MY FRIENDS THINK Iím kidding when I say that my future husband will be a good speller ó but Iím not. The truth is, in this electronic age, e-mail can reveal as much about a person as any conversation propped up by a bar and a few drinks. For this sixth-grade spelling-bee champ, misused pronouns, stray apostrophes, and general alphabetical missteps are about as bad as any common social faux pas, such as never making eye contact or insulting my heritage. Like many other members of the Tech Generation, I rely on e-mail as a form of communication, and spelling mistakes aside, e-mail brings a string of new possibilities ó and new problems ó to the dating world.
What can you lose?
Alysse Wurcel was on the company shuttle bus to her office one morning. It was early, and she didnít have her glasses on, but she was sure that she had gone to college with the attractive guy smiling at her from across the bus. As they exited, she realized that this man was not someone she knew, but she caught the last four letters of his last name on his nametag. When she got to her office, she consulted with her co-workers, determined this manís name, and sent him an e-mail:
I saw you on the shuttle yesterday, and I smiled at you because I didnít have my glasses on and I thought you were someone I knew, and then you smiled back and then we kept on smiling. But I wanted to say hi and just say thank you for smiling back ...
I donít usually write these types of e-mails, but all my co-workers are telling me, hey, you are young, what can you lose.
Please write back,
Nine days passed, and Wurcel did not hear from her mystery man. "At first I was hurt, but I am glad I did it," she said at the time. "It is not full-out rejection. There are numerous things that could have happened ó maybe he didnít get the e-mail."
Courting might be an old-fashioned practice, but if Wurcelís initiative is any indication, it is alive and well in 2002, and it makes its home in the inbox of any citizen who considers him- or herself electronically connected. If e-mail is the modern love letter, then giving out oneís e-mail address is the 21st-century calling card. E-mail is easier on the nerves than a phone call, plus it can be proofread, edited, and (ahem) spell-checked. Whatís more, e-mailing takes the sting out of rejection, as there are plenty of reasons to excuse a non-response: maybe he never checks his e-mail, maybe he never got it. Maybe heís swamped at work.
Wurcel was deep in the throes of such reasoning, when, on the 10th day after sending her message to the guy on the bus, this arrived in her inbox:
Iím not sure if you work [in my building] also but there is a beer hour at 5 today on the roofdeck. Maybe Iíll see you there ...
This wasnít champagne and roses, and it was after a 10-day delay, but I assured Alysse that at least it was something; her initial e-mail got a polite response, which is all anyone hopes to get when he or she takes that first step.
"Your playing games"
Of course, all the things that are great about e-mail can also make it a dangerous crutch. Because sending an e-mail is so much less nerve-wracking, it can be used to express those things, good or bad, that we just donít have the guts to say in real time. But flat text can be limiting when it comes to subtle expression, so it is also difficult to send or get the "hint," especially when some people have trouble reading those types of signs in person. Whatís more, a lack of face-to-face communication can cause things to get really ugly if the relationship turns south.
For example, after a pretty awful first date, I was polite but apathetic on the phone with an unusually persistent suitor. He called again after a few days to see if Iíd checked my e-mail. I honestly had not checked it that day, and after some halting small talk and a lukewarm goodbye, I hung up, opened my inbox, and found a letter from him. Apparently, after just one date and a handful of phone calls, he had this to say:
You obviously have issues or something. I think your playing games, and I dont appreciate it. Maybe Iím overreacting and this isnt the case, but if it is I wish youíd just let me know [sic].
I felt a little blindsided. It wasnít as bad as the granddaddy of all e-mail disses, the callous electronic break-up. But using e-mail as a catapult to lob accusations at me was enough to turn me off. Call me heartless, but I had no problem stooping to his level and ending the "game" via a clear, succinct message of my own.
Bad spellers need not apply
Somewhere between the coy banter and cruel truths are online personals. In a Salon article titled "Meatmarket.com," writer Heather Havrilesky reports that personals titan Match.com experienced a 195 percent increase in membership over the past year. There are millions of people online, eager to post profiles that detail exactly what they are like and who they are looking for. And when they encounter other profiles that seem to fit their liking, e-mail is the first point of contact. Itís a cross between having a new pen pal and picking someone up in a bar, except the exchange is entirely faceless and timed to the cadences of reading and responding. Whether or not the witty exchange will continue in real life is a crapshoot.
Read the signs
E-mail courtship is really all about timing and language, and practiced e-Valentinos know how to look for certain cues. One obvious indicator of someoneís interest is how quickly he or she responds. Knowing when to write back is part of a tricky balance between not wanting to respond too quickly, so as not to appear overeager (or worse, a computer geek), and wanting to respond promptly to show interest.
Another telling cue is the way in which a response ends. Whether or not the recipient reciprocates the interest of his or her pursuer can be determined by how the reply ends. "Talk to you soon" would be a promising signoff, but "Hope you have a good day" or the less-sensitive "Later" is not. The difference is almost undetectable, but it matters. In the e-world, words can hurt, but not all the time. Youíll never know unless you take the plunge and click SEND.
Kate Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org