The topic for this week’s dating panel is checking references: how do you do it, and how far is too far?
Anonymous Female Single
When it comes to checking references, I tend to turn to one source: Facebook.
I know what you’re thinking; checking references is an arduous, necessary evil which must involve three or more phone calls to a tangle of random neighbors, high school teachers, and yeshiva roommates. How can this complicated process be mitigated by checking some guy’s status updates?
Before you determine that this column will be an utter waste of time and switch over to one of the other panelists, hear me out.
The year was 2005. I was a sophomore at Yeshiva University, trying to get my bearings living in Midtown Manhattan. A friend kindly suggested I create a profile on a new site called Facebook. Supposedly it was a lot of fun. Before I could react, she signed me up; and before I knew it, I was procrastinating, exploring the profiles of my peers (YU had a “Hashem” and a “Moshe Rabeinu”) and various groups (“YU Makes Me Miserable,” “When I Was Your Age, Pluto Was a Planet”) and engaging in poke wars until early morning.
With the advent of joining Facebook came the interesting phenomenon of attending an event on campus and seeing familiar faces that you couldn’t quite place, only to realize later that you were both in the YU Chapter of “I Found My Soulmate on Facebook.”
Today we have to do research on potential dates we don’t know because we don’t have a context for them, and it’s helpful to have a context and background when considering a person.
Facebook will not give a complete picture of a person’s identity. But it can help give a sense of his or her world and fill in some of the blanks left when calling predetermined references only.
Without further ado, here is the (self-)certified, two-step method to doing research on Facebook.
Step #1: Check out his or her photos, as many as they make public. This isn’t limited to gauging the physical attractiveness of the person in question, although scrolling through photos is helpful in that regard. Rainbow dreadlocks? Nope. Guy riding on a statue of a moose? Not great, but maybe you can work with that. Maybe you want to see if the person likes traveling, or staying active, if he or she is shomer negiah, or eats out at vegetarian restaurants. Photos can give me some idea of who the person is and what image he or she wants to project.
Step #2: Use mutual Facebook friends as references. This, to me, is one of the most important aspects of using Facebook as a reference tool. It’s important to determine which friends you have in common. If there are any that you trust, send a quick message and inquire about the person you are checking out.
Here you may have a similar experience to calling references; Jesse knows him from their undergrad days, Lisa met him at a young professionals dinner, Zack volunteers with him. The difference is that you can learn about the person through his or her peer relationships. With exceptions, peers know each other on a more intimate basis than acquaintances their parents’ ages. They know friend circles, reputation, and how they behave in public. They know past dating patterns, how they relate to others, and, if they know you well, can give their two cents about whether the person in question would be a good potential match.
How far is too far? For me, that’s calling the family rabbi, his cousin, his dentist, or his parole officer. In the past, I would take the time and call each of his references myself. Obviously, none of his carefully selected references would say anything derogatory about his character, but they aren’t exactly objective either. I say it goes too far when someone feels the need to “sell” someone by trying to convince me to date him by singing his praises, asking me what I am looking for, and then insisting that he is exactly what I described.
Facebook may not give you all the answers you want. But it can be helpful in your search for holy matrimony. And besides, you too could become a proud member of “I Found My Soulmate on Facebook.”
Anonymous Male Single
The British historian and politician Thomas Macaulay once wrote that “facts are the mere dross of history. It is from the abstract truth which interpenetrates them … that the mass derives its whole value: and the precious particles are generally combined with the baser in such a manner that the separation is a task of the utmost difficulty.”
This general outlook on the futility of identifying the forces that shape the course of history from discrete points of data, along with teasing out what is vital to that understanding from those facts of secondary or tertiary importance, is eminently comparable to trying to define a prospective match through making a couple of reference calls. Try as you may, you will not get anywhere near a complete picture — but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
Laboring under the assumption that one is dating with a mind towards marriage, we will assume that just casually meandering your way through the entire existing dating pool is not alluring. Generally speaking, there is a lot that is already tacit and streamlined when dating in the modern Jewish era that is not necessarily true outside of our Benedictine barricades. For example, starting a family is assumed to be on the table, and religion is to be an important element in that family structure.
That being said, you wouldn’t want to invest precious time, all manner of resources, and emotional stamina in a venture of obvious demerit. If there are concrete ideals that you hold dear, then ideally you’d like to have some measure of confidence before the doorbell is pressed for the first time that this person in some way, shape, or form cherishes those things as well. A phone call properly executed can, with almost perfect accuracy, reveal someone who matches exactly what you’re looking for. The inherent risk in checking someone out through references is less about the false positives and more about the false negatives. This is something which, in my opinion, is a good calculated risk, especially considering that if you don’t find someone who sounds up your alley in the first round of calls who “fits,” you can always go back and dig a little deeper to try to unearth anyone who actually does fit that you may have previously overlooked.
The question then becomes: how, and how much? Asking for general descriptors from references is generally not so helpful, as it inevitably elicits the stream of lovely adjectives that apply in varying degrees to every person who isn’t an axe murderer. What I find to be most helpful is asking for specific anecdotes relating to the couple of things really important to you that the other person possesses. For example, “You say he’s a really kind person? Would you mind sharing an experience you had with him where he exhibited that?” If these are the kinds of questions you’re asking, then it makes it more, instead of less, valuable to be calling partial references; they know the person you’re looking into most intimately and will therefore be able to give you the most accurate information once they’ve been painted into the corner of sharing mostly concrete examples.
The limits of checking should be reserved for broad brushstrokes of character, maybe a couple of phone calls; looking into personality is verboten. As long as they’re supposed to be emotionally healthy, you never know how your personalities will gel, and any investigation in that regard is presumptuous and shortsighted.
In short, I believe a couple of well targeted, goal-oriented phone calls can help change the process of checking references from a mere gathering of facts to that more elusive and desirable understanding of someone’s “abstract truth.”
The Dating Coach
It may seem challenging to match up those you love most based on the say-so of five strangers, yet by and large the method works. How does it work, and how do we ask the most appropriate and pertinent questions?
Let’s remind ourselves of the difference between secular dating and dating in the observant Jewish world to better understand what “checking references” is all about.
In the secular world, dating process progresses from hand to heart to head. First, I see if I’m physically attracted to my date, then whether I can connect emotionally. If both of those check out, I begin to think about if our life goals line up. If so, congratulations!
Dating in an observant Jewish context works backward from head to heart to hand, focusing first on what you need, as opposed to what you want.
You should identify the top five qualities that are most important to you in a relationship before you begin dating. What kind of person is most compatible with who I am, and who will provide the best balance to my personality? What type of home do I want to build? Who can help me fulfill my life goals and aspirations, and what do I want out of a relationship?
This avoids building a deeper connection with a good person who may be wrong for us. You never want to “fall” in love — you may bang your head! The goal is to be a proactive participant in this process, and not be swayed by emotional or physical influences.
That said, what research questions should be asked? More importantly, how should we listen so that we’re best processing responses?
Below is a list of commonly asked questions and tips for shidduch research. Make sure to tailor these to the individual.
Make sure the information you’ve been given about family, job, community, personality etc. is factually correct.
Always listen for enthusiasm/positivity or its opposite. Listen for what is not being said (“I think he goes to minyan” versus “He is the first one at shacharit each morning”).
Ask for examples when told how “amazing” or “special” this person is. The more details the better.
What type of hashkafa or level of observance does this person currently maintain?
What type of home does this person see themselves building? Ask for examples and details.
What are three strengths and three weaknesses of this individual?
What type of home did this individual grow up in? Note: Coming from an unhealthy home life should not be a disqualifier if they’ve dealt with it in a healthy way.
Be specific about needs you believe are critical for you. For example: “When you say this person is intelligent, are you talking about social intelligence, book smarts, or street smarts?”
What goals and values does this individual hold dear?
Is this person a happy person? What makes them happy?
Does this person want children?
What is this person’s attitude toward material needs? What kind standard of living are they striving for, materially and/or spiritually?
You can check any prospective match until you’ve gone crazy. What’s critical is that you have enough comfort to meet this person for one date. After that one meeting you can do more research. If there’s no attraction or chemistry, the match is over and additional research is a waste.
With this system in place, we can secure relationships that are not only meaningful and connective, but have the potential for a long-lasting future. Just remember that dating should be the shortest route to your longest relationship!