(The Root) —
"I'm in my 30s and haven't had much luck dating. Where I live, there aren't very many options to meet the type of guy I like. I'm a little embarrassed that it's come to this and nervous about who I'll meet, but I am finally ready to try online dating. Any thoughts or anything I should be wary of?" —A.E.
Good for you! I encourage online dating, although I've always thought of the term as a bit of a misnomer. Online is a great place to meet people, but you shouldn't "date" them there. "Dating" should be reserved for the real world (more on that in a moment).
A single woman who doesn't wish to be single, or is just looking for some dating fun, should be exploring all of her options. There's no reason to be "embarrassed." Online is the third-most-popular way for singles to meet, according to a 2010 Match.com study (pdf). (Work or school is the most popular, followed closely by a hookup from a friend or family member.) The same study claimed that one out of every five singles in the U.S. have dated someone they met online.
I suggest taking a similar approach to meeting guys that I would takein the real world. Since you have a "type" that you like, then sign up for a site where you will be most likely to find him. If your "type" is largely based on personality, aim for sites with the most people so you have the most options. But if your "type" is more specific, like "Christian," "single parent" or even "wealthy," head to a niche site where you'll find folk who at the very least identify heavily with whatever it is you're looking for.
Just like showing up to an event hoping to meet new people, you'll need to put in some effort to meet who you like online. Signing up isn't enough to get results. That means you will need to think carefully about your presentation, i.e., what picture you select for your profile and how you describe yourself there.
You'll also have to put in some work to seem friendly and approachable, and with more than just a flattering picture with an engaging smile, though that helps tremendously. Scroll through the profiles and contact people in whom you're interested. A compliment on a photo or something mentioned in a profile and a question to get him talking will have a similar effect online as they do in the real world — if the guy is interested. Don't take it personally if you don't get a response. The lack of face-to-face interaction makes people less likely to use their social etiquette. It's just the nature of the Internet.
Once you get a response from someone you're interested in, or you get a message from someone who sparks your interest, trade a few emails. (Note: Writing back and forth isn't dating; it's having a technology-savvy pen pal.) Then quickly take the "conversation" offline within a week. (If you're squeamish about giving out your number, get a dedicated line for online dating via Google voice.)
After a couple of phone conversations to gauge if there's chemistry or common interests, suggest that you meet in person in a safe, open public space, of course. If he can't meet up soon for any reason, move on.
This timeline may seem fast for some, but what I'm trying to help you avoid is getting caught up in some of the mind games that come with online dating. I've been privy to horror stories where hopeful women head online for companionship, get stuck in the instant messaging or phone-talking phase and become emotionally caught up in guys who are figments of an imagination at best, or straight-up liars at worst. Of course, people can pretend to be someone they aren't in person, too, but it's by far easier to create a charming persona or hide a wife when you're operating behind the anonymity of a screen or phone line.
In the best-case scenarios of online dating gone wrong, women meet someone who has a great personality via instant messaging or on the phone, then in person realize that his personality is a little dry or he was less than forthcoming about his age, height or income — the top three things men misrepresent online. Unfortunately, this is sometimes par for the course in online "dating."
Don't let that discourage you, though. I know plenty of women who have had bad dates with people they've met online, just as they would if they'd met a date at work or school or through a friend. There's not any place, online or off, that guarantees a perfect match and can back it up. It will take trial and error — and a little luck — to meet a great match, but if you're up for the challenge, there's an exciting new world of dating options waiting for you.
Demetria L. Lucas is a contributing editor to The Root, a life coach and the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. She answers your dating and relationship questions on The Root each week. Feel free to ask anything at email@example.com.