Behind the Personals

What works and doesn't in personal ads.

By Camille Chatterjee, published on March 1, 2000 - last reviewed on August 30, 2004

MATING

"SWM ISO SWF. Want mate for French films and fine wine. Seeking
mate who seeks same. " What does this personal ad say about the man who
wrote it?

More than the fact that he likes Truffaut, says Douglas Raybeck,
Ph.D., a professor of anthropology at Hamilton College in New York, who
recently examined a group of personal ads to see how people used tiny
spaces to convey a full portrait of themselves. "People employed their
ads as meta-statements about the kind of person they are," he says. For
example, many ad placers wrote that they enjoyed walks by the beach
though their Utica, New York, town is 170 miles from the Atlantic. "They
are likely suggesting they are the kind of person who is in touch with
nature," he says, rather than literally meaning that they stroll the
shore daily. Similarly, twice as many men as women described themselves
as honest. "Men could be more honest, but more likely, they are simply
registering that this quality is attractive to women," says
Raybeck.

Personals placers aren't exactly defying defined cultural roles;
most women wrote ads seeking economic security, while men sought younger,
attractive partners. Only when it comes to physical expectations do
personal ads seem to be flouting convention. Despite today's thin beauty
ideal, a number of women declared themselves "full-figured, noted
Raybeck--and virtually the same number of men said they were seeking the
same.