Author’s note: I wrote this a while ago, but decided that I wanted to look up and add some statistics before publishing it. That’s probably never going to happen, so here is the post as it stands.

I’ve started reading Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which has been on my list for a while after I’ve enjoyed much of his other work. In the fourth chapter, he quotes Justine Sacco, whose somewhat racist tweet went viral while she was on an 11-hour flight, as saying “it’s not like I can date, because we google everyone we might date”. Now, I’m not particularly interested in the morals of what happened to Justine Sacco and her tweet (though I might have some thoughts for a later post after I finish the book), but this sentence caught my attention. The idea of looking online to see if some romantic interest had a shady past of off-colour jokes on social media would never occur to me.

I’m certainly not so naïve to be unaware that people do this. But what makes me different? The two things that first come to mind are nationality and gender. I am an English man, and Justine Sacco is a South African-American woman. It would be very surprising if we had an identical experience of dating. Still, gender perhaps is less likely: Sacco is talking about her potential partners, not herself, and if she is interested in men, then that includes me. So it is more likely down to culture or simply personality differences1.

Bemoaning the Americani{s/z}ation of British culture is one of many celebrated national pastimes, and by no means is the world of romance exempt from trans-Atlantic influence, perhaps significantly due to American-based websites. Still, we are different {to/from/than} our cousins across the pond and obviously so will be our behavio{u}r with respect to relationships.

British people are stereotypically more reserved and respectful of status differences than Americans. We still enjoy gossip behind people’s backs, but social class is often given away through speech and mannerisms, obviating much of a need to research someone’s background. I don’t have much concrete to back this up, but it doesn’t feel too difficult to justify myself using national tendencies in this way.

On the other hand, my justification of the previous paragraph feels a little like a just-so story, and I suspect that I could come up with an equally convincing argument in the other direction had my initial intuition been different. What I am best qualified to talk about is of course my own experience. How much do I pry into people’s online presence before I go on a date with them?

Clearly if I already know a person then this whole discussion is academic, so we are probably talking about someone I’ve just met, most likely through online dating. The content of a profile description is a starting point (interestingly unique to online dating, absent if you meet in a pub, at a concert or somewhere similar). If I’m particularly interested, then I might look up their social media accounts, although in search of more posts, more pictures and more personality rather than a life history. I tend to hold off sending actual friend requests until we’ve met a few times and established some actual in-person chemistry.

But why do I take this approach, and why isn’t researching all this information appealing to me? Fundamentally, I think it comes down to three things. Firstly, it simply feels like an intrusion. This possibly comes from my British reservedness and natural introversion, but I don’t particularly like the idea of someone googling me, and therefore I reciprocally choose not to do it to others. Mostly it’s probably not a significant problem, since people can control to some extent what is publicly associated with them, but I prefer to err on the side of caution. Secondly, and somewhat relatedly, the simple act of finding out about each other is a major part of the point and fun of dating people. I could google someone and find their name on a list of graduates of some university, or I could listen to them talk about what they studied, hear why they find that interesting, where the best pubs are in that city and what memorable stories happened in them.

And finally, I think the most important part of a person is how they think and act now, not five years ago. I hold willingness to forgive as a cardinal virtue, and knowledge of some past crime only matters to me as a prior for that person doing it again. If they can convince me that they repent of whatever grevious sin is hiding in their past, then I will not hold it against them. I don’t mean to imply that someone’s past is completely insignificant: of course personal history has a huge effect on the present self. But we are not our mistakes. What matters is our ability to accept them and their consequences, to learn from them and to avoid making them all over again.

  1. Although perhaps she is falling prey to the typical mind fallacy, a common trap where people assume that others reason in the same way as themselves. I can imagine that a woman who could reasonably feel more vulnerable to predatory partners than a man would might want to be more confident of a date’s background.