Online dating coaching vs. outsourcing

”Last week my pal Kate tweeted me this delightful link:

For now, let’s ignore Gawker’s weird graphic, and also put the issue of dating tech guys in Seattle on hold. I can guarantee that they’re not all gross—after all, I married one and he’s rad. 🙂

Let’s focus, instead, on the particular gross tech guy who wanted to hire someone to set up his Tinder dates.

I often see commentary about how creepy it is to have online dating ghostwriters, or assistants, or concierges, or schedulers, or whatever else you’d like to call it. Let me be clear: I totally agree. However, it’s easy to assume all types of online dating help are skeevy, a stance with which I take issue as an online dating coach. 🙂

Since I’ve been helping singles with various aspects of online dating for like a decade now, I figured it was time to finally weigh in on some distinctions about how I work with singles, what I think is acceptable, and what I think is unethical when it comes to hiring online dating help.

It’s okay to get SOME help with online dating.

If you’re trying to meet people and you’re failing to do so, it’s natural to get some assistance. This is kind of like how people hire nutritionists, personal trainers, therapists, or even professional organizers—it’s a category of professionals who can help you solve a problem, while teaching you how to establish more effective behaviors and improve your life in the process. A recent niche of life coaches has emerged, and while I’ve always felt uncomfortable with that title, it is in fact a pretty great descriptor.

Learning why your profile isn’t working for you is often a matter of basic problem solving with some outside expertise. For example, that photo you think is flattering is actually hard to see when sized down in search results, or the jokes you think are funny are falling flat in the written medium even though they’d be funny in person, or you aren’t taking full advantage of the robust search and filtering features the technology offers you, or you’re failing to enact online-dating-specific measures to avoid unpleasant or unsafe encounters in real life. This pragmatic and educational piece is so helpful for most singles who find the whole online dating process overwhelming or stressful.

There’s also a more emotional aspect to getting help—you need someone to ask difficult questions to help you break habits. Why do you keep sabotaging your relationships? How can you spot narcissists early? How can you keep your chin up when you continue getting crude and offensive messages about your appearance? Are your snap judgments of certain singles working against you in ways that you need to dig into and understand better? Do you just need to kvetch with someone who can be sympathetic but still encourage you to keep on trying? This non-judgmental, friendly support component is yet another reason my clients love working with me.

Lastly, I help because I’m a great writer. Not in most contexts, I’m the first to admit—but I’m great at online dating writing. I just love the part of the job that’s getting to know a person, understanding their personality and quirks, helping them translate that to a catchy profile, helping them learn how to read others’ profiles and message accordingly, and honing the way they think about talking to people on dating sites.

I strive to keep a client-heavy writing balance—in fact, most of my clients’ profiles are about 90% their sentiments, just recycled in ways that they wouldn’t come up with on their own. This whole process is partly about my inherent personality/talent at getting clients to open up with me, and it’s partly about knowing how to repurpose those tidbits. But it’s even more about my years of experience understanding the nuances of what works well in online dating. This is how I can transform that thing they sheepishly confessed to me into an adorable quirk, or a humblebrag that actually underscores a much more important trait in a subtle and effective and charming way.

When it comes to writing messages, I like to help my clients understand what works well (a more conversational tone over a formal one) and how they can make messaging more effective (setting up specific dates instead of just exchanging banter ’til the cows come home). I like to help them be memorable and funny to stand out from all the mediocre messagers they’re competing with. During this process, I do my best to disengage enough so that the content and vibe of messages is still primarily coming from them, and written in their voice, complete with their typos and emojis and iPhone signature and whatever else makes it “theirs.”

This last part is so, so important to me. No one I work with should ever feel like they’re misrepresenting themselves, and no one they date should ever feel like they’re meeting a totally different person than the one who sent all those cute flirty texts leading up to that first dinner. While I may help things along the way, my clients have to deal with a sharp and sometimes scary transition in which I’m forcing them to do all the communicating by themselves, with encouragement and nudges from me akin to what you might get if you asked a friend a second opinion. This is a crucial difference: No one is pretending to be someone else, ever.

It’s unethical to outsource online dating.

For the most part, I don’t have to deal with gross misogynist dudes like this Kinja article describes. You see, with a title like “coach,” I imply that you have to do at least some work yourself. My clients are self-aware enough to know that something THEY are putting into the whole search for love process isn’t working as well as it could be, and they want some emotional and pragmatic guidance as they navigate the whole sometimes stressful and confusing process. YAY! Coach time!

But every once in a while, I get a call form email from a potential customer who wants to outsource the entire online portion of the online dating process. (Most often they think their profile is awesome already and they just need help with logistics, haha.) They want someone to learn their mate selection preferences, comb through potential matches for them, pretend to be them while communicating with said matches to set up dates, calendar them, and then hand them the reins only for the in-person part. No way am I doing this.

This woman is secretly judging you while you prattle at her about who you like to date.

This woman is secretly judging you while you prattle at her about who you like to date. Also, image © Shutterstock / auremar

In my experience, the majority of these “outsource my dating life” types are men, but not always! Let’s say 80% men. The traits these folks seem to have in common are a certain amount of entitled inflexibility—they’re people who are unwilling to put in time or effort into the process of finding a life partner (arguably one of the most important goals in their lives). They’re unwilling to even consider candidates outside of a very narrow set of constraints, one which historically has been proven not to work well, given their continued singlehood. And like I said, they think their existing online presence and strategy isn’t the problem—it’s either that the system is flawed (yes, but you could learn to play it better); or that they just “don’t have time” (neither does anyone else).

In my experience, these non-clients don’t believe they should have to self-analyze to dig into why their online dating experience sucks. They usually don’t want to make any adjustments to their process, or values, or appearance, or really any aspect of their selves. They’re often willing to spend quite a bit of money, on plenty of things, but NOT on the services I actually provide (such as teaching them how to make things work better on their own). They just want me to, well, do their work for them. Sometimes they try to convince me to take inordinate amounts of money to do this, and are baffled when I refuse. But I think it’s unethical to essentially masquerade as someone else; it’s also just plain dumb. Let’s dig into why.

Outsourcing mate selection is inefficient

I do spend a little time trying to get to know my clients’ tastes, but this is mostly to help me understand them better so I can guide them through the process in order to train them for their solo search sessions. Even with years of experience, I don’t believe in getting into someone’s head and really understanding their gut “hot or not” reaction is totally possible. The number of misses in terms of guessing another person’s taste is always going to be so high!*

Furthermore, singles KNOW when something isn’t right, most of the time. If Jane gets six texts from “Matthew” (actually Kevin writing as Matthew) and then shows up for a date with Actual Matthew, who sounds nothing like “Matthew” and doesn’t remember any of the cute jokes or discussions that Jane ostensibly shared with him, Jane is likely to think Actual Matthew might be an Actual Axe Murderer. Or, at the very least, an Asshole. Jane is too smart for this crap; Jane has plenty of other non-axe-murderer suitors; and Jane has no patience for unsafe sketchy disingenuous bullshit. Jane is out; Matthew is still single, wondering why, trying to hire me to fix it. From a pure efficiency standpoint, this was not an effective online dating exercise.

Outsourcing communication is disrespectful

Let’s suppose that, in the example above, Matthew (and his cohort Kevin) manage to dupe Jane into believing that she’s communicating with the same guy who’s sitting across from her at the bar on a first date. Let’s say things between Matthew and Jane blossom into a relationship in progress. And let’s say at some point Kevin runs into Jane at a party, recognizes her from the picture he hand-picked for Matthew, has five pinot grigios under his belt, and makes some reference or joke that outs the whole scheme to Jane, without realizing that Matthew either hasn’t told her yet or never planned to tell her.

How do you think Jane feels? Does she perhaps see Matthew in a new and ugly light, now that she knows he considered himself too busy and/or important to bother actually picking her, actually complimenting her like Kevin did on his behalf, and actually texting cute witty banter back and forth with her until they finally arranged a date? My money is on Jane suddenly feeling like she’s dating a creepy two-faced sociopath.

However, if Jane learned that Matthew had a few pics taken in a more flattering light after reading an article on optimizing your dating photos, that’s not as bad. If she learns that he employed the help of a coach to figure out why online dating wasn’t working for him, because he kept meeting girls that were nowhere near as cool as she was, she might find that a little weird. Mildly strange. But probably not deliberately, disturbingly deceptive, as with finding out Matthew wasn’t actually Matthew for a formative chunk of their relationship.

I’ve talked with a few clients who have used my services and eventually told their spouse about it—most spouses appreciate that my client was proactive enough to get out there and find a way to meet their sweetheart that much sooner, haha. Of course, plenty don’t say anything about having hired me—just like you might not tell your new girlfriend right off the bat about having worked with a trainer for years to lose that couch potato weight, or working through some mommy or daddy issues in therapy.

As relationships deepen, so does our comfort with disclosure—but saying “I had someone pretend to be me in order to woo you” is different than “I learned all I could about how to succeed at online dating because I wanted to hurry up and meet someone awesome like you.” (Yeah, yeah, there’s also how you disclose it—I’m big on emphasizing the positive results; can you tell? 🙂

Online dating proxies are a waste of time and effort

Let’s pretend that the guy quoted in that Kinja article is named, um, Jake. By the time Jake submits three or four (or ten or twenty) people to his rigorous Online Dating Surrogacy Standards Exam, he’s spent a good few hours communicating back and forth and evaluating his potential proxies (even if he’s mostly pasting them form emails). He hasn’t learned anything about himself, he hasn’t made any effort to tweak his own online dating tactics or presence, and he hasn’t really bothered getting to know any of the people he theoretically wants to date. He’s just interviewing staffers, and he doesn’t have any dates yet.

Jake’s time and effort so far has been inefficient and unethical and disrespectful, yes, but it’s also been significantly greater than if he’d just sucked it up and Tindered all by himself. Tinder, after all, is by far the easiest, quickest, most low-barrier way to get started with online dating. Just imagine if Jake decided to get help with OkCupid, or something more rigorous like eHarmony! “Here, Assistant, take this rigorous personality test and then get back to me with whoever the system says I should wink at.” How efficient do we think THAT will be?

Finding love online can and should be FUN!

This is the weakest part of my argument, but I don’t care. The process of discovering, communicating with, and eventually meeting the love of my life wasn’t easy. I spent many years going on many mediocre first and second dates before I finally found the right person for me. But you know what? Once I got over my seriously sucky years when I was going about it all wrong, it started to get good. I started going on dates that were fun, well spaced, and edifying. The guys I was meeting were closer and closer to what I was actually after, and I enjoyed the experiences more than I dreaded or regretted them.

By the time I actually met Grant, not only was the whole online dating gamut a piece of cake, but I also felt like I had LOTS of great prospects—he was just the greatest of all by a surprisingly slim margin. That may be kind of weird and self-involved-sounding, but it’s not—there are tons of great connections out there for ANYONE, but most online dating behavior and systems don’t know how to facilitate introductions in a way that’s effective and fun. I figured out how to crack that code… and it was a blast. I feel like you’re cheapening the entire experience if  you offload those heady, fun, nervousness-inducing early moments to some rando you found on the internet. Yes, I see the irony in that statement, and I don’t care. 🙂 Look where it got me!

I don't know that I would've recognized what an amazing catch my husband is if I didn't have plenty of market research under my belt. :)

I don’t know that I would’ve recognized what an amazing catch my husband is if I didn’t have plenty of market research under my belt. 🙂

Not everyone online is a fraud

Online dating assistance in any form is a pretty new industry. It’s not like we have regulators or boards of ethics (yet), so it’s kind of a free-for-all. Plenty of my competition offers some kind of concierge or masquerading service, where they’ll log into your account, look at people, message them, set up dates, and stick them on your calendar. Plenty of people offer basic profile copywriting too** so you can’t tell if your potential date actually have decent grammar until you get a real message from them. I don’t think these people with proxies or helpers are that huge a percentage of the overall online dating environment, yet. But such industries are going to continue to operate, and I’m guessing they’ll only grow as the online dating world grows.

At the end of the day, no matter the reason, I’m not personally comfortable pretending to be anyone else. I don’t think anyone should hire people who will pretend to be them, for the reasons I’ve listed above as well as some more nebulous “it just feels wrong” ones. I’m happy with the more proactive, educational, supportive niche I’ve carved out for myself and my business, and I mostly think that the sorts of people who outsource their love lives tend to pair with people who match well with them, and the rest of us remain in the trenches trying to figure out a charming, memorable message by which to impress you via a more authentic and ethical process.

Learn to spot the fakers, if you must

If you’re skeeved out by the idea of dating someone who used an online dating assistant or surrogate or proxy or what have you, there are some signs you can watch for in terms of consistency in tone, punctuation, style, frequency of communication, and so on. You can make sure to build in a quick phone call before your actual date. You can pay attention to any conversations where it feels like you’re repeating something you already shared, especially once you get to know each other in person. You can ask flat-out and pay attention to the reaction you get.

But really, I think most of these tricks are unnecessary—I’m not always a proponent of “gut feeling” for making decisions, but in the dating world it’s far more applicable than in other areas of life. If something feels off, distance yourself, and ALWAYS follow my basic safety protocols when you set up dates. If things don’t feel off but are just not amazing either, give little awkwardnesses the benefit of the doubt—online dating is still weird and uncomfortable for most of us, and it takes until at least date 2 or 3 to get over the whole “meeting a stranger from the internet” discomfort.

Have faith and patience! Keep your chin up, keep rocking an awesome profile, post amazing pics, do your best to have fun with the process, reach out to me for help if you need it, and remember that there are TONS of non-fakers out there who are looking for something real with someone genuine. You know, like you! [icon-heart]


* This is a huge difference between professional matchmakers and online dating coaches like me. I’m usually very nervous to try and connect two of my clients who might hit it off, because I have no idea how to tell that sort of thing. I’m not convinced most matchmakers are actually good at this either, but that’s a different post. 🙂

**  Profile copyediting or punching-up is something I don’t usually do, but I don’t think it’s unethical—it’s just not all that interesting or lucrative, and its not as effective as really getting to know your client and helping them rewrite the thing with a solid strategy and their unique personality in mind. I’d prefer to get more involved and really do it right, ya know?

Comments 4

  1. Kevin Zimmerman

    Thanks, Virginia! This is really a great primer on what to expect from ethical, professional online dating coaches. I’m glad to know there are people out there who are helping others the right way!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *