Despite what I imagine to be my considerable rhetorical acumen — not only do I have the institutional pedigree of a freakin’ PhD in rhetoric, not only did I teach rhetoric for 17 years, I have been paid well for the last 16 years to help large companies present themselves to the world — anyway, despite all this I find myself stymied through and through by the online dating profile. Where do I begin? What do I say? And in what tone? Should it be funny (at least try to be)? Informative? Show offy? I truly have no idea and so I opt for freewheeling, innuendo laden, name dropping screeds — no doubt, a poor strategy.
But the fact is it’s always strange to begin. We are always entering a world in progress. This struck me so conspicuously the other day as I walked down the fetid, world famous Haight Street. I passed bar after bar, store after store, and was amazed by the appeals each made to me as I sauntered by. Their attempts at beckoning were as varied and insane as online dating profiles. This bar cranked low-fi punk while a stench wafted through the front doors. That store covered its windows in tie dyed blankets and beads as smoke tinged, perfumed air wound its way into my considerable nostrils. That restaurant boldly presents its white tablecloths, red carpet, and douchebaggy looking bartender.
Now, these might all be fine establishments — once inside. But, from the outside, I was so put off by each. To whom are they speaking? Certainly not me. Is this how they choose to introduce themselves? Is this what they feel is putting their best foot forward?
The answer, of course, is yes. Or at least perhaps. And, no, they are not speaking to me. They couldn’t care about me, rightly so. They are looking for a particular audience, literally sending smoke signals to their kith and kin. Smell that dirty sweaty beer! Hear that too-loud punk rock! Don’t you wanna come in and get your whatever on? Sure, I shake my head emphatically no. But there are plenty to whom that sounds like bliss and, well, god bless ’em.
We always begin in the middle — in the middle of a conversation, in the middle of a life, in the middle of the stream and flow of desires. There is no clean slate, no pure beginning. All beginning, says Foucault, is the dissension of other things. There is no origin, just a beginning which is in fact beginnings and which in fact has always already begun.
This is something I tell my clients all the time. No doubt, I say, you’re company is innovative and offers high quality products at a fair price with impeccable customer service. Sure. But you still have to say something first. You can’t say it all at once. Such is the nature of language, at least English and the all the languages I know. Something comes first, always and necessarily. So, I continue, what is that thing you want to say first to the world?
This is the basis of what we call branding: leading with some proposition. And this proposition is always entering a conversation already in session as people are already doing what they’re doing, using what they’re using, other products and brands saying what they’re saying. So it’s not: What do you want to say? But: What’s the best way to enter this conversation?
For my clients, I create a more or less elaborate strategy for them that considers the entire rhetorical milieu (some clients appreciate my wonky way of speaking; others do not)— the market, customers, the future, other brands, the product itself.
So why don’t I do that when it comes to writing a dating profile? Why don’t I figure out whom I want to attract to do what with me and then craft my profile accordingly?
Well, because I’m not a freakin’ product or brand or they aren’t “consumers” (that word makes me shiver, and not in the good way). I have multiple desires and needs and mood, just as they do; I have multiple facets and dreams, just as they do. I can see myself with any number of “types” of women, whatever that even means. If I say this, I’ll attract the snarky ones; that, the self-proclaimed smarty ones; that, the arty hipster ones; this, the square working ones. All of these individual women may or may not be excellent. Their social niche doesn’t really interest me —smart, interesting, cool women come in all shapes and forms just as idiotic, manipulative freaks do. Like, the storefronts on Haight Street, it takes time — and bravery or indifference — to penetrate through that initial haze, walk in, and actually order a drink, as it were.
I suppose this is one reason online dating profiles are, for the most part, so uniformly dry. Well, there are no doubt many reasons including the fact that people are uncomfortable writing. But I believe it’s also because they’re afraid of committing to any one position. Which is, in fact, the problem people have with writing: Where do I begin? Which conversation do I enter? There are so many ways to come at art, life, experience, literature. Which is the best one? What makes it the best one? How do I frame my argument? How do I begin my essay? How do I present myself to the world? Or, rather, to which world do I want to present which self?
That punk bar on Haight Street knows what it wants and goes for it. But people who are infinitely complex and seek the infinite complexity of another human being? They’re not sure which conversation they want to enter; each seems too limiting. And so they go dry and broad and vacuous. Sometimes, you just have to put your stake in the ground and trust others will have the wherewithal to come in, sit down, and order themselves a cocktail.