E-Mail Etiquette: Do's, Don'ts and Disaster Tales from People Magazine's Internet Manners Expert
By Samantha Miller
Is it okay to ask for a first date via e-mail? To break up via e-mail? What 's the proper way to take an online relationship into real life? Is cybersex really cheating?
A few years ago, I wrote a story for People about married couples who had met on the Net. Some of the people we interviewed had gone online looking for love and found it in the expected places, like online personals sites and singles chat rooms. But the most intriguing pairs were the ones who had gone online without intending to meet a mate. One couple, a conservative foreign-policy analyst and a Democratic district attorney, fell in love on an e-mail mailing list dedicated to discussing the O. J. Simpson trial. Another met in a chat room devoted to their shared passion: pet potbellied pigs. He had three, she had one. After they wed, they opened an animal sanctuary to care for hundreds of abandoned pet porkers.
Those who look for-or luck into-love on the Net face a series of tricky situations when they try to move an online romance into the real world. Who should make the first phone call? How do you let someone down easy if the in-person chemistry fizzles? Good manners have to balance with proper prudence, and real-world dating etiquette doesn't always apply.
But you don't have to meet online for e-mail to play a big role in your relationship. Today, e-mail serves as a low-pressure incubator for many romances: At meeting spots like bars or parties, prospects often leave with an e-mail address, not a phone number, and couples often exchange dozens of e-mail messages before even venturing out on an official first date. Steadies and spouses put e-mail to work too, spicing up the workday (or any day) with notes that say "thinking of you," or something more steamy. Just beware of sorry-wrong-address snafus.
Making a Love Connection
For those who feel more like shy Cyranos than suave Valentinos when it comes to pitching woo, the Net might seem like the niftiest invention since the sonnet. There's nothing impolite about turning to e-mail in the awkward initial stages of a relationship. Many people feel less vulnerable giving out an e-mail address instead of a phone number. Some are grateful to have a guaranteed-stammer-free medium to carry out those first few nerve-jangling "Would you like to go out sometime?" conversations. Others like to let a romance sparked offline build over die Net. Exploring a potential partner's personality and interests before deciding whether to take the relationship to the next level.
Can I ask for a first date via e-mail?
A casual "Met you last night, wanna have dinner?" note is a fine way for the tongue-tied to break the ice, though it doesn't exactly signal a hunk of burning love, so hope your fun e-Valentine digs shy types. One tip: spell-check.
A few etiquette tips for using the Net to nurture a real-world relationship:
Don't leave someone hanging. If you've lost interest in someone-or were never really interested in the first place-don't just let his or her e-mails go unanswered. Don't string him or her along, either. Make your position clear: "I'm flattered, hut sorry. I'm not interested." "No thanks," "I'm seeing someone else."
Take it slow. Once an e-mail exchange gets steamy, it's hard to dial back on the intimacy. If you're building a real-world relationship at the same time, getting carried away while cyber-flirting could lead to some face-to-face awkwardness.
Remember that e-mail can sometimes be about as private as a postcard. E-mailing someone at work or from your own work account can be asking for trouble. And before you confess any deep, dark secrets, remember that your crush could forward or show any message to someone else-like a whole focus group of friends.
Take the time you need to get to know someone, but don't let the relationship get stuck in e-mail purgatory. Those who turn to e-mail because of timidity can sometimes have problems working up the nerve to make a move offline, especially if both partners are shy types. But when the time is right, it's important to proceed to phone calls and real-world get-togethers, lest you miss the moment and never shift gears out of cyber-friendship.
Is it appropriate to use e-mail to ask for a second or third date?
Better pick up the phone. Shyness is cute only for so long-after a while, your date may wonder why you're avoiding the phone. (Social phobia, or a spouse listening in on the extension?) Plus, there's that syndrome where it takes you eighteen e-mail messages to plan a dinner and movie ("What do you want to see?" "I don't know, what do you want to see?") that could have been accomplished in one two-minute phone call.
I met someone on a singles site. He sent me his photo, and I'm no longer interested. What do I do?
First, feel guilty for being so shallow. Then, snap out of it - your e-suitor might have a way with words, but if there's no physical chemistry, it's best to call it off before anyone gets hurt. Break it to Mr. Great Personality gently but directly. Try a simple "It's been fun. but you're just not my type."
My boyfriend and I met through a Web personals site, and we're kind of embarrassed about it. What should we do when people ask how we got together?
You're under no obligation to tell the whole truth. (Otherwise lots of Valentines would be in trouble: Is "We ogled each other at a bar" or "We made out at a frat party" any less embarrassing?) While you needn't be so bashful-hip pals are more likely to respond "Cool! What site?" than "Ew, creepy"-you have the right to discourage prying. Try replying "Oh. through friends." in a tone that implies details are not forthcoming. Then let some insufferable couple who met in the cutest way possible commandeer the conversation.
Is it normal to like a guy I met on the Net and have never met in person? And is it rude to talk about him all the time?
Normal? Heck, cyber-romance is practically a national pastime. (Just don't throw caution to the wind-as your friends probably never tire of warning you, the typist of your dreams may not be all that he seems.) But while your pen pal need not remain a secret love, yammering on and on about someone your friends don't know-or any absent significant other, for that matter-is highly impolite. Keep the mooning to a minimum, or you may wind up having only virtual pals.