Radically Honest Online Dating

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 pretty and 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, much harder but 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). The idea came to me, as most ideas do, from a conversation with a friend.

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. She wrote him, telling him she accepted him. 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, or to prove a point?

Rod accused Chad of doing a “social experiment.” Chad denied it, saying his effort at meeting a partner was real. If it were a “social experiment” 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. Those are just stats—honest details are hard to come by when you read through profiles on match.com, 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-examiners (people who go to therapy, men’s groups, yoga, and other adventures in self-improvement). 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, too.

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Sasha Cagen is the author of Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics and To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soul Mate, What Our Lists Reveal About Us. Sign up for Sasha's List to get weekly-ish inspiration for your quirky life, along with news about books, online classes, and in-person events, retreats, and adventures.

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Posted in Dating, migrate, Quirkytogether
22 comments on “Radically Honest Online Dating
  1. What an interesting topic! I agree 100% that dating today, especially online dating, has become too much like shopping. (Great analogy with Zappos, btw!) Too many people are convinced they can find the perfect mate and aren’t willing to accept any flaws in a potential partner, all the while expecting others to tolerate their own weaknesses. Oh, the irony!

    Since we all want to be loved for who we really are, I think many of us would like to skip the pretenses of the “getting to know you” stage. But, as you observed, there’s a fine line between candor and public humiliation! Privacy issues aside, one problem with revealing major flaws upfront is that it can inject a negative tone into a profile, and negativity in itself can be a turn-off. Another problem is that it flies against human nature somewhat. People tend to form relationships, whether romantic, platonic, professional, or otherwise, with other people because of perceived qualities that they like. When less than desirable qualities eventually appear, the previously demonstrated good qualities provide motivation to overlook them. Present too many of these bad qualities upfront and a reasonably logical, healthy person will have no motivation to form a relationship since he or she is not yet aware of the good qualities.

    On the other hand, a profile that seems overly polished or perfect can be intimidating or make readers wonder what horrors could be lurking beneath the surface. So perhaps a compromise would be to reveal just a few flaws, nothing too threatening but enough to humanize you and help screen out those who couldn’t handle your pet peeves.

    As a matter of fact, a few years ago, I wrote a dating profile in which I listed both my strengths and weaknesses in the “About Me” section. I didn’t do it as a gimmick or experiment but because I wanted to give potential dates a realistic idea of who I was. Several of the men who responded noted how they appreciated my honesty and humility, and one of them became my boyfriend. I think it worked because 1) I wrote about my flaws in a lighthearted way, which helped them seem less serious, 2) it demonstrated that I had a certain level of self-awareness and commitment to self-improvement, and 3) it showed that I was comfortable with myself, warts and all. A sense of balance was also crucial; I didn’t write a laundry list of faults or delve too far into dark, angst-filled closets.

    In short, I think revealing faults in an online dating profile can be refreshing and make the writer seem more accessible and likable. But you need to be careful not to overwhelm readers with too many negatives that aren’t counterbalanced with lots more positives. Ultimately, if online daters are more capricious than they used to be, airing your failings may not make them any less demanding or selective. It may just be time for singles in the dating pool to realize that settling isn’t the same thing as being realistic about the fact that everybody is human and uniquely flawed. There is no “perfect person,” just people with different sets of problems. If we should be spreading any message among online daters, I think that’s the most important one.

  2. Onely says:

    Been mulling over this piece. . . I think Boyd’s comments about finding the “right wrong person” are spot-on. What I’ve noticed about myself specifically is that I tend to be drawn to people who have the same kinds of wrongness as I do–the same neuroses and foibles and bad habits. I think this is a bad habit in itself! Why do I gravitate toward people with my same problems, instead of toward people who share my strong points? I recently resolved to try to do the latter–or at the very least, try to be drawn to people who have *different* wrongnesses from mine.

    That said, in theory I support Radically Honest Online Dating, but I do worry that putting your foibles out there on display could attract people who have those same foibles, as they think, “Oh, here’s someone I will bond with because they will understand my fear of the color pink,” or whatever. So all you have are two people who encourage each others’ neuroses. (Been there, done that. . . repeatedly. . . sigh. . . )

    Christina

    • Onely says:

      So in sum, I think the “right wrong” person would likely be someone whose hangups and bad habits are different from yours.
      CC

      • Kayle says:

        I think I do this because there’s an implied built-in acceptance there. i am only just finding out that this acceptance means absolutely nothing to some people and that they can have much WORSE flaws hiding behind the cute ones we’re all selling as counter-cultural positives.

  3. Sasha Cagen says:

    Hi @christina and @singletude:
    @christina, I think you nailed an important point: we all want to nod in agreement when we read someone’s profile and online we seem to be much more attracted to “like” than “opposities” so I can easily see most people thinking, oh, he has the same fears I do, we’d so get along, when all you would do is reinforce each other’s tilted thinking! @singletude: to play into the same trap myself (online agreement), I do think you’re right–the best outgrowth of Radically Honest Online Dating is a nudge in the direction of being more detailed and real (really, a better writer) in your profile to encourage people to want to know you and have something to say, just to get the ball rolling. I was just thinking, what if someone put out a truth, like, I have $50K in credit card debt? Who would be attracted to that? A credit counselor? It’s really quite amusing when you think about all the real but not exactly outwardly appealing stuff one could put in a profile.

  4. rob_from_colorado says:

    You are all still thinking in terms of strategy and power.

    “What is someone put out a truth, like, I have $50k in credit card debt? Who would be attracted to that?”

    That’s exactly the journey.

  5. Julia says:

    Sorry, all these stories about internet dating bore me rigid. If you want to get to know authentic people, join a chess club instead (or try some other hobby that doesn’t involve marketing yourself).

    • Doctor Spin says:

      @julia – That doesn’t involve marketing yourself? Hey, this is America! The business of America *is* marketing! What are you, some kind of liberal or something? :~)

      Seriously, I like your suggestion, and my feelings are mixed about online dating. But let’s face it, unless you happen to live where other members of your particular “tribe” do, it’s either go online or endure some pretty long dry spells. And if your “tribe” happens to be people who love things dominated by your own sex, like auto mechanics or sewing, well, there you are!

      As for radical honesty, while I have mixed feelings about that too, it’s good that someone out there puts a premium on being articulate, avoiding online-profile cliches and not spin-doctoring yourself into a corner.

  6. Julia says:

    @doctor spin
    I am proud to be European. I don’t know whether that makes me a liberal ;-) I thought quirkyalone was about being able to cope with being on your own. If you’re so desperate about getting hooked up that you have to ask others how to best write your own profile, you’re a whimperalone. If you are 36 and anxious to have a baby, you have better chances at the sperm bank than with the radical honest approach of please please impregnate me.

  7. lab_rat says:

    As someone who’s done a fair amount of online dating (on what’s generally regarded as the best same-sex dating site) with mixed results*, I feel like this is the equivalent of reapportioning electoral college votes: Everyone has to do it or it doesn’t work.

    A few times over the four years I’ve been on the site, I’ve drafted an RHOD profile on the premise that the right, self-selecting respondent will be the person I’ve been looking for.

    But I can never seem to press “save changes.”

    To the extent online dating is a numbers/percentage game — and I think it is to a large degree — it’s tough to write in the “About Me” section … “Yeah, I’m really good at most of life’s tasks — job, friends, family, citizenry, cultivating cool interests — but the being-with-someone-else thing? Not so much.”

    Just sayin’.

    *when it works, I end up finding like-minded QAs. We make out once, then become friends.

  8. Rebecca says:

    Sasha, I nearly fell over when I saw this post — I had the very same idea seven years ago, when I first forayed into online dating. After a short time, I thought, what if everyone posted radically honest profiles, e.g., “Needy underachiever with low self-esteem seeks codependent smothering type for mutual wish-fulfillment”– now wouldn’t THAT be something? But in the end, I venture to guess it wouldn’t fly with the masses, for all the reasons stated above and more.

    I think the truth is, if we could really be that radically honest about ourselves, and brave enough to actually put it out there so publicly, that very act would go a long way toward remediating some of the very shortcomings we’d be owning.

    And also, as I believe you suggested, isn’t the romance in the process of discovery, the unravelling of the other’s outer layers to let the real right/wrong person emerge? That is what a relationship is all about — building that trust to enable that unfolding process.

  9. Spinsterette says:

    I actually tried this with a false profile, but my experiment was flawed, as I used the photograph of a a reasonably attractive woman (e.g. with “girl next door” appeal but not a model) and listed her as slim, 5″9, blonde and blue-eyed.

    This woman was an alcoholic whose previous boyfriends no longer spoke to her, was reliant on her shrink as her best friend and the government for money, and had no “commonly marketed” features besides her looks.

    “She” made it into the Top 100 popular people of the particular site I used, and was inundated with emails, that men had to pay AUD$10 a pop for, before her profile was deleted by staff. The lesson I learned? Most men don’t read the words, they look at the pictures. Do most women do this too? I’m not sure.

    However, that said, I also think there are a large number of predators on internet dating sites looking to use and exploit others: put your negative qualities out there, especially any admittance of loneliness, and you’re like blood to a shark looking to play you for sex, money or whatever else they’re after.

    PS: Check out the various single mothers by choice websites if you haven’t already, their forums are full of interesting commentary by single mid-thirties women.

  10. Spinsterette says:

    PPS: The reason I conducted my flawed experiment was that I received very little interest on online dating websites as myself and I wanted to know if my looks had anything to do with it. I’m 33, slim, 5″1, blonde and blue-eyed. But I’m not your “girl next door” type, like my 28 year-old-experiment, I’m a geek.

    I’ve actually started being really open on my Facebook profile, demonstrating a diversity of interests, in the hope that this might spark an interest in dating me from an acquaintance or three. I figure I don’t have much to lose putting more of myself out there online as well as in the real world – I’m single now, aren’t I?

  11. Hmm. Your idea is really interesting. Why not build one yourself, before somebody else steals your concept?

  12. Andy says:

    Thank you, thank you, a thousand times thank you for this topic! It’s been some time–quite a lot actually–since I’ve been on the QA site regularly, but this topic so dovetailed with the conversation that prompted my return, it was like synchronicity. Without realizing it had a name, I’ve actually always used this approach online, including making clear my complete lack of belief in “categories” for relationships, and have recommended “RHOD” to a friend with similar views as well. I think my exact words were “You sure won’t get as many bites, but the ones you do get, if they really understand you, will be very meaningful.”

  13. The Orb says:

    Who was it that said, “In a time of lies, speaking the truth is a revolutionary act”? OK, maybe that’s a bit grandiose for this setting, but RHOD sounds to me like a beam of sunlight breaking through a leaden, overcast sky.

    Online dating feels a lot to me like filling out a job application, and we all know how demoralizing that can be. I mean, don’t you hate having to try and figure out what the prospective employer wants to hear and spin-doctor your personal history rather than telling it like it is?

    Saying what you’re about (mindful of certain privacy issues) and putting it all out there for prospective partners/friends/mates to see. That’s definitely radical!

    @spinsterette – I do definitely read the words in online profiles and don’t just look at the pictures!

  14. VJ says:

    Chad burned through 12.5 HOURS of a calling card on the first call? I don’t know whether he’s controlling, demanding, inconsiderate, overly intense to the point of being oblivious to others’ lives, or needy. But he is certainly scary.

  15. RG says:

    several years ago, around 2004, esquire magazine was featuring “brutally honest personals”. they were a bit of a novelty and not quite as robust as this idea, but they were totally real and totally great! i still have the text of what i sent in, but it was sadly never accepted for publishing…

  16. Little Star says:

    As you said, intimacy is earned with trust. In fact, one really bad idea for relationships is to have an intimacy imbalance or someone who pushes your boundaries but doesn’t let you close to theirs. Women are already socialized to be nice, and I doubt much good would come of baring ourselves more than we already do.

  17. Miguel says:

    I had no clue that there were others out there that enjoyed living alone. I’m a 69 year old, straight, who fantasies about beautiful women, not the Dachau Looking skinny ones that would get blown off the sidewalk during a strong wind. I’m not into casual sex because it’s offered. I’ve been told that I look too young to be the age I claim. Being ex military and doing hour long exercises in the bathroom as quietly as possible, has raised eyebrows to those who believe in gym exposure to raise muscle as well as eyebrows. I’m very neat and tidy but have let a read newspaper lay beside door until the time is right for it’s disposal. I watch TV late into the night on low volume so as not to bother my neighbors but to also pick up other nefirous sounds that might indicate criminal activity outside; bring out reptilian military side

  18. Hannah Qua says:

    First of all, kudos to Chad. The funny thing about online dating is that one would assume you’d have nothing to lose by being yourself online. In front of our friends (or friends of friends), there might be appearances to keep up or a role to play, but online – hey, everyone’s a stranger.
    Still, most people use the opportunity to paint the best picture of themselves (who can blame them) and sometimes the picture is photoshopped to the point where it doesn’t even resemble them anymore.
    I’m all for Radical Honesty and nowhere is this more important than in the arena of relationships – online or offline. Now I think there are still boundaries – I mean keep some of the mystery, yea? – but all of us can afford to be a little more honest about ourselves. If they don’t like it, well, at least there won’t be a “sudden divorce” down the line.

  19. val richter says:

    Well I decided to do just this prior to reading your article. So far, I’m discovering how many men don’t read my profile until after they message me. I can tell because they suddenly disappear after a few flirty texts. But I do have a funny older gentleman on the hook right now who is mature enough or maybe senile enough to give me his phone number. It’s all good; his first message still has me laughing, so he seems to “get me.”

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