With the anticipated arrival of relationship guru and online dating expert Pepper Schwartz for a Whitman College presentation at 7 p.m. on Thursday, I decided to explore some questions that have been milling around in my head.
Many of you know I am now "uncoupled," as sociologists call single men and women. It's a weird place to be after 34 years of marriage, but here I am.
Having Pepper, who helped found PerfectMatch.com, at my disposal for a phone interview was an opportunity to dive -- risk free -- into this Internet dating dealio. The sociologist, with 30 years of research under her keyboard, developed a compatibility system that the company says guides clients to finding the "perfect match." How could I resist asking for a few pointers?
As well, I enlisted local freelance writer Andrew Holt, also "uncoupled, to add the male perspective. The "40-something" professional is interested in re-entering the dating game, he said, and was willing to humor me. Largely because I begged, I suspect.
We each came up with five questions to ask the expert:
Sheila Hagar, 50-plus, and hasn't dated since Nixon was in office: With online dating services, how do I not get hooked up with a creep?
Pepper: That's a tough question. First of all, act on your gut instincts. If something just doesn't feel right, listen to that ... if it feels dangerous, if they're not telling the truth.
The second thing is know what you are looking for, don't make too large of a list. I see these women who have 24, 25 items and they are just going to be lonely. Take three or four assets you want, then don't go beyond that. People are human, they don't come packaged like a smorgasbord and you can just pick what you want. Have a reasonable expectation.
Sheila: What is PerfectMatch's success rate, and how important is physical attractiveness (yes, I know, actually two questions)?
Pepper: I have no idea what the success rate is. We don't know what the denominator is -- how many people drop out because they fell in love, or they fell in love and it didn't work and they go to another site. We get lots of letters from people saying how happy they are and they are getting married, we do get letters of people complaining but we don't get the great middle.
I don't think it happens randomly, people have to be willing to put in the work. We try to help in any way we can. We can crop a picture. We can't crop off 50 pounds, but we can crop out the three children standing there with you.
And you like yourself better now (in middle age), maybe you're carrying a few more pounds and show some wear, but now you also have some accomplishments, some pride about where you've been in life.
Sheila: How well does PerfectMatch.com work in rural areas?
Pepper: Rural is always harder, there's not the same density of population, I have no idea what Walla Walla numbers are, but it's not that big. I have no idea of how many singles there are or how many are single and looking. Or brave enough to get online.
People might have to travel to Tri-Cities or Portland. In a small town there is a lot of luck in that, its the difference between the ocean and a stocked pond.
Sheila: What should I (hypothetically) know before using the service?
Pepper: You should know you have to be resilient, (love) is not going to happen on the first date. For some people it does, but they win the lottery, too.
You have to know some of the coffee dates are going to be ridiculous. And only meet that first time for 20 minutes, I don't care how great they sound. The good and the bad news is we all have very different tastes and it's not entirely rational.
It's like high school. It was never easy, it's just different now.
Sheila: Why you and PerfectMatch?
Pepper: They called me. They called me when it was Kiss.com and they asked me for a column and I said 'I'm busy, but if you're serious...' They came up with a contract for me.
That's when I created an algorithm, which I thought would at least give people an insight about who they are and who they should be with.
There are a lot of services I wish we could do more, there's no way to help people enough. Sometime you meet people who are shooting themselves in so many vital organs. I need to dress them, I need to wash them, I need to tell them to get a life.
Part of those are people who had a spouse, who haven't dated in 30-40 years and they just don't know how to go about it.
Sheila: Final thoughts (which does not count as a real question)?
Pepper: Admit you want somebody and go after it. It's like getting a job, no one is going to knock on your door. Tell people you want to date. Never go out not looking your best, maybe Mr. or Mrs. Wonderful is on the line ahead of you.
And then it was Andrew's turn.
Andrew: How did you come up with the idea for the service?
Pepper: I was approached some years before by another on-line dating service. I wrote columns for them but had very little involvement. After the service was acquired by another company and my no-compete contract expired, they asked me to form a system for the entire program.
Andrew: The system you use is called "The Duet." Explain the essence of it.
Pepper: The Duet system takes a lot from the Myers-Briggs test that has proven so successful in the business world. Essentially, the Duet System includes both similarities and differences regarding the client and whom they're searching for. Difference is very important. Someone might want to be with a partner who is different in ways they are not. For example, an introvert might want to be with an extrovert. In each category there are four questions that deal with similar traits and four with traits of difference. The client chooses how they would react to those differences.
Andrew: How does PerfectMatch differ from eHarmony?
Pepper: We are completely different than eHarmony. We don't discriminate against anybody such as gay clients. For a long time eHarmony would not match a taller woman with a shorter man, or someone who had several divorces. We accept anyone who is looking for a lifelong partner. With us, you find out with whom you match and why. With eHarmony, they just send you a name and you don't have any knowledge as to why they chose that person.
Andrew: How will a person be most successful in finding a perfect match using your system?
Pepper: You'll have a better chance if you have a sense of who you are, what you want, what's important to you; this way, you'll be in a pool of people who value the same things as you do. The system does not try to match chemistry or physical attraction.
You simply can't do that on-line. The system, rather, tries to match you with people whom you have a better chance of getting along with, who could be a life-long partner. Again, we give you a scope, you ultimately make the choice.
Andrew: How do you detect if someone is being dishonest in their answers?
Pepper: What we try to do is get social conformity out of the equation. There is no wrong answer. They're all good. Be just who you are; either choice on a question is fine. Don't think you can win anything by answering a question a certain way. It's more about your personality, about how you live.