The Only Thing More Awkward Than Online Dating Is Online Dating Without Alcohol

Mar 29 2016

The Only Thing More Awkward Than Online Dating Is Online Dating Without Alcohol

March 29th, 2016

Online dating can be pretty terrible. There are a million ways a potential date can go up in flames. For starters, the whole concept is just awkward, given that you’re trying to glean some kind of cohesive sense of a person’s personality based on the sparse and carefully curated information of an OKCupid or Tinder profile. On dating apps, every Type-A douchebag who thinks nothing of beginning a sentence with “I’m not racist, but…” presents himself as a sensitive, cultured and upwardly mobile world traveler who does handstands on the beach and spends Sundays sketching Monet paintings at the museum.

Then you have to hope that the pictures they posted were taken within the last five years, and that they weren’t taken by a budding Richard Avedon and enhanced by artful lighting or deceptive camera angles. And if you’re lucky enough to have a person who actually resembles their photos show up, you could very well end up trying to kill an hour with someone who has the social skills of a limp dishrag, even if their emails did overflow with charming, seductive prose torn straight from the pages of a Henry Miller novel.

Yes, the whole prospect of meeting a stranger under these circumstances is profoundly weird. But that’s what the booze is for, right?

While a couple drinks might not make a guy who looks like Karl Malden start looking more like Karl Urban (Google him, he’s hot), they can make the courtesy-hour you spend with someone with whom you’re not vibing—before you suddenly “remember” that you promised to feed your friend’s cat while she’s out of town—tick by a little faster. Or, in the best-case scenario, a few gin and tonics calm your nerves a little bit, so you’re your most charming, witty and confident self while hitting it off with that freelance graphic designer.

Or, perhaps you’re like me. Perhaps you tended to drink a little too much during blind internet dates, because you drank a little too much in every sphere of your life. I once thought a second date with a guy I met off of was going well, until we met up with his friends and I overheard him whisper into his buddy’s ear, “she drinks like a fish.” Ouch.

Or worse yet, I’d hang out with a guy who could drink as much as me, and wake up in his house the next morning with a raging hangover and barely enough time to get home, change clothes, and scrub off the ring of purple wine stains around my mouth before trudging into work. That is, assuming I didn’t immediately need to barf upon opening my eyes.

Neither scenario was really a solid foundation on which to build a lasting relationship.

About four years ago, it became clear to me that I should prise the bottle out of my mouth. And when I say “it became clear to me,” I mean “I suffered a bout of alcohol poisoning and emerged from a blackout to find myself in the emergency room.” Although I quit booze, I didn’t quit online dating. And if things were awkward and difficult before, well, sobriety presented a whole new set of challenges. For starters, that social lubricant that lowered the inhibitions just enough to facilitate moments like that first kiss or reckless back-seat-of-the-cab make-out was gone. Plus, I now had to come up with an explanation for potential suitors of why I don’t drink.

On OKCupid, there’s an option to displays whether you’re a social drinker, a heavy drinker, or if you don’t drink at all. Naturally, these days I check the last box. Despite that, guys would still typically asked me out “for a drink.” And I have no problem going out “for a drink.” I do it all the time.

And that’s just as well, because have you ever tried going on a date in a coffee shop? Have you ever met an internet stranger amid a sea of people sitting with their laptops? Have you ever tried to break the ice while bordered on all sides by easily distractible people tapping away on their keyboards? They know a Tinder date when they see one. And since they’re already on the internet, they are usually broadcasting the most painful and inane soundbites from your date to their Twitter followers and Facebook friends. I know because I eat it up when people in my networks Tweet about their proximity to an awkward first date. Even if the people around you aren’t texting their friends, your date is basically dinner theater to an audience of people who can’t quite focus on their novels and screenplays.

I prefer going on dates at bars. They’re dimly lit, so you can get lost in a dark corner, talk, and maybe play some pinball without your conversation being fodder for some bored MFA student sitting at the next table. If I’m not feeling any spark, I can exit quickly after one or two drinks.

However, when I’m at the bar, my drink consists of club soda with a splash of cranberry juice while my companions down their beers and cocktails. I never have to explain myself with my friends, but a stranger I’m meeting for the sole purpose of getting to know each other is a different story. How to put it?

A few years ago, I interviewed a musician from a fairly well-known band for a podcast I used to host. Off mic, we had a candid conversation about our sobriety and he told me a harrowing story of being hospitalized for pancreatitis as a result of his drinking before he finally quit. However, when we started recording the conversation, he described his relationship with alcohol in much vaguer terms.

“I’m not much of a drinker these days,” he said.

That sounded perfect. “I’m not much of a drinker these days.” There’s some wiggle-room there. If I give the date a flat “I don’t drink,” I sound like I’m either a Mormon girl scout who has always refrained from vices, or a recovering addict coming fresh off a streak of rampant personal and professional carnage. “I’m not much of a drinker anymore” is nice middle ground. It’s not exactly a lie, and it makes me sound like a laid-back person who has her shit together, but is still reasonably fun.

I couldn’t wait to try it out, and I did so on a shaggy Julian Casablancas-looking guy who asked me to meet him for a drink and “maybe end up on top of some tables.”

“That sounds great,” I wrote back. “But I’m not really much of a drinker these days, so I usually just have seltzer when I’m out.”

I never heard back from him. Huh.

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Sometimes when I’m already out with a guy I met online and I tell him I don’t drink, he asks me why.

Why does anyone stop drinking? I mean, people don’t just win the lottery and then decide they’re going to stop drinking for good. Usually something bad happens, like an arrest, a DUI, or a trip to the hospital. Sure, people do quit for other reasons, medical or emotional or religious, but I have never been good at pulling a plausible alternative explanation out of my ass on the fly.

Plus, there’s usually something in the tone of his question that suggests he’d like my reason to be something other than the obvious one. Addiction is still, for the most part, pretty stigmatized. If I stopped drinking because I had a problem, then I’m probably damaged or unstable. Or worse, I’m just not fun.

“Oh, are you in AA?” asked another OKCupid date when I told him I’m sober.

I forget how I dodged the question, but I just wanted to blurt out, “Don’t worry, I didn’t find God! I’m not going to quote a bunch of Bible verses at you or make you say the Lord’s Prayer before we eat our pad thai!”

Plus, aren’t 12-step programs meant to be anonymous? It’s not his responsibility to know that, of course, but it’s still uncomfortable.

I told another guy I don’t drink and he responded with, “Oh, did you get in trouble?” Since I was on a first date and didn’t want to get into a whole drunkalogue that involved taking an ambulance ride I didn’t remember, I responded with, “it just wasn’t fun anymore.”

That’s not a lie. There’s nothing fun about awaking to discover that you’ve thrown up in your own bed. Or about realizing, later on, that in your hasty morning shower, you managed to miss shampooing a section of hair, resulting in the smell of dried puke haunting you throughout your miserable, hungover work day.

The guys who are curious about why I stopped drinking are usually trying to suss out whether I’m an unhinged trainwreck or was using alcohol to self-medicate some raging psychosis.

Then there are the ones who go out of their way to accommodate my sobriety, and apologize for even suggesting a drink. They’ll often start treating me like I require special accommodations and need to be carefully shielded from pockets of society where booze is readily available.

And then, just occasionally, it happens that I show up to the bar and my date—who looks like his pictures—asks if he can buy me a drink.

I ask for a seltzer because “I’m not much of a drinker these days.”

He buys me the seltzer and himself a beer, and the date continues in a manner that doesn’t make me feel interrogated, scrutinized or coddled.

And sometimes, I have such a nice time that I do it all again.

Maggie Serota is the managing editor of Death and Taxes. She’s written for NY Observer, Paper Magazine, Refinery29, and various other print and web publications. You can follow her on Twitter: @MaggieSerota.