl who wouldn’t stop asking him questions? 

I remember laughing hard, at the time, but over the last few days Seinfeld’s  pain rang repeatedly in my ears while in the midst of my own torture and an overwhelming desire to scream “what’s with ALL THE QUESTIONS?!”  

To make it worse these endless questions and questionnaires were framed by boxes… confining, un-spontaneous, un-imaginative, contrived boxes.  Boxes which didn’t let you express or explore what you really wanted to say, what you might have said if you’d had enough space to breathe.  An awful limitation for someone with a huge freedom need and inclined to claustrophobia.

What was I doing?  Well, I caved in to social and psychological pressure to embark on a trial weekend with internet dating.  Friends genuinely wanted me to ‘give it a go’ as a means by which I could ‘sort the wheat from the chaff’… ‘let the cream rise to the top’… ‘eliminate a large percentage of inappropriate candidates’… ‘improve the odds’ etc.  Such is the faith people have these days in this most strange method of ‘meeting’ and forming attachments. 

I know it works well for some, but I don’t mind saying that everything in me resisted the idea of introduction and conversation via computer.  I struggle enough with Facebook, and only enjoy Twitter because it’s abbreviated and light-hearted. There’s no pretending it’s more than it is.  I am a face-to-face person who has no trouble with spontaneous meetings or talking to strangers.  

Moreover, I never admit to my age so why would I want to put it publically into print?  I don’t want to LIMIT a guy’s age or LIST what he should be, as that’s far too prescriptive for someone as flexible in her tastes as I am.  Nor do I feel in a hurry at the moment to find ‘Mr Right’.  I’ve turned down many possibilities in the last year as I’ve just not been interested in sub-standard.  I want quality not quantity.  Some friends joke I’ve got tired of being a cougar.  Others that the options in London aren’t half as sexy or eager as the Italians I met so easily while living in Tuscany.  There’s truth in both.  But I have many friends to go out with, including a lovely man who is very good to me and takes me regularly to the opera.  The bigger reason for a shift in my ‘romance antenna’ is probably that 2012 was bookended by the worst and best experiences of my dating life.  The former, so destructive I still wonder how I ever fell into it; let alone recovered. The latter, so enriching and enjoyable that it significantly raised the bar on what I felt I should expect. 

So, months after that friendship has changed course for reasons beyond our control, I found myself with a few days off work and the offer of a free trial on a dating website.  That was when the questions started.

OMG you’ve never seen so many questions!  You fill in page after page of questions so the computer can put you (and your supposed matches) in a category.  Your online profile is launched and then you have more questions – hundreds in fact – which I diligently answered thinking it was compulsory.  Then the ‘matches’ started to arrive, dozens and dozens of them, fifty in the space of three days.  It took HOURS to read so many profiles, to the extent I don’t know how anybody with a job actually does it! 

Then the real frustration started. I couldn’t see any photographs, for that was not part of the ‘free communication’ advertised. Oh well, maybe there was something positive to be had in discovering someone’s character before making judgements about looks.  Kind of like a traditional Matchmaker might have done.  But then I discovered most of these blokes hadn’t answered the 250 profile questions I had answered about behaviour, preferences and politics… or if they had they perhaps weren’t bothered to read my answers.  For in an excruciating impression of Groundhog Day, all these questions started to arrive - question after question, page after page until I felt hemmed in, under pressure, and anything but natural or relaxed.  I found my heart racing.  I was utterly overwhelmed.  And that’s saying something from someone who can sing in front of a thousand people with less nerves than most!

My mistake, of course, was that I was treating every approach from these faceless strangers as if they were real people, whose feelings needed to be considered.  I didn’t want to ignore approaches which may have been genuine.  Wouldn’t it hurt their feelings if I didn’t reply?  Send back a smile?  But the damn computer wouldn’t let me write a simple message, you had to go through the hoops, the obstacle course, with every candidate, stage after stage of differently worded QUESTIONS. 

It was all too much.  I felt like I was in the guilty seat of an Alfred Hitchcock with the spotlights pointed on my heart and inner most character.  Would I pass the test?  But what were the bloody rules?  Torture, pure torture.

So now I’m at Day 3, when one guy, who seems interesting, intelligent, sends five questions too many - the first of which is: “how often do you lose your temper?”  I am tempted to write back “NOW, you bloody idiot, because you keep sending me THE QUESTIONS!”  But the computer won’t let me answer in my own words because the computer LOVES the BOXES.  And the only people who can circumnavigate the boxes are the people with paid subscriptions (so I find out later).  I am about to lose it, as I put two and two together he is sending the questions because he LIKES them, and is probably either very guarded or a control freak.  So, with a thud, the penny drops: why am I actually answering?! 

Then, in the same ten minutes, a guy who’s pursued me vigilantly over 48 hours… and with whom I’ve made a date to meet face-to-face in Covent Garden… suddenly cancels two hours out.  The reason sounds fake; so no idea what that's about. 

As things often come in threes, before another twenty minutes has elapsed… another seemingly nice guy, suddenly BLOCKS ME.  Seriously?  Rejected by a guy I can’t see and who I’ve never met for, what I can only guess is, answering his last question incorrectly.  Well, he can seriously go **** himself.  But that doesn’t stop me feeling uncomfortable and judged.  For that question was: “how do you conduct yourself at a party?”  Do you a) set out and make your own introductions, meet new people?; b) remain glued to your date’s side all night?; c) stand in the corner and feel shy? or d) something I can’t recall.  Well, of course I answered option a)… but clearly that was not to his taste!  So he bins me without a ‘how’s your father’.   And though I am likely to be far better off never to meet someone so socially inept… it does highlight what’s wrong with the BOXES.  Real life is not as black and white as all that, because you may in fact do a mixture of a) and b) or whatever else is reasonable at the time.  Yet these artificially generated interrogations don’t allow for individuality or nuance.  And, THAT’S WHY I HATED THE ENTIRE EXPERIENCE.

You can tell I am scarred.  It was held out as the big chance, the thing you ought to do to take your love-life into your own hands. I’d resisted so long and then given in, that after the suffocation of the whole process and three rejections on the hop I felt totally inadequate and somehow at fault.  Friends said, “but you’re used to rejection… treat it like showbiz”.  But that’s the thing, I get enough obstacle courses and rejection in my profession, I don’t need it in my personal life too.

Anyway, why is acceptance of this medium so prolific there’s an inference that if you don’t ‘do it’ you are somehow responsible for not finding that someone special?  

I reject that inference of course, but it only took until the next day to see I’d gone out too hard.  I had felt overwhelmed by the volume and the weirdness of it, and I’d been making myself persevere like medicine given by the doctor.  I wasn’t approaching this strange electronic dating game with the kind of cynicism or detachment which must surely be the only way to survive it.  Well, a dose of that, and some superior discernment re the truth or otherwise of many profiles.  I was operating as if I were at a party and each person deserved a polite response.  But seriously, if I hadn’t stopped and gone with a nice neighbour to our local coffee shop where Frankie (the lovely Italian manager) gave me a cappuccino, a brownie and a cuddle in that order… then I think I’d have hyperventilated. 

Instead I had a little cry… laughed at his suggestion that perhaps the guys weren’t real men anyway, but just elaborate CGI to get people to spend money… that I got past the disappointment and the feeling that I was a fly pinned to a boy’s school experiment board…  and I made the liberating decision to cancel my membership.  It’s too time-consuming – especially for a writer who needs space and time to create.  It’s too artificial and stressful.  It’s too sad, as I feel too responsible and open in a world where you can’t judge who is also being honest.  I’d rather start up a conversation in a pub, or smile across the departure lounge at a handsome stranger; as I did in the case of the fabulous guy mentioned above.  The internet dating thing is just not for me.

Nevertheless, as I logged off for the last time, I noticed a final message from one guy who said “I can’t believe you’re X years old… you don’t look half that… what’s your secret?!” 

Hmm, perhaps not such a bad ending after all.