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Thursday, Feb. 26, 2009

Social Networking the Old-School Way

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I am a gay SWM, middle age, and consider myself a nice, normal person. I know how to make interesting conversation that can engage most people. Typically, by the end of the conversation I give a person my card. I generally wait until an occasion arises to invite the other person to participate with me, such as coffee. I almost never get a response. Do people just pretend to be interested in me? I am NOT a bar person. Young people seem particularly afraid to communicate. What's happened to the world?

-Polite and Friendly

Meeting people is difficult. There's no two ways about it. When you think about what it takes to find someone that you're attracted to, who's also attracted to you, who shares your interests both in and out of the bedroom, and who wants the same kind of relationship that you do, it's a wonder that any of us find partners! For me, your question brings up the issue of whether or not online social networking sites have made it easier or harder to find meaningful relationships, about which I welcome reader comments.

A friend of mine who works at UW-Milwaukee told me this week that her students were making fun of her for using business cards. "That's old-school Facebook!" they crowed. I think there's a huge generational difference in what's considered an acceptable way to follow up after meeting someone. You consider it polite to hand someone a card and wait a certain amount of time before contacting him again, while the person you have your eye on may think that immediately "friending" him on social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace is the best way to let him know that you're interested. One of the standard "rules" of dating used to be that you should call someone whose number you had obtained within three to five days. Now, the ease of communication via iPhone or BlackBerry makes three days seem like an eternity. If you wait to contact someone "until an occasion arises," he may have already decided you weren't interested or forgotten about you, or you just may appear old-fashioned to him. You say that young people, especially, seem afraid to talk; some would say that the art of face-to-face conversation with strangers is rapidly dying, as people are now able to check out others' online profiles, communicate with them and decide whether or not they're interested before ever actually meeting.

I don't think that people who prefer a slower, gentler pace must give up their genteel approach. I would never advise anyone to try to behave in a way that's not natural to them in order to get a date, so if you find electronic communication abhorrent, don't force yourself to do it. The trick is to find other people who also prefer a slow pace.

It's not clear to me from your question exactly what type of relationship you're looking for. A one-time sexual encounter? A long-term companion? Something in between? I agree with you that outside of finding a quick hookup, bars are not always the best place to meet someone-although, especially in the gay community, hitting a club is often the default social activity. If you're interested in a longer-term relationship and don't want to go the online route, I would suggest focusing your energy on getting involved in group activities that you enjoy. If you like to read, join a book group, perhaps one of the groups sponsored by my neighbor on the East Side,Outwords Books. If you're spiritually inclined, get involved with your church; progressive congregations may even have an LGBT social group that you can join or help organize. Volunteer at the Milwaukee LGBT Community Centeror theAIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin. If you have legal or financial skills, consider joining the boards of community organizations like these-they could use your help! If you like to sing, join theCream City Chorus. If you are a businessperson, join theQshare Business Networkand attend their monthly events.

What do all of these suggestions have in common? They are groups that meet more than once, allowing you to gradually get to know people. They reflect things that you're passionate about, allowing your enthusiasm to shine and upping the chances that you will connect with a person you share an interest with. They involve interactions at a different level than the type of social events where people are solely on the hunt to meet potential dates. Even if no one in your book group floats your boat, those people have friends whom you might have the chance to meet sometime. These suggestions apply for heterosexual people as well (although you have an easier time of it, since you have a broader array of opportunities to choose from). You know that book, Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow? The same principle can apply to relationships. Do things you love and your chances of meeting someone who you also love will increase.

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them tolaura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

Laura Anne Stuart has a master's degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns theTool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee's East Side.