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Online Dating's Dicey Connections

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Dear Miss Manners:

Do you have any "rules" for online dating that pertain to determining the person's character and integrity before continuing the relationship?

I got very badly burned by someone recently who seemed to be of sterling character, treated me well, then dumped me without a word, and I had to confront him about it. (The precipitating issue was he wouldn't get an HIV test.)

The whole Internet dating thing is scary to me (I'm in my 50s and divorced), and this incident makes me feel like my BS detector is broken.

What is the real deal anymore? So many men seem to be just looking to hook up.

So Miss Manners has been told for the last millennium or two. Hardly something she can be expected to reverse with a few pithy words.

Let us therefore address only the aspects of the situation that relate to Internet dating. While undeniably making it easier to meet great numbers of people looking for romance, it has, as you say, made an always risky venture even scarier.

Before this method, people met through other people, whom they both knew.

No, wait. Miss Manners has skipped an era, possibly because she prefers to forget. Before the Internet, determined people were meeting in singles bars. And complaining that these were, as they so elegantly put it, "meat markets." What they meant was that an awful lot of people were there looking for something a bit quicker (and more quickly over) than romance.

And sadly, there were some ladies who misunderstood the concept of the one-night stand, believing that the traditional timeline could be reversed and that courtship would follow.

Meeting through introductions from those who knew both people never precluded such unfortunate misconnections. But it does offer certain protections.

One is reputation. The go-between, knowing something of each person's character and history, is able to vouch for them -- and, if wrong, to damage the reputation of anyone who behaved badly. The online equivalent requires accepting the testimony of people who are equally unknown, and being able to warn only other prospects, without reaching the offender's own circle.

The other protection is deniability. People who frankly declare themselves to be looking for romance are bound to encounter different interpretations of what may loosely be termed romance. But those who meet socially need not seem ridiculously -- if not fraudulently -- coy if they make up their minds about prospects slowly under the guise of mere acquaintanceship. They may plausibly become indignant at crude advances. As a bonus, they lack the paradoxically unattractive aspect of someone who is "looking."

Miss Manners is well aware that all this is little help to those who feel that long work hours and a demise in strictly social entertaining have given them no choice but to turn to strangers. She offers it only with the slim hope that it will encourage everyone to develop and cherish circles in which romance will flourish naturally, as it always has.

Dear Miss Manners:

At a condo association meeting consisting of about 60 people, there was a head table with six people, facing about six rows of tables, about five feet away. In the front row were two ladies -- not sitting next to each other -- doing their needlework.

Is it proper to do needlework while at an event such as this? I noticed that the speakers were distracted (and so was I) by their movements. Between reading the directions and rearranging their work, one couldn't help but turn their way to see what was going on. I say it is rude.

But what if they don't have handheld devices that enable them to check their e-mail, send text messages and play games while the committee is droning on?

Not that Miss Manners condones failing to pay attention at meetings, or rather, failing to look as if one is paying attention. She merely wants to make the point that there are worse distractions available. Needlework at least has precedent behind it. For centuries, ladies sat quietly doing needlework while gentlemen conversed around them, and didn't miss a thing of what was going on.

Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.

2009 Judith Martin

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