Why do people love to tell you their bad online dating stories? You meet someone at a party who tells you she was recently divorced (or her father was widowed or her daughter was dumped) and is having trouble meeting new people. You try to be helpful and innocently mention online dating as an option. But before you can protect your drink from the spray of poison emanating from her mouth, she starts: “Oh, I would never do that again! I have the worst story!”
Instead of excusing yourself to play Candy Crush on your phone, you let curiosity get the best of you. You ask, “Oh really? So what happened?” Then it comes: “I went on a date with some guy who was at least 10 pounds heavier than he appeared on his profile,” she exclaims. Or she dangles, “I went on a date with a guy with such disgusting table manners that I almost had to get up from the table and leave!”
“THAT was enough to make you give up online dating? ” you think. Ah, dating horror stories! They usually fall into four categories. There are the “Profile Misrepresentation” tales: She was shorter. He was balder. She was more wrinkly. He promised his jokes would be funnier than they were.
There’s the “Sweeping Generalization” category. You’ve heard these before: “The men are only interested in sex” or “The women are just looking for someone to buy them dinner.” (Yes, that’s because a free enchilada is worth two hours of awkward conversation.)
There’s the “Socially Inept” contingent. These usually involve stories of failures of communication, like making your date wait 20 minutes in the cold because you got stuck in traffic on the way and couldn’t call because your cell phone died. Or you’re asked to go on an inappropriate date like a BBQ cookoff when you’re a vegetarian. Or you’re expected to pay for the unexpected. (“He drank three lattes in a row on my tab!” or “She asked me to split the bill for two iced teas at Denny’s!”) Or your date brought along his mom – although that could actually be an entertaining story!
Finally, we have the cringe-inducing “Bad Behavior” stories. I once met a dentist who told me he went on a first date with a woman who clutched her jaw in agony and asked if he could give her a complimentary root canal. Then there was the case of the woman who asked her date to a flea market, made an excuse to use the restroom and promptly disappeared.
Although most bad online dating stories aren’t that awful, they do serve as a form of commiseration and a reminder that we’re not the only ones who ever got stood up or met someone who was vastly different than the person they appeared to be in their profile. The danger is when the people who tell them use them as an excuse to avoid all online dating. They don’t admit that they just happened to meet a turkey or a jerk – as they could in any other form of dating. No, they blame the whole genre for one or a handful of bad experiences.
But such cautionary tales aren’t harmless. Not only does the negativity make you feel kind of icky when you’re trying to stay hopeful, it turns off the very people who could benefit from online dating. I’m thinking of a widowed 70-year-old who told me he didn’t want to try it because “my friend had a bad time.” This great catch doesn’t have a wide social circle or live in a town with lots of other alternatives to meet people. Since he’s just re-entered the dating scene, he might not have heard enough positive stories to be able to filter out these supposed doozies for what they are – one person’s bad time.
So the next time you hear someone say, “Have I got a story for you?” take it with a grain of salt. Or excuse yourself and go seek out the people who have success stories. I always enjoy asking couples how they met. As online dating becomes more widespread, there’s a good chance you’ll hear something along these lines: “Oh, Bob sent me an email telling me I had the prettiest eyes. I thought he wrote that to everyone, but after weeks of emails and phone calls, I finally agreed to meet him. My stomach flip-flopped when I walked into that café and saw him holding a bouquet of yellow tulips. We’re getting married next summer.”
That’s one worth hearing.
Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist and the author of Motherhood, Rescheduled: The New Frontier of Egg Freezing and the Women Who Tried It. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Slate and Salon.