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This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, wait for language to get its Netflix revival.
Coming up in today’s show: one woman’s linguistic experiment to win at online dating.
Let’s warm up for that with a little word history, sponsored by Fallen London, the award-winning choose your own subterranean Victorian text adventure game. It’s like a huge, interactive novel that’s always changing - around Valentine’s Day, you can participate in the Feast of the Rose, a big festival of love and debauchery. Or you can stay home, just you and your giant carnivorous plant. Play Fallen London for free at fallenlondon.com, and Allusionist listeners can get a free gift to use within the game at failbettergames.com/allusionist.
Thanks to Fallen London, here’s the etymology of 'adorable'. Aaah! Cute! NO. Well, only after 1710 or thereabouts. But before then: ‘worthy of worship’ because ‘adore’ - which English got from French which got it from Latin - meant ‘worship’ and ‘bow down’ and ‘pray’. Though actually, there are plenty other words that have become far more complimentary than their roots: ‘awesome’ has drifted from its quaking-in-the-face-of-God connotations, ‘terrific’ isn’t so terrifying, and ‘sick’ isn’t just a pile of something you step around on the pavement outside of a bar. Oh, and cute? Used to mean ‘clever’ or ‘shrewd’, an abbreviation of ‘acute’ which meant sharp, or in the case of disease, quick and severe. “Aw, your baby is so quick and severe!” Yep, going to need to find a new compliment.
On with the show.
HZ: There’s a problem with online dating.
AMY WEBB: Fundamentally, these sites are not set up to match you. They can’t be. Their interests are not your interests. It depends who you are.
HZ: She’s the futurist and digital strategy consultant Amy Webb.
AW: In my case, I wanted not to be dating any more; I wanted to find the right person and be done. So if you’re in that situation, the business is set up against you; their financial incentive is to keep you as a paying subscriber. They want to match you well enough, so that you’ve got dates to go on; but again, the business model incentivises them not to match you perfectly, every single time. If they had a magical algorithm that really worked, that would obviate the need for a monthly subscription, or a six-month-long package, or a year-long package.
HZ: There’s another problem with online dating: you, or specifically the way you use language. Every dating site has its own algorithm which matches you with others based on the information you enter into your profile. But language is a vast, nuanced palette, and an algorithm can’t necessarily grasp what you mean with total accuracy - and you might not have supplied total accuracy either.
AW: We all answer in an aspirational way, we don’t answer honestly; it’s really hard to be honest. So you wind up with a blob of language that gets associated with somebody else’s blob of language, and a lot of it is fiction. I’m not saying people are intentionally lying; but you wind up trying to match a version of the person, rather than the person themself. So you’re invariably going to wind up with bad matches.
HZ: And back in 2004, that is what kept happening to Amy Webb. She had just been through another rough breakup. She was more than ready to meet a man with whom she wanted to settle down. So with her family egging her on, she had signed up to a couple of dating sites.
AW: Just like everybody else - everybody has horror stories of online dates gone wrong - I definitely had my share.
HZ: The man who disappeared without paying his half of the huge restaurant bill. Men who insisted on high fiving all the time. The man who kept referring to himself in the third person and to his penis as 'The Captain'. And there were other linguistic red flags.
AW: There was a guy who claimed to be a surgeon, an orthopaedic surgeon, and we met at a coffee shop, and he’s talking, and he couldn’t pronounce ‘anaesthesiologist’. And he kept trying to say - I can’t even say it the way he was saying it, ‘anethsesess’ or something. And I was thinking, “This seems like one of those words that is part of your everyday vocabulary, if you’re an orthopaedic surgeon.” And he kept tripping over it, and eventually I thought, “I don’t know what you do, dude, but you’re not a surgeon. It’s cool. I don’t want to see you again, but next time you go out with someone and fake your profession, pick one with simpler terms.”
HZ: Or practice beforehand.
AW: So there were some problems.
HZ: Her family told her that she was being too picky.
AW: I had not found it difficult to find dates; there seemed to be plenty of people to date. The challenge was, the promise of these websites wasn’t being fulfilled. The promise of the websites is: you put your information in and we’re going to match you with your soulmate.
So my expectation was that I would, at the very least, be matched with somebody who had some semblance of… at least some of the same interests as I did. As it happened, it seemed I was being matched on the basis of geography. And gender. That was about it.
And this all came to a head after one date. I had finally met somebody who shared similar interests, and he was really attractive, and we had great chemistry, and we had this amazing 45-minute-long date. And his phone rang -
HZ: It was his wife.
AW: I had just had it. And I went back to my apartment, and I opened up a bottle of wine, and I drank it all, and I was really really upset, and I called my sister, which is what I do when I’m really upset. But she had said to me, “When we were kids, we watched Mary Poppins over and over and over and over again. You remember that scene where Michael and Jane had caused yet another nanny to leave, and they make a list and sing a song about all the things they want in their nanny, and they write down everything they can possibly think of -”
CLIP OF ‘THE PERFECT NANNY’ FROM MARY POPPINS:
If you want this choice position
Have a cheery disposition.
Rosy cheeks, no warts;
Play games - all sorts...
AW: “- and then it gets sucks up through the chimney and Mary Poppins appears. Why don’t you just make a list?” And I was like, “That’s brilliant! I should totally - ” in my drunken stupor I was like, “That’s the perfect idea.” And I start writing. And with the benefit of alcohol, the internal self-editor got turned off, and I wrote and I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. And I wound up with a list of 72 different things, so, data points, if you will. These were the 72 things I need in a guy in order to make me happy.
HZ: Number 7. Likes selected musicals: Chess, Evita. NOT CATS.
10. Must not smoke. Must insist I don’t smoke either.
14. Must understand how important my career is and support me in it.
17. Wants two kids with me.
23. Challenges and stimulates me.
AW: So I thought, “Perfect! Now I know what I’m looking for, so I’ll just go back to these websites, and I’ve got this lists.”
HZ: 28. Appreciates the beauty of a well-crafted spreadsheet.
49. Must be willing to listen to George Michael.
AW: and even in my drunken stupor I knew 72 was a lot, it was going to be difficult.
HZ: So she went through the list and prioritized the 72 data points. Top tier points were dealbreakers; second tier were important but not essential, and so on; each point was assigned a numerical score.
AW: I said, “There’s no way I’m going out with anybody until they meet a minimum score.” Now, the problem with that idea is, while I now have a way to figure out whether or not I should go out with somebody, I realised I wouldn’t date me, based on the profile that I had created.
HZ: “an award-winning journalist, speaker and future thinker, adapting current and emerging technologies for use in communications. She has spent twelve years working with digital media and now advises various start-ups, retailers, government agencies, and media organisations...”
AW: I had a really horrible, horrible profile, which I had created because I just wanted to get to the matching process. I don’t like answering questions; I didn’t find that part of the process enjoyable; I wanted efficiency. So I just copy and pasted parts of my resume, which I was proud of, and I had worked on really hard; and whatever photo I happened to have, because again, I wasn’t thinking about people looking at my profile, I just wanted to look at other people’s profiles.
And then Amy had a revelation.
AW: Once I had figured out what I wanted, I wanted to see what my competition was. At the time, the websites I was using, you couldn’t flip the gender - if you were a woman you could only see men; if you were a man, you could only see women, unless you identified yourself as gay, and then you could flip back to the same gender. So I created a male profile with basically no information, just so I could get the keys so I could unlock the door to see who was there.
HZ: Amy ended up creating ten different male profiles, keeping printed folders for each detailing their appearances, family, job, education, hobbies, tastes - they were all pretty impressive catches who scored over the threshold of her points system. If those were the kind of guys Amy wanted to date, she needed to know how write her own profile so that the dating sites’ algorithms would match her with them, and to do that, she needed to study the women’s profiles that were being favoured. How did these women describe themselves? How long were their profiles and messages? What tone did they strike, what kind of information did they include, what vocabulary did they use?
AW: Looking at the most popular profiles - I was just shocked and then a little disappointed, and then I got really angry. Because - it wasn’t just that...these women are pretty. You expect that. The pretty people who photograph well, you expect them to excel in an online dating environment. Because we’re visual. You notice photos first, and then we go to text. Which is why in any catalogue you look at, you get these big product images, then you get the text that describes them .
But the language these women were using, the way they were describing themselves - they sounded like idiots! I just remember thinking, “This is so unfair!” Then I thought, “If these are the most popular people, what does that say about...Why would a woman who writes that she’s silly and fun and likes to have a silly time in all caps with misspellings - who in their right mind would want to spend any time with that person?” It was a hard moment for me.
HZ: Seems quite reductive, those sorts of terms.
AW: Well… Yes, it does. So… It was very difficult. I’m looking through to see the words that were being used, and I’m surprised that the profiles that are the most popular ones seem to have grammatical errors - and not everyone should have a completely grammatically correct profile, but you should try. You should put your best foot forward.
HZ: Yes - in text, as in life, the first impression is important, and a profile filled with typos is like turning up to the first date with soup stains all down your front.
AW: On the flipside, there were these women who had 2000-word, very long-winded, very long profiles; you could tell that they had taken time, to be thoughtful, to express themselves, to describe themselves. Some of these women sounded amazing. But when you put that next to “I’m silly, I’m fun!” - the silly fun person sounds like I’m going to go out and have fun with this person, she’s going to make me feel good about myself. Whereas with the other profiles, I thought I’d love to hang out and be friends with this person, but I probably wouldn’t want to take her on a date.
HZ: If you write something brief and vapid about yourself - is part of the appeal of that that the person looking at it can project whatever they want onto you? Whereas the long profiles that talk in detail about yourself, that’s giving the person too much information about why they might not want to be with you.
AW: That’s fascinating. I hadn’t really thought of that before, that the absence of description - I interpreted that to be vapid and many other negative things, but I think you could be right, that the absence of description allowed people to fill in the blanks. So I do think that’s a trick that people who have written successful profiles employ. They say just enough to pique your curiosity so you want to know more, and then fill in the rest when you get to that first date. Conversely, if you list the more specific details, the more is available for somebody to disagree with.
HZ: Amy’s profile was more than 900 words long. She discovered that the most popular profiles were short, containing an average of 97 words. And most of those words were different to ones Amy would tend to use.
AW: And they were inherently and intrinsically optimistic. If I were to have recrafted my profile to say "This is who I am and this is who I’m looking for", it’s not that mine would have sounded bleak; but in part because it would seem for me to be a strange way to write, I would not have gone out of my way to use optimistic-sounding words, or mentioning concepts that are cheerful. I’m not not-cheerful; it just wouldn’t occur to me to put that into my profile.
HZ: In the most popular women’s profiles, the most frequently used words were ‘fun’, ‘love’, ‘optimistic’, ‘laid-back’, ‘laugh’, ‘adventure’.
AW: That was the other really interesting thing: “Up for anything, I like to try things”, giving that sense of openness, conveying that sense of potential is another trigger, psychologically, because it makes you feel as though you’re probably not going to fail with that person, because they’re up for anything. So something so simple had completely eluded me. But it makes perfect sense.
HZ: Amy spent a month studying dozens of women’s profiles and gathering linguistic data. And then it was makeover time: if this was a film, there’d be a montage in which Amy tries on different outfits and gets a flattering new haircut, intercut with her rewriting her profile. It now said: “My friends would describe me as an outgoing and social world traveler, who’s equally comfortable in blue jeans and little black dresses. I’d say they’re right. I’m looking for a wickedly funny, insanely clever adventurer who’s interested in making me laugh as we venture far off the beaten path together.”
AW: After I relaunched my super-profile with all the right language and better photos; I was very popular and I had lots of interested parties. The one that really stuck out did the same thing that I did: he mentioned a few interesting details; for a job he said that he was an Arctic baby seal hunter, which I thought was really funny.
HZ: Must be awful if people didn’t get that joke.
AW: Yes, and it turned out that profile belonged to the last ever first date that I went on, and that is my husband. We talked about that on our first date; I said I thought it was hilarious, he thought he was being clever and funny, and he got death threats.
HZ: Add to the linguistic data analysis: avoid jokes about animal cruelty.
AW: People were livid, and thought he was serious.
HZ: If he had used punctuation sloppily and bad grammar, do you think you would have been drawn to him in the first place?
AW: I think it would have been problematic. I will tell you why, and it’s maybe unfair, but I was looking for someone extremely smart and extremely witty.
HZ: Point number 1: smart.
Number 2: funny.
AW: And spelling things weirdly or writing in an accidental nonsensical way would have turned me off, as much as Arctic baby seal hunter turned me on.
HZ: Remember Amy’s previous date had lasted for 45 minutes. Well, her first date with the Arctic baby seal hunter was fourteen hours long. But when dating someone new, when is the right time to mention that you created ten fake men so you could data-mine the way that popular women use language?
AW: Yeah, that had to come up. I think it was the third or fourth date. I showed him The List. I said, “You know, I’m very happy with you, but I want to tell you what I did.” And he got sort of flushed, and I thought for a moment, “Oh god, I’ve just killed this; I should’ve kept it to myself.” But it turns out, he was deeply, deeply moved, because in reading through all of the different data points, he said it felt like I had conjured him up. Because it was him! So imagine being handed this description of you that somebody else had written. Luckily, that’s what freaked him out, not the experiment part.
HZ: Number 22: appreciates my quirks and sensibilities.
AW: But one of the points was that I was looking for somebody who would appreciate a beautiful, handcrafted spreadsheet, and he did.
HZ: Bonus point to him because apparently he listens to this show. Hi Brian!
They’ve been together ever since.
This episode of the Allusionist is sponsored by Squarespace.com, the simplest way to build a gorgeous website. They offer easy to use tools and templates to make - well, whatever you want, really: blog, gallery, podcast, 72-point list of character traits for your ideal partner, why not put that out there. Start your free two week trial today at squarespace.com, and when you sign up for a year, get a 10% discount by using the code ALLUSION.
Last episode, you were kind enough to tell me about your dating profiles; if you’re willing, I have another task for you for an upcoming episode. Go to a quiet place, and record yourself on whatever you’ve got - phone voice memo is fine - and tell me the worst thing you said to someone to break up with them. Or the worst thing someone said to you to break up with you. By ‘worst’, I do mean ‘worst that you can kind of find funny now’ rather than something that will emotionally devastate you afresh to recount in this forum. Send recordings to email@example.com, if you’re willing for me to use them in the show. It’ll be anonymous, apart from your voice.
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