Online dating tips and etiquette: is it rude not to reply?


In “real life,” when someone approaches and asks you out, you’re obliged by social custom to reply. You may not be interested, but you can’t just pretend that the person isn’t standing there talking to you. That would be unspeakably rude. So we have developed all manner of ways of saying no thanks, in what is hopefully the kindest way possible. None of us likes to be rejected, and if we have any empathy about us at all we’re uncomfortable inflicting pain and/or embarrassment on someone – especially since that person’s only crime is thinking we’re kinda neat.

That isn’t how it works at online dating sites. 

When I first signed up for back in 2010 I didn’t know the rules. I remember feeling obliged, when I got a message from a woman who didn’t interest me, to try and craft a nice reply that didn’t make her feel bad about herself. I also remember sending notes to women I found interesting and getting absolutely no reply at all. Ignored. Stoned. As though I never existed. *tap tap tap* Hello? Testing? Is this thing on?

I soon learned that these are the rules. This is how online dating works. If you get approached by someone you don’t find attractive, for whatever reason, you simply hit delete and move on. Whatever you do, don’t make eye contact. I began adapting to these odd new cultural mores, for a couple of reasons. One, when in Rome, and two, frankly it’s a lot easier than responding and rejecting, something I have always been very bad at and extremely uneasy doing. These women find something potentially valuable about me, and many of them clearly work as hard on their approach messages as I do on mine, trying to appeal to something in my profile that struck them, working to connect the dots and sell me on the idea that they’re really worth my while. How can I be mean to someone who thinks I deserve that kind of effort?

And a couple times, women I have written to actually have replied with nice no thank you messages. When that has happened I have been stunned. And – here’s the odd part – a little uncomfortable. It turns out that I much prefer being ignored to being acknowledged in cases of rejection. If there’s no contact, it’s harder to take it personally. I may not even notice that whomever she was didn’t reply. Busy week, other things to focus on – sometimes I forget I sent a note at all.

But when she writes back, when she makes eye contact, then the rejection becomes personal and I have to think about it. She has taken the time and is making the effort to look me in the eye and make sure I understand that she isn’t interested and to explain why. Stand there and pay attention while I reject you.

In nearly every way I can think of, this is upside-down, ass-backwards and inside-out from how I was brought up. Ignoring someone – someone who is paying you a huge compliment, in fact – is just flat-out rude. My grandmother would be appalled at my lack of manners, at the abject absence of basic compassion. You don’t just ignore people. What the hell – was I raised in a barn, she’d ask?

And yet, here I am, convinced beyond just about any doubt that what we’d call rudeness in our face to face dealings is a far kinder way of behaving in the online world. It’s cleaner, it’s less awkward, and as counter-intuitive as it may seem, ignoring people spares their feelings. It’s the ones who employ actual manners, as we learned them growing up, who make us feel the worst about ourselves.

I see it, I recognize the truth in it, and the part of me who was raised to be a courteous Southern boy who respected the feelings of others is never going to be quite okay with the idea that “rudeness” is the nicest thing I can do for another person.

More to the point, what are the implications for society as more and more of us are socialized according to the rules of online etiquette? What happens as the functional rudeness of Internet culture invades our face to face lives?

Fascinating idea to ponder, and not entirely pleasant….



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