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Truth in Dating

Should online Cyranos make us second-guess our first impressions?

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A recent study published in the science journal Evolution and Human Behavior found that men and women on blind dates make their judgments in three seconds or less.

This probably isn’t breaking news to anyone who’s ever been on a blind date—or who’s read Blink. But for those daters who are consistently shut out in those pivotal first seconds, another recent study offers a modicum of hope: A group of women was shown photographs of men and asked to rate their attractiveness; the same man received widely varied responses, depending on how he was dressed. It would seem, then, that those first three seconds are not entirely out of our control.

“I know this sounds shallow,” says our friend Jen, a 27-year-old EMT, “but when your Internet blind date turns up in a slightly shiny black leisure suit, it sort of turns you off.” Where “sort of turns you off” means “makes you lose his number permanently.”

But what if Jen’s date had left his leisure suit at home because he’d read somewhere that shiny fabrics make a bad impression on a blind date? Retail salespeople and stylists abound to help him make better fashion choices. Would employing them be considered faking his way past those first three seconds? Because everyone knows that shiny fabrics are infinitely more forgivable on a fourth or fifth date, when you usually know someone well enough to tease, “What the hell are you wearing?”

These days, of course, making a good first impression no longer means simply trading in your pleated khakis for a pair of flat-front pants (our No. 1 first-date tip for guys). With online dating, the first impression begins before the first meeting, with a photograph or three and a couple of witty paragraphs.

Enter the cyber-Cyranos: “professionals” who rewrite your personal ads, like ProfileDoctor.com, AmazingProfiles.com, and PersonalsTrainer.com, a site we pinch-hit for (when we’re not doing “personals touch” on our own site). The main criticism of these is that they misrepresent the clients, crossing from improvement into false advertising.

But dating has always meant a little bit of fronting. You meet a cute indie musician, say, and suddenly you can’t stop raving about how great Spoon is live, even though you’re just parroting what your much hipper roommate told you. With online dating, you’re strategizing for a general audience, rather than a specific hottie one bar stool over.

“I am funny and clever, but I have no ‘game,’ ” says Joe, a 34-year-old film-and-TV editor who signed up for a professional ad review. “Sometimes I go too far. So I just wanted help streamlining my goofiness into something dateable.” And it’s not just men seeking help either; Jesse Keller, president of PersonalsTrainer.com, says half his clients are female. The only difference, he says, is that women don’t mind which gender reviews their ad; men prefer a woman to help them out.

Of course, not everyone can have mass appeal. One young man whose ad we recently rewrote told us of his fondness for Renaissance fairs. Though everything in us screamed, “Don’t ask, don’t tell! Seventh-date material at the earliest!!!” we ended up including this hobby in his ad. The guy has his own medieval outfit and custom-made sword—we figured it was only fair to help him weed out all the women who’d laugh him out of the bar.

Then there are those rare few who would rather lie their way through a first impression, whose “improvements” could be considered cheating. While browsing LavaLife.com, Rich, a 33-year-old music producer, came across an ad that was remarkably similar to one he had responded to on Nerve.com—except that the photograph showed a different woman. He compared the two ads and decided that the LavaLife woman was the cut-and-paste thief because of the incongruous “plus I have a great ass” addition at the end of an otherwise eloquent essay.

But most people who seek help making over their ads or composing e-mails to new crushes aren’t interested in flat-out lying—about their occupation, their height, their weight, etc.—because they know such “factual adjustments” are easy to disprove. And it doesn’t take many e-mails to figure out that an impostor hasn’t actually read any Pynchon.

“I didn’t feel like the rewritten ad misrepresented me,” says Steve, a 47-year-old consultant and one of our sort-of-satisfied customers. “I can’t say that it necessarily improved my results, but it definitely made me feel much more confident about using the personals.”

And isn’t confidence what successful dating is all about? If you think you’re smart, funny, and cool, at least on paper, then your blind date is more likely to think you’re funny, smart, and cool—at least enough to give you the benefit of the doubt for those first three seconds. After that, it’s all you.

Em & Lo pen weekly love-and-sex advice on EmandLo.com.


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