Flirting with writers

Or: Woman, 28, in ‘modern dating is awful’ shock

woman with phone
Me whenever I manage to make a spontaneous pun. This happens once every six months at most.

If you’ve read Dolly Alderton’s beautiful memoir Everything I Know About Love, you’ll join me in a sharp intake of breath when I mention the ‘guru chapter’. For the uninitiated: a few years ago, Alderton conducted a phone interview with a man who billed himself as a “guru” – they clicked madly, and spent the next few weeks texting, emailing and talking on the phone constantly. They shared work and thoughts and dreams, but when they finally met in person and spent the night at her flat, he disappeared in the early hours of the morning, never to be seen again.

Dolly Alderton phone
Highly relatable.

When discussing this chapter at The Old Market in Hove on Sunday night, Alderton described looking back at the events as like “watching a baby lamb inch towards the jaws of a lion”. The reader can see where it’s heading. The people around Dolly at the time could see where it was heading. The chapter nearly didn’t make it into the book – her editor reportedly called the episode a car-crash.

“But I get so many women telling me they have similar stories,” she concluded on Sunday. “I think every woman has one story like that – if not more than one”.

It is wholly predictable to say, “the internet has made dating weird”. Less obvious, though – and admittedly far more niche – is how weird dating now is for writers and people who are generally better at expressing themselves on paper or screen. And if you are better on paper (hi, guys), dating culture right now is, for the most part, an absolute gift, with gifs. We’ve grown up knowing how to establish connections using pixels. It’s wired into us by now.

It started when we were teenagers, tactically logging out and back in to MSN in the hope of Scott from Lower Sixth noticing. Choosing the perfect song lyrics as our screen names. Awkwardly learning to flirt by the clicks of a keyboard. We progressed to Facebook messenger, and now a fairly standard millennial mating dance goes ‘Tweet-DM-WhatsApp-drinks-dinner-sex’. Or variations on that theme. This is a great piece that really nails some feelings I’ve had yet not found the words to articulate, but I feel there’s a serious long read to be written – if it hasn’t been already – about social media, messaging apps, and their effects on dating and relationships.

The reason I think this new culture causes more of a headache for Creative Types than it does for, say, payroll administrators, is that by their very nature, writers et al. are hyper-imaginative. If you make ‘art’ in any form* –  if you write, paint, draw, act, sing, attempt to make roomfuls of people laugh, you absolute psychopath – then you decide what’s significant. You control the narrative. It is literally your job to overthink, overanalyse, feel a bit too hard and too much. A lot of the writers I know are incredibly good flirts – until you’re physically in a room with them, that is, and then you have to ply them with alcohol. Flirting is basically “using your words to get someone to fancy you”, so if you 1) enjoy forming sentences, and 2) are interested in more than two subjects, you tend to excel at it.

*Please be reassured I do not regard the nonsense that comes out of my typing fingers as ‘art’.

The curation involved in developing a friendship, fling or relationship online – the swapping of jokes, gifs, songs, observations, articles you know will interest the other person – well, it’s only one tightly-edited, highly-polished version of the reality. You take on the role of human Pinterest board. And even when you are being honest with each other – maybe you tell him about the fight you very deliberately picked with your ex, and he tells you about the time he read his girlfriend’s messages – the very act of typing it out makes you choose how the story is told. And in those confessional moments, when it looks like raw, messy guts are being offered up, it’s still not as raw as it feels. It’s hard to condemn someone who’s being honest – or “honest” – about their mistakes, but we all retell our experiences to absolve ourselves, a little.

None of these online conversations are ever unfiltered. Face to face, out loud, you flounder. You don’t choose quite the right words, you let your mouth run ahead of your brain, sentences hang in a room unfinished. The very act of trying to put life down in words – trying to give it the architecture of grammar – makes it more complete and coherent than it really is.

The antidote is of course to keep things mostly offline. Arrange a date, then don’t chat until you’re actually in the pub in front of each other. Don’t browse each other’s social media profiles and start constructing a person in your head based on what you see there. If you’re already prone to believing your own imagination over what’s actually happening in front of you, you’ll build a superhero, an angel, a god-like figure on a pedestal – and that won’t just screw you up, it’ll hurt the other person too. You’ll have expectations of them that they’ll never be aware of, so how could they possibly live up to them? You’ll get attached to your idea of them and the messy, moody, changeable, beautiful human they really are will utterly pass you by. You’ll ignore orange flags and only see they were really red when you catch sight of them in your rearview mirror.

It’s so easy to type it out now, of course.

Sure, flirt with a writer over WhatsApp – they’ll be good at it. But remember, it’s their job to make things sound more important, meaningful or beautiful than they really are. Take their lines as you would a shot of tequila – with salt, and something sharp. And more importantly: be aware that in every line they feed you, they’ve buried a chip of their heart.

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