I was recently thrust back into single life, only to remember why I hadn’t missed it all that much: That shit is stressful, man.
Much of the pleasure of a steady relationship is that it liberates you from the anxieties of casual dating (which is a total misnomer). You know each other’s work schedules and communication habits. There’s no endless hand-wringing about whether they’re icing your texts or just busy at work; no anxiety about whether you’re coming on too strong or seeming too aloof; none of the general unease of making yourself vulnerable to a veritable stranger.
And that’s to say nothing of having to curate and maintain your various online dating profiles, a task that comes with its own set of challenges. You have to make your profile; curate a tableau of photos that captures your personality; write a witty description of yourself; seem equal parts funny, sexy and smart; swipe through dozens of profiles before making a match; weed out the flakes; come up with a witty opening line and then somehow keep the conversation going long enough to transition it to an IRL date.
I’m exhausted just thinking about it. Honestly, it’s too much for one man to handle—which is why I sought outside help. MEL Managing Editor Serena Golden recruited a panel of eight women who date men and who’ve recently used dating apps to answer some of the many questions I’ve wrestled with as I strive to create the best possible profile—and the best possible date.
I don’t photograph well, and the photos I look best in are either professional headshots or carefully composed selfies. But I feel like having too many of those photos makes me look like your typical L.A., wannabe-actor douchebag.
Anne, 28: Here’s the thing: You’re on a dating app to presumably meet people in person, therefore it is a good idea to look like you are actually going to look in person in your photos. No one wants to get to a date only to realize the person looks different in person! The people who are attracted to how you actually look are the people who you want to date anyway, right? So don’t stress over the perfect photo. A couple face shots, something of your whole body or most of it, nothing dirty or creepy in the background, and you’ll be fine.
Lauren, 28: I would like to add: Unless hunting/fishing is your entire life, maybe don’t use those shots (maybe this is just a Southern problem, but I see a lot of dead fish on Tinder). Then again, if fishing is your only genuine interest, by all means let me self-select out of your pool.
I have some other photos of me hanging out with friends, but do women really care that I go to concerts or get drunk with my bros occasionally?
Liz, 32: I really hate having to study group photos to try and figure out which samey-looking dude you are. I kind of assume everyone has friends; I don’t need you to prove it. If you have one great group photo, maybe put it at the end, but otherwise try to stick to solo shots so I can see YOU, not your bros.
Lily, 25: Your first picture, as well as the majority of your other pictures, should definitely be solo shots for all the excellent reasons Liz has given. However, I personally like seeing one group shot, because if all your pics are you and only you I wonder if that’s because no one else can stand you. Bonus points if your token group photo is something that could start a conversation, like you and your friends underwater basket-weaving (this is a real-life example).
Lauren: Every time a dude has group photos, he’s always the least hot guy in the group. So I’d steer clear, honestly.
Is it chill to have a photo of me hanging out with another woman? I feel like women will see that and say, “There’s at least one other woman in the world who can tolerate this man’s presence. I MUST DATE HIM IMMEDIATELY.” Like when women are more attracted to men with wedding bands. Right?
Emily, 26: First of all, I am pretty sure the wedding band thing is not true? In general, if I see a lady in a dude’s dating app photos, my feeling is, “Ah, this man is too lazy to crop out his ex-girlfriend or is a very lazy cheater.” Even if that’s not the case, dating apps don’t provide enough context for me to tell. Go with well-lit solo photos where you are smiling and I will assume some nice woman took the photo for you, since men are, by and large, not great at taking flattering photos of each other.
Margaret, 25: I have never thought more of a man because he appears in a picture with another woman either because of misplaced jealousy (which I think is where the probably mythical wedding band theory is from) or because being in the proximity of a woman means he’s somehow vetted. I agree that quality solo shots are best, but if you do have a picture with another woman — because it’s a flattering, interesting picture — a personal pet peeve is guys who say some variation on, “She’s just my sister!” Men and women can be in photos together without being related and without it being a big deal.
I hear puppies play well on dating apps. But I don’t have a puppy. Is it unethical to borrow someone’s puppy solely for a Tinder photo?
Anne: You can use whatever props you want, but be prepared to have a lot of convos that start off like, “Cute puppy!” “Oh, it’s not mine.” Having a puppy in a photo is a natural conversation-starter, but if it isn’t yours, the conversation may not go anywhere. Better to use something you do have or enjoy as a prop. (I personally have a selfie with a bag of hot Cheetos on my Tinder.)
Margaret: Unethical is a bit strong, but don’t set yourself up for dead-end conversations. I have a picture with a dog that’s not mine in my profile, but I volunteer at the local animal shelter. When people ask about the pup (which they often do), I have something to say beyond, “Oh he’s not mine.”
What about my nephew? Should I include photos of me holding him? It could show I’m good with children and trigger some kind of evolutionary response in women to want to date me. “I NEED THIS MAN’S SEED!” they will think, and swipe right. (Clearly I base all my dating decisions on bad social science.)
Gabrielle, 27: If the lil dude naturally appears in a picture you feel accurately summarizes your best self (the way you look, the people you are with, the activities you are participating in) and he is not the primary focus of the picture and you have the explicit permission of his parents, then maybe go for it. But you have to actually know yourself well enough to present a best version of it in your profile — it’s obvious if you’re trying to seem like a generic “perfect guy” to land a date.
Also, you do realize that if you’re trying to play on a woman’s supposed need to reproduce, you might end up dating someone who is hoping to be in the kind of relationship that leads to kids. Is that what you’re looking for?
Liz: You’re way overthinking this. I promise you, nobody is worrying about bullshit evolutionary psychology when they’re swiping through Tinder. I just want to see a few photos that represent you and your interests so I can tell if we are going to have anything to talk about. Keep it simple.
Sharone, 35: I’d also add that pictures with babies can sometimes read as cynical pandering—especially because most dudes I’ve met with pictures of “nephews” on dating apps do not exactly give off the “looking for the mother of my future children” vibe. Is it your actual kid? Cool! Way to be upfront about the realities in your life. But if you have some disclaimer like “Don’t worry, it’s my nephew,” that can read as off-puttingly defensive, and saying nothing at all can be kind of puzzling. Just be you. Show your life and your interests realistically.
I have a pretty dry sense of humor, so I’d like my profile description to reflect that. But how do I do that without coming across as a huge jackhole? For example, my current description reads, Journalist and humor writer. Dancer. Dreamer. Survivor (I got bit by a lion in an animal park once). 6’2” and proficient at Excel. How would you rate that?
Anne: That’s a nice, amusing, informative profile. I’d swipe right on it (but I do want to change “bit” to “bitten”).
Liz: I think that’s good! Showing is always better than telling. Writing something in your style and letting me get a feel for it is definitely a better way to go than just saying, “I have a dry sense of humor.”
Lauren: Yeah, it’s better to just be funny, rather than talk about it. Be funny, be smart, mention an interest or two, or go for absurdism. Steer clear of getting defensive or any sort of negging. (I just swiped left on a really cute guy who had something in his profile to the effect of, “I’m employed, caring, and intelligent, which I guess is why I’m single.” Like… that’s not why you’re single, dude.)
What should a short guy do about his height? List it? Leave it blank? Lie by a few inches?
Anne: List it and let the chips fall where they may. People do care about height! They’re going to notice your height when they meet you in person! Best to filter out people who wouldn’t like you based on your height before even talking to them, because why waste your time?
Sharone: Cosign, with this addition: Just include your height without being coy. All the foot-shuffling of something like, Idc about height but I hear women do so I’m 5’9” makes it seem like you actually do care very much and you’re hoping no one will notice (they will).
The opening line is easily the most fraught part of online dating. What should I say when I do get a match? Tinder suggests complimenting the person, but complimenting a woman’s looks can go sideways real fast if not done tactfully.
Sharone: Tinder is being foolish. Even if most women wanted to be told by strangers how attractive they are (maybe they do? I generally don’t), it’s a conversational nonstarter. Take for example this opener I got once:
Truthfully, does it weird you out a little bit that I’m like putty over your beauty?
How was I supposed to respond to that? The honest answer was yes, I was totally weirded out, but even if I’d said, “No, thanks for the compliment,” what would your follow-up be? Instead, choose something that has a chance of taking the conversation somewhere beyond one or two replies. My go-to has usually been finding something in the profile or photos to ask about, based on the theory that if I can’t find something I’m interested enough in to ask about it’s probably not going to be a great match.
Emily: You have two options. The first is to pick a line you use with everyone that is fun and gives people an arbitrary choice that you can banter about: “Let’s say you can only have one breakfast food forever: pancakes or waffles?”
The second is to find something in the profile or a photo, compliment it, and ask a follow-up question: “Love the Austin photo! I’ve always wanted to visit — any recommendations for things to do there?”
Men who send me “hi” are universally poor conversationalists and I assume dudes who steal the Whole Foods line from Master of None are serial killers.
Okay, so ideally I’m picking something from her photo or description. But what if her profile is sparse? Do I just go with, “Hey. How are you?”
Gabrielle: Mentioning something is a nice way to show that you’re paying attention, while also revealing something about yourself based on what you focus on. If her profile is nondescript, maybe try to pick something interesting out of her pictures. And if nothing is talking to you, maybe that’s a sign it wouldn’t have been more than a superficial connection anyway.
Lily: I’ll be honest: I never respond to guys who just say “hey” or “what’s up.” I imagine those guys being the type to swipe right on every girl and send them all the same message, just to improve their odds. Do your best to come up with a conversation starter that will, y’know, actually start a conversation.
After how long can I suggest we take our conversation offline and meet for a real date?
Liz: I like exchanging a handful of messages and then moving to a casual in-person date pretty quickly. But not everyone is the same! Just do what feels right to you, and trust your potential date to let you know if your suggestion doesn’t work for her.
Lily: My advice is to try to meet up pretty quickly, because otherwise one or both of you risk the chance of building things up in your head, which will make you more nervous for the date and also more upset if things don’t work out. If you end up dating this person, you’re going to spend a lot of time talking face to face, so the sooner you find out if this is a person you can do that with, the better.
What kind of date is ideal? Just going for drinks seems uninspired, but also the right decision for a first-time, online date.
Lauren: This is going to depend on the individual — not all women drink, after all! I prefer a sober but caffeine-fueled look at a potential sexual partner, which is why I tend to suggest coffee over drinks for a first date. I also prefer a well-lit, well-populated area that I can leave easily, just in case. It’s also a good idea to choose a setting you feel comfortable in, and one that’s low-to-mid range on the $ scale.
Margaret: Not every date needs to be a huge creative event. Drinks and coffee are both totally fine options. One of the best dates I went on recently was going to a landmark in my city that essentially became just walking around talking for a while — moving around and seeing different things gave a lot of opportunities for conversational inspiration beyond standard small talk. Don’t plan on things that require a lot of time, like dinner rather than drinks. Give yourself flexibility in case either or both of you aren’t enjoying it. And yes, you should pay attention to price — someone recently proposed a date at a restaurant that I couldn’t afford and it made me very uncomfortable. Better to just avoid that, especially on a first date.
I think most guys — certainly not me! — enter a first Tinder date with the expectation they might get laid. On a scale of 1 to toxic masculinity, how bad is that mindset?
Liz: I’m curious about the way you worded this question. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about wanting to have sex on a first date. But I do think it’s important to a) be clear about your expectations and b) react appropriately if your date thinks differently. People (of all genders) have really varying philosophies about this and it’s pretty useless to talk about them all in the abstract. I don’t care about what most men want—only the particular one I am on a date with at the moment. Be honest with your date about what you’re thinking, listen to what she tells you and act like an adult if she doesn’t want to sleep with you immediately (or ever).
Lauren: Many people use Tinder just to find hookups, and many people use it to find dates! I’m personally not averse to a hookup on a first date, but it’s not my typical M.O.—for a lot of reasons, and the repeated serial killer jokes I’ve seen on a surprisingly high number of profiles are only one of them. Men, why?
However, I don’t speak for all women! It’s definitely a good idea to prepare your mind and body for all eventualities. (Take a shower and change your sheets, but also mentally prepare for going home alone. Either way, you’ll have clean sheets!) Tangentially, I read a column once that advised masturbation prior to a first date so that you don’t have pent-up sexual frustration impeding your decision-making. I don’t know that I’d go that far, but it’s something to consider if you don’t expect a first date to result in sex.