All last week and through the weekend, the name Manti Te’o kept popping up in my Twitter and Instagram feeds. There were constant jokes about a missing girlfriend that inspired laughter, retweets and lengthy responses, and I was clueless to what was going on. I had to look it up.
I don’t follow football too closely, so it explained why I was out of the loop. Turns out Te’o is a college football player at Notre Dame who was up for the Heisman Trophy and allegedly was duped into believing his girlfriend, a woman he had never met or seen but had spoken to on the phone at length, had died from leukemia. Turns out his “girlfriend” was really a man who pretended to be a woman by raising the octave of his voice during phone calls and by swiping photos of his female high school classmate from her Facebook page.
If you’re thinking “huh?” then we’re on the same page. The story is too baffling to make up — even if a lot of people think Te’o did — and it’s not as uncommon as you might think.
MTV’s new hit show Catfish is all about people who meet, and fall in love even, with people they’ve never met in real life. The relationships usually are carried out through Facebook messages, texts and phone, but not even Skype. And the feelings are as intense as real-life love connections. I’ve managed to catch a few episodes, like the one in which a woman pretended for two years to be a man to throw off a woman who at one time was interested in her man. They exchanged a barrage of texts daily pledging their allegiance to each other. In another episode, a woman pretends to be a man, and the woman she’s been dating meets her and discovers he is really a she at the beginning of a transgender journey. Amazingly, that was the only love connection of the series thus far.
The farces perpetuated on Te’o and on Catfish speak to every fear anyone’s ever had about online dating, and they’re outlandish enough to make anyone give up the practice. But not so fast. These worst-case scenarios easily could have been avoided if the love-seekers, often lonely folk with their own secrets whose desire to be loved allows them to suspend common sense, had employed an important but oft-overlooked method of online dating.
The term “online dating” is a bit of a misnomer. Online is a great place to meet people, but it’s not where you date. You make a connection on whatever social media or dating site you’re visiting, and then you should quickly take your correspondence to a phone call — not a text — to feel out your interest further. If all seems well, it’s time to meet face-to-face, or at the very least, on Skype. If neither is an option, then it’s time to give well-wishes to your phone pal. It’s just too risky to emotionally invest when you’re not sure of whom you’re investing in, and the only practical way to avoid being bamboozled like Te’o.
Demetria L. Lucas is the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life (Atria), in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk