The traditional lonely hearts ad - "Guy needs girl for romance" - has disappeared. People are using social, physical and economic traits to earmark prospective partners, bypassing romance and creating relationships like arranged marriages, a study shows.
The increasing popularity of personal ads over the past 30 years has meant that a practice once restricted largely to the lower middle classes is now followed widely by the professional and working classes. Most national and local newspapers have well-used personal columns. To save time, people have become more pragmatic and demanding about what they are seeking.
Douglas Raybeck and Stephanie Dorenbosch, anthropologists at Hamilton College, New York, worked with two psychologists, Michael Sarapata and Douglas Herrmann from Indiana State University, on the study. Their paper, SWF ISO LTR: The quest for love and meaning in the personals, was presented at the 98th annual meeting of the American Anthropological Society in Chicago last week. The study showed that people are increasingly rejecting the notion of falling in love on a whim, without consideration of intellectual or social abilities.
"Personal columns seem to be at odds with the West's emphasis on romantic love," said Professor Raybeck. "They exist in virtually all mid-sized papers, and there is an increasing trend towards specialisation."
Arranged marriages based on economic stability and political or social alliances exist in many parts of the world. In Britain and America, people who marry for reasons that the rest of the world thinks eminently sensible are branded "gold-diggers"; the researchers saw personal ads as a return to such pragmatism.
Professor Raybeck said: "There are specialist dating agencies that advertise only in academic sources and personal columns for scientists, social workers and others, as well as ones tailored to very specific cultural and social niches."
Personal ads save time for working men and women whose demanding hours leave little room for socialising, he added.
The researchers analysed nearly 500 personal ads from The New York Times over 18 months. They found that men used personal columns more but were less likely to say what they looked like. When men did advertise physical characteristics, height was mentioned three times more often than build or weight. After 30 years of personal ads, men were still seeking youth and beauty in women, who in turn wanted financial security and responsibility. But both sexes were using new traits and interests to identify suitable partners.
Character was a concern for both sexes, with 41 per cent indicating the traits they were seeking. Men were likely to mention their honesty, humour or sensitivity. Women more often described their body type; although none stated she was overweight, a large minority said they had a full figure.
Many people stated the interests they were looking for in a partner, rather than character qualities. "Presumably both men and women are seeking individuals with interests similar to their own," Professor Raybeck said. "A list of interests should assure compatibility."
Camping, hiking and outdoor activities were among the most popular interests. "People who spend time outdoors are connected to the natural world and to healthy activities," he said. "Implying they are genuine and natural themselves."
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TRANSLATING THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF THE PERSONAL COLUMNS
ABBREVIATIONS USED IN PERSONAL ADS
ALA All letters answered
GSOH Good sense of humour
ISO In search of
LTR Long-term relationship
OHAC Own house and car
SWM/F Single white male/female
SBM/F Single black male/female
WLTM Would like to meetReuse content