The Real Reason You're Googling Your Date Beforehand & Why You Should Stop
He was a mere 20 feet away in the subway car. His baseball cap covered most of his face, but from the side scruff and jet black hair, I could tell I was into him.
Strapped to my chest was my co-worker's miniature poodle. I was dog-sitting while she was out of town, and I'd taken to bringing him to the office. He traveled in a little backpack I'd positioned in front of me so I could ensure he didn't leap out and get lost in the New York City subway. My eye candy found the whole get-up entertaining. I could tell and made my way over.
We made small talk about the dog. He loved dogs, too (naturally). Occasionally I'd catch glances of his mysterious eyes, and my knees would buckle a bit. We carried on that way for a few stops. Then at Broadway and Lafayette, we said our goodbyes, and he got out.
The next morning, pup still in hand, I was waiting on the platform for my connection to the F train when I heard, "Clara?"
I turned to my right. It was subway man. We were clearly on the same commute schedule, but running into each other again felt terribly romantic.
"Hi!" I said enthusiastically as the train arrived. We stepped on together.
We exchanged more pleasantries, talked a bit about our jobs, and finally shared numbers. He was headed out of town, but we decided to make plans in the coming weeks. I was elated.
In the meantime, I got to work digging up what I could about him online. I quickly discovered he was a former model (that explained the knocking knees), and he'd grown up in the South. He'd recently ended a relationship, or so it seemed. His ex-girlfriend was a clothing designer and did some modeling, too. They owned a couple of pups that they'd rescued from Tennessee. The drive back to New York had been a tiresome journey, according to Instagram. Their bedding was all white.
The more I viewed his ex-girlfriend's profile, the prettier she became. I tried to unearth why they'd broken up. I remembered him mentioning during our subway conversation that he still had a dog. Did they share the dog? Did he still see her frequently? Were they truly broken up? My mind spun.
The fact that they were both models made me anxious. I wasn't a model. Did he know that? Why would he want to go on a date with me? I hunted and hunted for the red flag that would help me understand why subway guy was down for tacos and beer with a non-model.
Once we scratch a little further, it becomes clear the need to stalk is linked to a larger fear or source of self-doubt.
On the night of our first date, I slowly made my way up the walkway to the restaurant. I'd broken into a light but noticeable sweat. My online stalking had sent me into an emotional spiral. Memories of his Google image search page flooded my brain. His chiseled six-pack (or was it eight?). His artfully positioned tattoos. That model look of total nonchalance. I was so keyed up by the narrative I'd created in my head that I was not only terrified but wasn't really there. We ended up just ordering drinks at the taco place, then headed to another restaurant for dinner. I believe I ordered a kale Caesar salad? Or did we share two sandwiches? I wasn't sure. And I wasn't drunk.
Later that night, after we'd parted ways and shared a pretty solid first kiss, I felt confused. Did I even like this person? Did I enjoy myself? Did it make sense for us to get to know each other even further?
None of my pre-date stalking had served me. In fact, it only made the experience worse. Far worse. But in the moment, I believed the exact opposite. Going over his Facebook profile and Instagram feed with a fine-tooth comb made me feel safer. I was convinced it would help me suss out answers to questions like: Will this person ghost? Will they cheat? Will they take forever to respond to my text? Will they do something to hurt me? In short, what's their deal?
The problem with Googling your dates before you meet them.
When we stalk—when we feverishly scroll through Instagram feeds or closely examine ski lift photos from two years prior and the arms wrapped around a blond ski-goggled beauty—we convince ourselves (if we've given it any conscious thought at all) that we're merely collecting background information. That information will help us "get to know" this person better in advance. It will make for better first-date conversation (even though you undoubtedly won't be mentioning you're aware they went to Aspen circa 2015). It will make for a more enjoyable date. It will, in some form or fashion, make this experience better.
What we're actually doing, though, is hoping to glean enough information about them such that we can avoid some sort of discomfort. That discomfort could signify a variety of things, from an awkward first date to being ghosted to getting hurt even worse. Ultimately, we're trying to control the outcome of both this dating scenario and our larger dating lives.
Culturally speaking, this behavior isn't unusual. We scroll through dozens of Amazon reviews before settling on the best foam roller. We scour an Airbnb property profile before committing to an upstate cottage for the weekend. We've been conditioned to constantly look for ways to elevate and improve our everyday experience, and we're used to filling in online search fields to do so.
But in the case of dating, i.e., the process of getting to know someone more intimately, it hardly works in the same fashion. The problem has less to do with what we find and more to do with what we do with that information—what we project.
The story I wove around subway man was primarily a product of my own insecurities. His history led me to question whether or not he was actually broken up with his girlfriend not because of what I found but because of how I felt about myself. I was so severely intimidated by his appearance because I was so deeply uncomfortable with my own.
My story was also being fueled by other messaging I'd taken in. A few days after meeting him, I mentioned to a friend over dinner I was going on a date with a former model.
"I'm pretty nervous," I said.
"It's going to be the worst sex of your life," she immediately proclaimed.
I hadn't even kissed the guy yet, and here we were discussing what the sex would be like. But I wasn't disappointed by her remark. I liked the idea there might be something imperfect about him. I clung to it in order to keep my own insecurities at bay. I strung together that comment with everything else I'd surfaced online and settled into the idea he was probably a self-involved and vain person who cared only about his own needs. I convinced myself that regardless of his appearance, his character traits definitely weren't as strong as mine. However things shook out, I was likely better off without him.
My story kept me safe. In the case that he did end up being a total asshole, at the very least I could claim I knew ahead of time. But it also kept me in my head. I was so mentally entangled in the narrative I'd created, I wasn't taking in subway man in the present moment. I wasn't actually getting to know him.
The worst outcome, though, is that these narratives allowed me to conveniently gloss over my own inner demons—the actual work that needed to be done to date from a place of empowerment.
What to do instead of internet-stalking your dates.
When my clients bristle against the idea of not stalking, I always follow with the question, "What's driving you to want to do that?"
Their first response is generally what we've all told ourselves, that it's a way of getting to know the person better in advance. But once we scratch a little further, it becomes clear the need to stalk is linked to a larger fear or source of self-doubt. In my case, my appearance.
Those bigger battles can feel insurmountable, and I will not lie, they take time and patience. That said, there are tactical things you can do in the interim:
- Develop immense clarity around what you're actually seeking in a partner and holding that vision. Oftentimes, we "know" what those things are but quickly lose sight of them in the presence of another. Instead we become more focused on being liked. Remind yourself of that punch list just as you're sitting down with someone, and if it feels organic, use it as a guide to making conversation.
- Adopt what I call an "observer's mindset." Instead of focusing so much on figuring out what your date studied in college or when their last relationship was beforehand, practice observing them closely in person. What's their smile like? How do they speak to the server? Do they ask questions? How do they hold their body? You should end the evening with a bevy of data that will allow you to determine how you feel about this person and where you want to take things, rather than being solely focused on what they thought of you.
- Lean into the weirdness of it all! I coach women in this capacity every day, and I still find meeting a new person for the first time somewhat odd and daunting. I'll often say something like "I still feel like I'm getting used to this whole first date thing..." and then laugh or smile, because it's true. This allows us to both indulge in the hilarity of those first date jitters.
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In the end, there is no perfect science. Dating is an emotionally complicated endeavor. It should be messy. But you can save yourself much mental energy and time by devoting the dates themselves to getting to know someone rather than attempting to paint an internet-based picture that circumvents future disappoint (because, side note, that never really works).
Subway guy man lasted only a few more dates. And he ultimately did ghost. In hindsight I could easily see how I'd ignored red flag after red flag that could have easily predicted that behavior, all because I had my head stuck in the Instagram clouds.
Clara Artschwager is a New York-based coach and writer who specializes in modern dating and relationships. She has a degree in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University, and her work has been featured in The Cut, Well Good, SHAPE, Man Repeller, and more. When she isn't helping career-driven women take an empowered and nourishing approach to partnership, you can find her either in the kitchen or on her yoga mat.