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A Shrink (Anonymously) Reflects

On The Difference Between Physical and Electronic Attraction

On a hot September day, I wandered around an antiques show in Maine (a crowded, many-boothed affair spread over acres), and paused to look at a tray of arrowheads in a booth devoted to Native American artifacts. One of the booth owners came over to me and said, “Please come in and feel free to spend a bundle.” I laughed and looked up to see a strikingly attractive (to me, and more on that in a moment) man, my age (in his 50’s), no wedding ring, a big guy, hairy (he had on shorts and a t-shirt), a bit of a swashbuckling look, and an expectant, energetic air about him — ready to interact.

I was taken by him. The question is Why. Well, the interaction with this man had started with teasing — that’s particularly appealing to me, having grown up with beloved uncles who teased me a lot, and I associate teasing with a person’s being unafraid of his or her own aggression — in a healthy way. Then his looks: big and hairy. He shared these qualities with my father. So far, so good. Now a lot of information has been registered and assessed, and less than 60 seconds have gone by.

So I ask him about the arrowheads, and tell him about finding one as a child. He talks about finding arrowheads where he grew up, then goes on to talk about the qualities of stone, slips in he’s an anthropologist- turned-businessman (a further positive sign for me; he has some intellectual interests and abilities). We take this conversation about as far as it can go, so I make a motion to leave, and he quickly moves to show me other arrowheads in a different part of the booth. After a brief conversation there, my very slight interest in arrowheads is already way over-extended — and he has to deal with another customer — so I leave.

But as the day progresses, I keep thinking about the interaction and some kind of energy in it. And I decide, two hours later, to walk back by this guy’s booth on the way to my car. Now thinking, ‘Maybe this was just me. I won’t be forward, but I’ll just see if he notices when I walk by’. And he does. Comes out to talk to me again (another good move in my book — I like a man who is confident enough to approach), and we talk for 15 minutes — about his work, the show, I mention my children (Test: is he a family man?), he mentions he comes to Boston on buying trips, I match this by saying he should call me when he does, he raises by saying too bad I wasn’t here earlier as he would’ve taken me to lunch. He gives me his card and says I should send him my email address. I ask about the name of his company, Cupid’s Sharpened Arrow, and we laugh (here a positive and a negative thing — charming name, but why would someone name his company this? What is his issue about love?).

Now, what of this can occur online? Certainly not the power of the physical attraction, which is a strong and primitive phenomenon; a potent corporeal effect. The teasing? Maybe it could occur later in an email conversation, but it couldn’t occur online right off the bat, as each person writes his or her own essay — alone, not interactively. Now, a sense of humor could certainly be conveyed in an electronic essay, but that’s significantly different from the complex communication in this man’s first comment to me: “Please come in and feel free to spend a bundle.”

The interactions from that point on — about mutual interests, intentions — could be conveyed in an email, but the excitement, if you will, of the in-person experience — two people walking on a tightrope of feeling; hitting a conversational and attractional ball back and forth — can’t quite be duplicated. So enough now on what can transpire in vivo. Let’s look at online relating and what it can do well.

So… I send Mr. Big Hairy Strikingly Attractive No-Wedding-Ring Swashbuckling Anthropologist-Turned-Businessman Teasing Confident Arrowhead Guy my email address, and, in an attempt to continue and expand the conversation, note that where he lives (Boothbay Harbor, on the ocean) happens to be just the area I’m reading about in a book about crabbing, and I convey a bit about the book to him. (Aside: I’m wondering — Does he read, like nature, is he curious about the world, books?) He responds, and — with the wonderful at-arm’s-length encapsulation that email allows — I can see a pattern that I’m not so sure I would see as clearly in person; or at least it might take me longer to see.

He first mentions that he was quite sick after the antiques show, then talks about being allergic to crabs, but doesn’t mention any interest in crabbing or Boothbay Harbor — although I know, from our real-life conversation, that he lives on a boat — and then refers to having an “obstructed view” of an island I mentioned. None of these things is a deal breaker, but all three together in a first email make me wonder about a tendency to present himself as less strong or in charge than he initially appears, a bit a victim of circumstance.

I may perhaps be reading too much into things (a professional liability), but I want to underline something that online dating and emailing are very good at: They allow each person to more thoughtfully consider the meaning of things, the content of interactions — and to separate that out from our more immediate, and often physical, responsiveness. Also, for women in particular, the Internet removes the social demands of being encouraging and positive, and increases our opportunity to be more analytic.

And so Mr. Big Hairy Allergic-to-Crabs Obstructed-View a-Bit-of-a- Victim Not-Much-of-a-Listener and I email back and forth a couple more times, and then the distance between Maine and Brookline, the increasing lack of interest on my part, the ever-more-clear information conveyed by email that our similarities are few and our differences many…lead to our not continuing the “conversation.”

Had our whole “relationship” been conducted electronically, it would never have gotten off the ground. But had it all been in person, the physical attraction might have carried it along for far too long, leading to more involvement than was ever really warranted.

Adapted from a presentation on dating and the internet.