Smile Politely

Like water for dating

Have you heard about the dangerous chemical compound called dihydrogen monoxide? Among other things, it can cause death if inhaled, is a major component of acid rain, causes severe burns in its gaseous form, is found in pre-cancerous tumors, and contributes to soil erosion.

Despite the dangers, this deadly yet ubiquitous substance, which cannot be detected by odor or taste, appears in everything from nuclear power plants to athletic training to the manufacture of medicines to food products. You’ve probably come in close contact with it today.

I learned these things from the Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division’s website,, which has flooded the interwebs with a torrent of negative information about this slippery danger.

One thing that’s conspicuously absent from the website, however, is DHMO’s more common chemical formula: H2O.

In other words, it’s another name for water.

The DHMO website is a brilliant example of how you can mislead without ever lying. Everything on the site is 100% correct: water can kill you if inhaled, it is a major component of acid rain, and it does cause severe burns in its gaseous form (steam.) And yet, it’s the information they leave out that makes the site such a master of deception.

I was reminded of the DHMO website recently by an experience with online dating.


I’m no novice to online dating. Over the past ten years I have met three girlfriends online, one of whom became my wife… then my ex-wife. After my divorce, I took a hiatus from the online thing to pursue an old-fashioned organic relationship, but when that ended I found myself jumping back in the online dating pool.

After several failed attempts to approach women on two different sites, I thought I had a good one on the line. Based on questions we’d answered on the site, we were a 95% match. On all the big demographic issues — age, height and body type, religion, politics, interests, education — we matched up. Her pictures were attractive. On top of that, her messages were incredibly clever and witty. We had a great rapport… online.

But when we met in person, it was a titanic disaster. A flood of awkwardness and mismatched temperaments. And it wasn’t the charming kind of awkwardness you find in a Hugh Grant movie, but the kind that leaves you scouring your brain for some avenue of conversation that doesn’t hit on a land mine of further awkwardness.

It truly was a remarkable study in human interaction. How could two people be such a great match on paper, and yet be so wrong for each other in real life? The difference was almost comical.

Kind of like the DHMO site. As that proves, it’s possible to present a very distorted view of something without ever technically lying. On the dating site, neither one of us had misrepresented ourselves. Nowhere in our profiles or online conversations did we present a false impression. We were honest and sincere. For example, our pictures were up to date and an accurate representation of what we looked like. Our written word was very much like our speech.

And yet. Despite our best intentions, an online dating profile can’t complete the picture. It won’t tell you, for example, about the unsmiling deer-in-headlights look she might greet you with. Or how he’s pushy and badgers you with questions. Or how someone’s mannerisms just turn you off in a way you can’t explain. It was the things we failed to mention, things we didn’t realize were important, things we didn’t even know about ourselves, that made us such a bad match.


Part of the problem may be how people define themselves in an online profile. Someone can say they’re “liberal,” but how do they mean that? That they usually vote Democratic? Or that they’re a vegan war protestor who campaigned for Nader?

Someone might call himself “agnostic” just because he likes to sleep in on Sunday or doesn’t like all that God talk. Another might claim the title because she thinks too much about faith and religion to commit to a position.

These are just two small examples of how matching up with someone based on simple demographics can fall short. In the end, sexual attraction might be as simple as liking someone’s smile or how they respond to your jokes. As thinking animals, we like to think that we can always explain our likes or dislikes. But in the end, maybe it all just comes down to pheromones.

There’s surely some demographic component to finding a mate. My ex-wife and I are still a 94% match, according to the dating site. There’s a reason we fell in love and got married. But that’s not always enough. Conversely, I never would have got together with my most recent ex if we’d met on a dating site — we had to start out as friends first. Like a friend of mine said to me once when I complained that someone was perfect for me on paper: “You need to throw that paper out.”

A paper match is a good starting point. But my online dating philosophy is: always meet in person as soon as possible. You don’t want your image of someone to get too rooted in pixels on a screen instead of flesh and blood.

Find out whether that paper holds any water.

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