Bentley McBentleson, online dating expert.
There’s always a tense feeling when shy or awkward strangers gather together with the purpose of talking to each other. Everyone is there for the same reason, but that still doesn’t start the conversation.
On February 6, Tekserve, New York City’s top independent Apple store (the one where Carrie Bradshaw took her “sad Mac”), hosted an event called Dating in the Digital Age. There were two speakers, Jazmin Hupp, Tekserve’s director of marketing, and Bentley McBentleson, a media and technology manager at Maslansky + Partners, a language strategy company. McBentleson’s job is advising clients about how to use the most effective words. This could be very valuable information in online dating, where all potential partners know about you is what you write about yourself.
Tekserve struck me as a very weird place to have this event. A store that sells and repairs Apple products is not, inherently, a romantic place. Browse any list of “best places to meet singles in New York,” Tekserve will never appear. So why there? Jazmin Hupp says, “Tekserve solves life problems in the context of technology.” Well, online dating definitely falls into this category.
Hupp is also a bit of a dating expert herself. In 2001, she went on 72 first dates in a six month period. She has been with number 71 ever since. Dating in the Digital Age is her pet project. The first event took place last year, and was attended by over 100 people, with one confirmed couple emerging from the event.
This year, there are again over 100 people in attendance and there are not enough chairs, so half of the audience is standing. It’s a diverse crowd, a mixture of young and old, hip and uncool. There’s the common New York City thing of beautiful, stylish young women and schlubby, nerdy young men. There are a few hopeless middle-aged men, and a lot of middle-aged women.
One of these women, who I’ll call Diane, is here because “I’ve been complaining about not being on any dates, so my friend signed me up.” Diane is a Manhattan resident in her 50s with blonde hair and striking green eyes. She’s frustrated with online dating because the men who message her keep disappearing.
“We message a few times, we even make plans, and then poof!” she says. “They delete their account. They’re just a gray box.” Diane is confident that once she goes on a date, she can make a good impression. She just wants to know how to get into a date.
Hupp’s presentation is not for her. It’s about how to behave on a first date. Pretty basic stuff, like show up on time and don’t sext before the date. Although I guess if she’s saying it, it must need to be said. Her first step to a successful first date is “love yourself,” which elicits a groan from Diane. She’s heard it all before. She doesn’t need to know how to behave on a first date, because, as she tells me, “I can’t get to the date part.”
After Hupp, it’s time for Bentley McBentleson, the main event. He’s six-four, has a hammy sense of humor, and is dressed like a hipster professor in a brown blazer, maroon vest, and multicolored wingtips. Some of the women in the crowd wish he was there to mingle. He takes a researcher’s approach to online dating, and can break it down into simple, snappy concepts.
Before the event, he held five focus groups with instant response dial testing. The groups totaled 26 women and 18 men. As an actor read a sample profile aloud, participants reacted positively or negatively by turning a dial, tracking how the profile was landing in real time. The goal, he said, is to provide directional insight into how to write a profile.
What he found is that successful profiles define “who I am,” rather than “what I want.” Profiles that listed what the person wants out of a relationship, or dealbreakers, or the physical attributes they’re looking for, received uniformly negative responses. McBentleson plays the audio of the actor reading the profile while simultaneously playing the corresponding graph of the focus group’s reaction to the profile. Certain words, like “punishment,” prompted drops in approval, while emotional experiences, like “I climbed to the top of a castle in Scotland because there was no one around to tell me not to,” spiked approval.
And this was the trick that McBentleson found always works: storytelling. “People love stories” is a cliche, but it’s true. Stories help people remember information and foster a personal connection to the storyteller. It’s no different in online dating. An illustrative anecdote always elicits a positive reaction.
There were also words and concepts he found that should be avoided at all costs. “Drama” is the biggest one, because a person who specifies that they don’t want drama is clearly dramatic and oblivious. Another big one what he calls “breaking the fourth wall,” which is acknowledging that you’re on a dating website. It’s boring and obvious, and deprecating the medium you’re on shows a bad attitude. Preemptive excuses are disliked by men and women. Another, interestingly, is “health” or “exercise,” especially for women reading a man’s profile. “Let your pictures do the talking,” the focus groups agreed.
McBentleson offered some solid insights, explaining something that seems nebulous with data, but there’s still the problem with generalizing something as complex and individualized as dating: there’s no one-size-fits-all. Diane, the Manhattanite in her fifties, wants someone who’s passionate about health and exercise, because those are things she’s interested in. A dealbreaker for one person is a turn-on for another.
And knowing the right words to say still doesn’t automatically seal the deal: Diane was sitting next to a man and they shared an experience while both heckling Jazmin Hupp under their breath. But he left early, and they never exchanged information. Another missed connection. For all the data and research, success in dating still comes down to good old-fashioned commitment.