I'm embarrassed to admit I met my guy online

I get funny looks from people when I tell how I made my boyfriend's acquaintance.

By Cary Tennis

Published April 1, 2008 10:15AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm a 32-year-old woman who started dating a very kind, funny, sweet guy about four months ago. Everything is going well. We get along just great, I like his family and they seem to like me. But here's the problem: We met online and I cringe every time I have to answer the question, "So, how did you two meet?" with "We met through an online dating service."

Even though I know that lots of people meet and fall in love this way and I have heard that the stigma attached to online dating is diminishing, it doesn't stop me from feeling ridiculously self-conscious about it. Plus, I know people who have met online, through the same dating service that I used, and they are not only happily married and starting or about to start families but are unabashed in telling people how they met.

I, on the other hand, feel that when I tell people how we met I get a slightly strange reaction, like surprise mixed with a little bit of derision and a topping of politeness, just enough to almost cover it up. But not quite. Or is it just me? It leaves me feeling depressed and embarrassed, and then, later on, silly for being so concerned about what people think about how I've decided to set about meeting the man I want to settle down with.

He's the first guy I've ever met online, and I think part of me feels like my decision to use an online dating service was like admitting that I'm unable to meet men on my own, that I need some kind of remedial help. I haven't even told some friends and family members that I'm dating anyone because I don't want to have to answer the "how did you meet" question. I feel like the best plan of action would be to be honest, confident and frank about it and to expect people to follow my lead. Some people already know how we met, so giving an alternative version of it isn't an option at this point. I haven't asked my boyfriend how he feels about it.

So, my intent in writing to you for advice is for help figuring out why I'm so self-conscious about this. What type of mental gymnastics do I have to do to stop feeling so self-conscious about having met my boyfriend online?

Red-Faced Online Dater

Dear Red-Faced,

What you need is a story. "Met online" is not a story. It's just a circumstance.

Try this. When someone asks you how you two met, ask them if they really want to hear the whole story. Don't answer the question. Ask a question in return. Don't give it away. Make them beg for it. Then still don't give it away.

A story begins with a problem. People relate to problems. Our problems are universal. You were lonely. You couldn't find a boyfriend. You'd had a string of disastrous dates. You'd had no dates for five years.

People relate to problems and desires. You wanted to get married and have tall, red-haired children who play lacrosse. But you lived in a village where lacrosse was banned and all the eligible bachelors had blond hair.

People relate to problems and prefer novel solutions. Say a man is spiritually bankrupt. We can relate to that. But say he finds Christianity. That's no fun. We're more interested in novel solutions. We prefer a trek to ... not the Himalayas, that's too obvious; we prefer it if the man who is spiritually bankrupt seeks enlightenment in Miami Beach.

So ask if they want to hear the whole story. Admit to being a little embarrassed about it, which hints at something salacious and also evokes sympathy: Other people are also embarrassed about things. Also, you have been put on the spot, and people relate to how that feels. You are being asked to perform, and they want to see how you do.

Now, in refusing to answer the question, you may lose your audience. Great. Let your audience go. Maintain an imperturbable inner calm. You have no real interest in answering their question anyway, because it is a dumb, boring question. So if they move on or become frustrated because they have not gotten a two-word answer, let them move on. Do not beg them to hear your answer. Let them beg you to tell it. After all, you don't really want to tell them anyway. So make them sit through a long story as punishment for asking a dumb question. It may turn out that they enjoy the punishment.

If you feel irked by the question, you are right to feel irked. Why should you be required to disgorge simple answers to personal questions at the prodding of relative strangers? Or even at the prodding of relative intimates?

It is a test. Why should you submit to it unquestioningly?

Yes, it is a test. When people say, "What do you do?" or "How did you meet?" it is a test. They are curious, a little, but mainly they are trying to peg you and move on. They want to know if you can be dismissed or if you have material. For better or worse, it is like you are on "Leno." You have to have material.

If you are with your new boyfriend, work up something. He may say, "We met at a casting call for 'Show Girls.'"

Have some fun with it. Tell at least three lies before you tell the truth.

And don't start at the ending. Start with your problem: your series of bad dates and unsatisfying relationships, or your complete lack of relationships, or the first boy you ever kissed, in first grade or 10th grade or your sophomore year in college, whichever it was. Then turn the tables on your interrogator and ask when their first kiss was. That way you keep delaying. It's all in the delaying. It's all in the buildup.

If you keep delaying, you may look up from your mojito to find your interrogator has embarked on a quest for soy cocktail wienies. You may succeed in never telling how you met. That's just fine.

Don't be insulted. Treat it as confirmation of your hypothesis: The world is full of people who aren't even listening to what they themselves are saying; they are dead to stories; they don't get the game. They say, "And how did you two meet?" but they could not care less how you met; rather, they say it because it is the most banal thing they can think of to say. They are actually hoping to move on. They don't want an answer.

So by delaying the answer, you punish them and also do them a favor.

As long as they continue to stand there, you can keep delaying it. Talk about your reluctance to take the step that you finally took. Hint at public disapproval. Say, "Well, after dating the blind truck driver and the homeless house flipper, I thought there ought to be a better way. So ... well, I got an idea."

Still you don't come out and say what your idea was. You say you talked to your girlfriends about how they met their boyfriends. You tell about the various ways your friends met. You ask if your interrogators are acquainted with your friends. You ask them if they are married. You ask them if they are lonely, or into swinging and key parties. You talk about the cultural significance of the meet-cute. You talk about the meet-cute in the movies.

You talk and talk and talk until your interlocutor shows signs of hypoglycemia. Then you suggest the cocktail wienies, which are high in protein.

You get what I'm saying? Take control of the situation, be a tease, create a narrative, and don't give away the ending.

Can't think of what to say? Read this!

"Since You Asked," on sale now at Cary Tennis Books: Buy now and get an autographed first edition.

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