COVER

Touch-tone romance

Singles reach out and court over the phone

NORA UNDERWOOD February 20 1995
COVER

Touch-tone romance

Singles reach out and court over the phone

NORA UNDERWOOD February 20 1995

Touch_tone romance

COVER

Singles reach out and court over the phone

She knows all the clichés about the high-riding love lives of flight attendants. But the 33-year-old woman, based in Vancouver, also knows this: she works with different crews in different cities, talks only fleetingly with most passengers, and often has to be available for work on a moment’s notice. That schedule, says the flight attendant—who, like many people in the dating game, asked that her real name not be used—“is detrimental to my social life—and especially my love life.” Last summer, on a whim, she picked up the phone and placed a voice personal ad on a service in Vancouver. “I’d come across a couple of success stories, and I thought, ‘What have I got to lose?’ ” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m obviously not going to meet people otherwise,’ and I just didn’t feel like going through another summer like that.”

It did not take long for the flight attendant, like thousands of other Canadians, to discover the world of voice personals. Young, old, gay, straight, single—and, yes, married—are forgoing dating services, the bar scene and messy office affairs to reach out and touch someone over the phone. During the past eight years, voice personal ads have been filling an increasing number of newspaper pages in cities and towns across the country. Last week, for instance, there were about 90 such ads in Montreal’s La Presse alone—and 30 in the Saint John Telegraph Journal of New Brunswick. In Toronto, one radio station even has a year-old phone-in show during which listeners can connect with other listeners. “People are choosing their partners not on the basis ofcircumstance or time and place, but on the basis of choice and inclination,” says Derrick de Kerckhove, director of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto. “How many times do you need to talk to somebody to know whether he or she is suitable or just a creep? Not a whole lot.”

The system is simple enough. Voice personals are recorded onto a network, where they are available to other subscribers. Anyone over the age of 18 can browse through the system, listen to people’s ads and leave messages in electronic mailboxes. If the interest is mutual, subscribers can arrange to speak to each other and then, if sparks fly, to meet. “You hear the voice,” says Kathy Tait, who writes a relationships column for the Vancouver Province, “and that can tell you a lot about the person’s education level, social level, whether they’re sensitive.” Says the Vancouver flight attendant: “When you hook up on the phone, it’s barrier-free. You have a very comfortable, easygoing conversation and, eventually, you agree to meet somewhere.” She adds, however, that while “I really had a good time,” none of her dates turned into long-term romances.

But at least they came cheap. While prices vary from service to service, recording ads—and listening to them—is generally free; the meter

only starts running when subscribers answer those ads. Toronto-based Interactive Media Corp., a voice-personals giant that buys as many as 11 pages of space in Toronto’s weekly Now magazine and boasts more than 4,000 ads at any given time, charges as little as 39 cents a minute to male users—and offers all services to women free of charge. (In a re cent week, the ratio of female to male subscribers was nearly 3:1.)

Dave, a 38-year-old entrepreneur in Toronto, turned to voice personal ads out of disenchantment with the singles For most of the decade since his divorce,

Dave says, he just played around. Now, he is ready for something more serious. “It’s probably a little safer talking to a person on the phone,” he says, “than meeting someone in a bar and having the hormones go into overdrive.”

Gerald Celente, director of the Rhinebeck, N.Y.-based Trends Research Institute, says that voice personals fit well in a society that shuns spontaneity and is often driven by fear. ‘We’re going to put up all the safeguards we can before we expose ourselves in any way,” says Celente. “We’re in a society that’s becoming more and more introverted.” It is also a society in which people are spending more hours at work than in recent decades—and in which the fear of sexual harassment is nipping many potential office romances in the bud.

The office can be a turnoff in other ways. Suzanne, for instance, knows one type of man she does not want—a lawyer. That poses a problem for the 39-year-old Toronto woman, who works long hours as a lawyer herself. “I find male lawyers as a group to be boring, one-dimensional, egotistical, sometimes very insecure,” she says matter-offactly. “They look the same, they act the same.” Last spring, after 24 years of dating, Suzanne decided to place an ad in The Globe and Mail’s voice personals sections. “I like the fact that it’s safe,” she says. “It’s efficient, it’s free, and you get all these responses and you can just screen them out.”

For Ian, a 32-year-old Toronto man who works in the television business, voice personals are a way of breaking out of his circle of married or matched-up friends—and overcoming his admitted shyness. It puts women at ease, too. “For all they know, I might be five feet, two inches, 50 lb. overweight, a chain-smoker, twice-divorced and perhaps a serial rapist,” he says. “I like to think that chatting with me gives them a sense of who I am.” Although few subscribers wear their network use as a badge of honor, most view voice personals as an interesting alternative to the more traditional ways of looking for love. “The whole concept of dating is daunting,” says Ian. “This is just another way of throwing yourself into the jaws of the lion.”

NORA UNDERWOOD