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This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, look for the flashing beacon of language on a foggy cliff.
Today’s episode contains a couple of grown-up words and mental images. Wear protective clothing.
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ANDREA SILENZI: I don’t respond to anyone.
HZ: You don’t?
ANDREA SILENZI: I look at their faces and I feel nothing. So I just keep my mouth shut.
HZ: “I look at your face, and I feel nothing.” That is a chilling indictment of the whole system.
HZ: A few months ago, I was a guest on one of my favourite podcasts, Why Oh Why, hosted by Andrea Silenzi. Why Oh Why is about dating, which Andrea was doing reluctantly, as she was still in pain from a break-up with her long-term boyfriend. Approaching people is tricky online, as in real life, and because Andrea knows one of my favourite things to do is to analyse the ways humans communicate with words, she got me to take a look at the kinds of opening lines people send each other on dating apps to initiate contact, to try to figure out why most of them are not piquing her interest.
ANDREA SILENZI: I feel like so much of the message is outside of the person sending the message’s control, because it’s going to depend on the time of day I see your message, the mood I’m in at that moment, how horny I’m feeling, how bored I’m feeling, if I have plans this week, or if I feel overloaded, you know? I don’t know what I want to talk about with a total stranger.
HZ: Yes, because in face to face interactions, it usually stems from something else; you’re not going in cold, there are things in your environment that you can drop into the conversation. Or just say something boring like, “Huh, cold today, isn’t it?” and then you look for the clues that take you somewhere more interesting. But on the apps, you have nothing; no context, no external circumstances. I suppose you can go in with something really eccentric to get a rise out of people. Do people have a stock line that they drop in, so they’re starting not from a boring small talk place, they’re going in with something surreal or ridiculous?
ANDREA SILENZI: I have so many to run by you. There are tropes of people who have googled “What’s a good line?” and then they’ve taken that line and I see that line so frequently, you realise it was in a Buzzfeed listicle. Here’s one of them. It says, “Sunday priorities: exercise, sleep or aggressive mimosas?”
HZ: How is a mimosa aggressive?
ANDREA SILENZI: You’re drinking them really violently; throwing them all over yourself…
HZ: The aggression is all from you, not from the mimosa. The mimosa is a neutral or even passive actor in this situation.
ANDREA SILENZI: But wouldn’t it be a more boring question without the word ‘aggressive’ in there? Here’s another one, which is a top-performing question on the dating app Hinge: “Better discovery: Netflix or avocados?”
HZ: Well, Netflix is not a discovery, it’s an invention. In my life, I would say Netflix; it had a more profound effect. But also because avocados we get in Britain are never ripe, whereas Netflix is always ripe. Where’s the tension there, really? You can like both. It’s not a dilemma particularly.
ANDREA SILENZI: Also it’s interesting that both refer to something rich and comforting. An experience that feels indulgent.
HZ: Indulgent, but not necessarily bad for you, because there’s a lot of good material on Netflix, and avocados are nutritional.
ANDREA SILENZI: “Pain reliever personality: Advil, Tylenol or complaining?”
HZ: Are they saying, “Are you more of a neurosuppressant, or an anti-inflammatory, or a complainer?” What if you complain AND take a Tylenol?
ANDREA SILENZI: Right. I probably won’t take a Tylenol without having complained.
HZ: This is the thing. I dislike when people come up and say something like, “Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?” I don’t care. What does it say about me? Nothing. It doesn’t reveal anything. So I think these questions ought to reveal something, because at the moment, they are not really ice-breakers - they’re like, “Here’s some ice, now here’s another patch of ice.”
ANDREA SILENZI: Here’s one from Ari: “Puppies or ice cream?”
HZ: Again, I would like a more complex question. What are they going to say that’s not boring? “Ice cream, because ice cream is yummy!” or “Puppies, because puppies are soooo cute!” Ugh, who cares.
ANDREA SILENZI: No, but then Ari’s found his person, because that’s what Ari is looking for!
HZ: Bit basic, isn’t it? I’m not insulting puppies or ice cream; thumbs up to both. But - actually, they haven’t said “Puppies or ice cream?” under what circumstances. “If you had to fire a cannon to destroy an enemy’s armed force, and you only had puppies or ice cream, which would you choose?”
ANDREA SILENZI: Obviously you’d choose puppies, right?
HZ: I don’t know, it depends on how hard the ice cream is. My grandmother used to make really hard ice cream, so it would be like firing an ice brick at the enemy, so that would be more effective than a puppy. Though if the puppy is a pit bull, they could probably do some damage… OK, I’ve done a bit of a 180 on the “Puppies or ice cream?” But with significant footnotes.
ANDREA SILENZI: The “this or this?” style of question, they are really hard to move on from, or ever entertain.
HZ: Exactly. When you’re doing these either/or questions, you’ve got to give the person an obvious next step. Which I feel their version of “Puppies or ice cream?” didn’t do, but mine did. I still think that if I was using that, I would die alone. But at least it would be a diverting few minutes.
ANDREA SILENZI: I am convinced now that it is ice cream, though. So what about this - this is one of the tropes, you just say the person’s name. “Helen!” with an exclamation point.
HZ: So what that’s doing is saying, “I’ve opened the lines of communication, but I haven’t actually communicated anything yet, so the next step is up to you.”
ANDREA SILENZI: Yes. You’re just expressing enthusiasm for the match.
HZ: Yeah. But you’re also obligating somebody else to do the work you have failed to do in actually coming up with a conversation-start.
ANDREA SILENZI: OK, here’s another trope: “Let me guess” and then you guess something about the person based on their profile. “Let me guess: you’re not from Boston. Are you from LA?” Or, “Let me guess: you’re a Pisces.”
HZ: It sounds irritating, but also quite a useful conversational prop. Well, it depends, if they just say “yes” or “no”, but then they’re kind of a dud if they’re not “Yes, and”ing it.
ANDREA SILENZI: OK, here’s Helen. She says she writes limericks for guys using their names and info from their pictures, but she might be trying too hard. If someone wrote me a limerick, I’d take a screenshot of their photo, just in case I’m found dead. That’s just way too much effort.
HZ: That is way too much effort. I think also, limericks are not sexy. A lot of them are sexual, but in a parodic way.
ANDREA SILENZI: The kind listener, she sent us a screenshot of how these limericks play out. Here’s an example:
HZ: ‘There once was a young lad called Sam
Who travelled around Vietnam.
He tried on a hat
and said, “Fancy that!
I’ll use this to show how cultured I am.”’
ANDREA SILENZI: And then Sam replied:
HZ: “I’m torn between the appreciation for your creative flair, and the hurt caused at the underlying dig you’ve given me there.”
ANDREA SILENZI: I think it’s only a sexy limerick if you insult him in the process. OK, here’s one from Josh, it is also a little rhyme: “Roses are red, so are some wines; I’m not very good at pickup lines.”
HZ: OK, well, that’s cute and self-deprecating. It’s a little cheesy at the start, but I get it. That’s not bad. How would you feel if you got it?
ANDREA SILENZI: I’d have nothing to say, though. That’s the problem. Unless I go, “Obviously.”
HZ: You’ve also got somebody who is trying to get the benefits of a pick-up line whilst also not wanting to seem like a sleaze.
ANDREA SILENZI: Yeah, that he learned that trick and it worked, and he’s reusing that trick.
HZ: That certainly sounds like it’s not the only time it’ll get used. I think it’s really hard to convey tone in text that is that brief and you’re not sure of the audience. It is a very challenging thing to do, so no wonder a lot of people fail at it. It’s hard to be funny written down. So kudos to people who manage it.
ANDREA SILENZI: So why not just do “Hey”? Why not do one of the most common pick-up or opening lines, “Hey, how’s it going?”
HZ: I suppose because it seems a little unimaginative, and is that the first impression you want to make? But on the hand, if you innovate, you might alienate them from the start, because you’ve been too wacky, or you’ve accidentally touched on something that upsets them. I suppose by being specific, you’re narrowing down your potential matches. But by just saying “Hey, how’s it going?” - an automaton could say that. It’s just like you’re trying to get conversational table tennis going. So you’re just serving with the opening line, aren’t you? And you want that person to return the serve. And then maybe you get a bit more technique into it the next time.
HZ: A few months since that chat, Andrea and I caught up again. I’d been asking people about the kind of lines they’d sent and been sent, and one friend told me that the previous day, he had received the message 'I would drink your bathwater.’ He commented, “I'm not sure whether a ‘Hi’ before it might have softened my horror at all, but it might have been nice.”
ANDREA SILENZI: That's not normal.
HZ: I think it's a bit strong, isn't it.
ANDREA SILENZI: Yeah. My guess there is that someone's friend grabbed her or his phone and wrote that. I don't think that the actual interested person would do that. I think that has to be that you are involved in a prank.
HZ: Either that or you're looking for a sub/dom thing, and it’s just laying it out: you would literally drink the bath water. You want someone who is up for having their bath water drunk. Why mess around?
ANDREA SILENZI: The person this person is meant to find loves having their bathwater swallowed up. So I hope they find their person.
HZ: Then a female friend received, ”Oi shithead - Can I bum you?"
ANDREA SILENZI: What? Translate!
HZ: "Oi shithead". So that's a vociferous insult. "Can I bum you?" is a kind of comedic way to ask whether they could have anal sex with her. So I guess it's negging but also taking it sexual in one line.
ANDREA SILENZI: Wow. Man… There are so many moments where you're just reminded how you're completely out of your comfort zone in these spaces sometimes. And anyone can say anything to you.
HZ: Yeah, my friend Dan says that on Grindr he's often just sent a picture of a bottom with no chat. Andrew says, ”I always try to reference something in their profile which proves that I actually read it and I'm interested in something other than their pics", which seems thoughtful, seems like a good guiding principle. And he says, "I'm now in a relationship with someone I met from OK Cupid. In her favorite movie section, she listed A Hard Day's Night, so I asked what her second favourite Beatles movie was, and she gave the correct answer which is Help!"
ANDREA SILENZI: I think that things worked out between them just because things are supposed to work out between those two. The reality is that whatever the most obvious question that a profile brings up for someone is the thing that the other person is the most sick of hearing about. I have photos of my dog in my profile and I am so sick of guys asking me what kind of dog she is. Also I'm sick of them getting her gender wrong.
HZ: People always assume dogs are male, don't they? Always.
ANDREA SILENZI: They DO! So you have this thing that's like the bait you put out and you keep attracting the same kind of fish, and then you're just going to seem like all the fish, and you might fancy yourself someone who is a different kind of a fish but you probably aren't.
HZ: So have you experimented with removing the photos of the dog from your profile and seeing if you get different responses?
ANDREA SILENZI: I can't do that, because people have to know we're a complete package. You don't get one without the other.
HZ: What about, when you're assessing someone's profile, to realize what the most obvious question is, cross that out, and go for the second or third most obvious question.
ANDREA SILENZI: Yes, do that; or just go way out of left field.
HZ: One listener has supplied an example of ‘way out of left field’.
LISTENER 1: This is the best of the worst. “Hey, I'm Sam. Your profile is very interesting to me. One reason is I have huge attraction to girls who badly need glasses or contacts to see. I always enjoy naturally when girls mention they need glasses or contacts in their profile and are totally blind without them. I wear contacts myself. I have a minus 5.5 prescription power. What's your prescription number for glasses or contacts? Hope you message back.”
ANDREA SILENZI: That's the thing about these faces, if you're looking for a reason to write someone off, basically anything the person says to you can become a reason to write them off or feel weirded out by them. Because you're looking for a way out of it. And if you look at this person's profile and everything they say charms you so much, you won't be looking for a way out of it.
HZ: OK. But maybe length, and detail, is the problem here. So if he’d said "cute glasses - what's your prescription?" that would be OK, wouldn’t it? because It's a compliment and it's inviting them to reply, but it's only five words, rather than a full paragraph about glasses prescriptions.
LISTENER 1: In general, I’ve had the best dates when I initiated contact myself. I usually write about two sentences; I reference something in their profile that I like, and end the message with a question that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no.
ANDREA SILENZI: Yeah. That's brilliant.
LISTENER 1: Some messages are a bit odd. “Hey, I’m going to the supermarket later, can I get you anything?” That was so strange that I actually wrote back; but nothing came of it.
HZ: Now, it seems like variants of this line are pretty common. For example, “I’m making a lasagne, want any?” and the version that’s a memorable point in series 2 of Master of None. Aziz Ansari’s character Dev has his stock line he sends to any women he matches with on dating apps, “Going to Whole Foods, want me to pick you up anything?” And now, in the real world, it has spread and spread and spread. I heard from another listener who said she’d received it.
LISTENER 2: Last Thursday, I got a message from Matt, aged 30, that just said, “Going to Whole Foods, want me to grab you anything?” I was incredibly surprised that he would use a line from Aziz Ansari.
HZ: Given how in the past few weeks, Aziz Ansari’s sexual conduct and treatment of women on dates has been subject to considerable discussion.
LISTENER 2: So I messaged him back and said, “So, I'm just curious if you're cognizant that maybe using Aziz Ansari's pickup line may not really give quite the first impression you were hoping for.” A few hours later he replied back to say, “Touche, you're the first one to notice, so kudos for calling me out on it.”
ANDREA SILENZI: She's not the first to notice, she's the first to say something.
LISTENER 2: Matt replies: “Sure, my use of the line is in no way to support him; I just find it clever. Overused, cheesy - so be it. I'm fine with it. At least I got your attention.” The thing that kills me is that this is so much what men think, is that if they can just get a woman's attention, that's enough; that women's desire and actually being any sort of a good partner or a good person isn't it. And so it becomes a thing of like if we don't give them any attention, then they come after us in some sort of aggressive or violent way; and if we do, they think that they've won and that's the extent for which they have to do anything, really.
ANDREA SILENZI: Right. I love the idea of talking about consent before you even show up in a room with someone; but I don't like the idea of wilfully ignoring that information, and just testing women to see if they'll speak up about it. That’s so uncomfortable to me.
HZ: Have you noticed any difference in the back and forth since the last few months of questioning all kinds of sexual behaviour and gender relationships?
ANDREA SILENZI: No! And you would think that a guy could use this to his advantage, right? He could put “#MeToo" in his profile. He could say, “Trying to be an ally to women". You could see more photos from the women's marches. I feel like there's a lot of opportunities here to do that. But I also think men are just really afraid to seem like they're wearing a feminist t-shirt at times. They want to be seen as allies so we trust them, because we're considering having sex with them. So - yuk, it's just murky. It's really uncomfortable, and I think most guys probably are just trying to avoid it. But I would be ready to talk about it and actually could build a lot of trust between us.
HZ: But while you’re not having those discussions on the apps, what are guys sending you?
ANDREA SILENZI: OK, this guy Sean just sent me a message and it is a pizza emoji and a wedding ring emoji. What do you think of that?
HZ: He wants to marry a pizza.
ANDREA SILENZI: I don't think I like pizza wedding ring. It's moving really fast for me.
HZ: I think we’ve made the case that it’s very difficult to get opening lines right and very easy to get them wrong - we are quick to criticise others, but Andrea, what lines do you use yourself?
ANDREA SILENZI: Gosh. I'm usually just picking a fight. Yeah I don't know if - that hasn't always worked. If I see a guy in a photo with his brother or his twin I'll be like, "Is he single?"
HZ: So you're negging them? Classic.
ANDREA SILENZI: Yes. Or, like "Is that your bathrobe or does it belong to the hotel?” I don't know, it doesn't matter. Just say something! And if he thinks you're hot, then you're going to start some kind of conversation.
HZ: And, despite our critiques of all these different kinds of approach lines:
ANDREA SILENZI: I think one conclusion I came to is "Any line is better than no line". Sometimes I get really overwhelmed by online dating and I just want to make them come to me. But I feel as if I have any hint of interest in someone I'm going to just speak up and I believe now that the thing I say probably matters less than just the fact that I started something.
HZ: Andrea Silenzi is the new host of the terrific podcast The Longest Shortest Time, about families and those different sorts of relationships. You can find it at longestshortesttime.com. But you can still listen to the archives of Andrea’s show Why Oh Why, including the full length version of our conversation on the episode called Puppies or Ice Cream - the episodes are all available on the Panoply network, and while you’re there, check out Panoply’s myriad other shows: for instance there’s Family Ghosts, which solves mysteries in various family histories; if you’re excited about the impending Royal Wedding, there’s the podcast When Meghan Met Harry; and if you’re into your history, listen to The History Chicks. So many podcasts, who even needs to find a human with whom to spend one’s life?
Our noble friends at PRX want you to know about a very timely project they’ve been working on in collaboration with KALW in San Francisco: it’s a show called Inflection Point with Lauren Schiller. In this podcast, Lauren is having tough but very compelling and upbeat conversations with experts, activists, policy makers, authors, artists, lawyers, about how to dismantle the patriarchy, put it in the attic next to the Christmas decorations and camping equipment, and get on with constructing a more equal society. Hear these conversations with people who are knocking on doors and breaking them down: Inflection Point with Lauren Schiller is available on Apple Podcasts, RadioPublic, NPROne and all the podcatchers.
The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, such as Mortified, in which people get on stage in front of an audience and read things they wrote as kids. Somehow without curling into a ball from the shame. In the second Open Me episode of this show, you heard about how Mortified originated with a letter written by founder Dave Nadelberg when he was a lovelorn teenager - and now Mortified is a live show around the world, it’s books, and it’s a new TV series that you can watch on Amazon Prime now or on Netflix, where it will be launched on Valentine’s Day. And you can also listen to the Mortified podcast, and all the fellow Radiotopian shows, at radiotopia.fm.
This show would be nothing without the attention and support of you listeners. And for that, your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
satyagraha, noun, passive political resistance, especially as advocated by Mahatma Ghandi against British rule in India.
Try using it in an email today.
This episode was produced by Andrea Silenzi, with Lindsay Kratochwill, and me, Helen Zaltzman. Martin Austwick makes the music for this show - he has a new album out at palebirdmusic.com. Thanks to the listeners who shared their dating experiences with us. Do you have an opening line that works a treat for striking up conversations on the apps? Tell me about it on Facebook and Twitter - and there are a couple of previous episodes called WLTM about how to present oneself when dating online or in ads, find them along with all other Allusionist episodes and transcripts and auxiliary material at theallusionist.org.