NEAL CONAN, host:
Not a great ladies man, but a man meant for one great lady, SWM 48, dapper, intelligent, well read, Tennyson rules. Seeks soft heart and solid head for wine, dine and all that's fine. Meet me for a drink, and we'll take it from there.
Well, for almost eight years, Michael Beaumier edited or wrote appeals like that one as the personal ads editor for an alternative weekly newspaper in Chicago. In this day and age of match.com, Internet chat rooms and speed dating, spending time to write a catchy and by its very nature revealing personal ad seems almost quaint.
But all around the country, people still cast these little lines of hope out in agate type, many of which can be summarized in the phrase Michael Beaumier selected as the title of his book, I Know You're Out There.
Well, we know you're out there. We have an e-mail challenge for you. Describe yourself in 25 words or less. We'll let you get edited by the master. Our address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also call us if you have personal experience with personal ads. 800-989-8255.
And Michael Beaumier joins us now from the BBC Studios in New York. Nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. MICHAEL BEAUMIER (Author, I Know You're Out There): Hey there, Neal, how are you doing?
CONAN: You write that personal ads are not for spineless wimps. What do you mean?
Mr. BEAUMIER: Well, you have to, you know, have a little bit of courage to put yourself out there. Of course, you get to be anonymous at the same time too, so I guess it's half and half. You can be spineless and you can not be a wimp, or you can have a spine and still be a wimp, one of the two.
CONAN: You write that essentially, all of these people who write to you begin with the premise that they are absolutely utterly mortified to be writing to you at all.
Mr. BEAUMIER: Oh of course, yes. And I don't know if that has anything to do with me, or really the fact that they're placing personal ads. I always took it rather personally myself, because you know, who wants to talk to the guy who's in charge of making sure that you find somebody, then you have to lie about how you met. To have that kind of knowledge is very dangerous, very scary.
CONAN: But do people begin with a premise that I'm a loser if I have to write this ad?
Mr. BEAUMIER: Well, sometimes they do, and I think a good, big part of my job was convincing them that no, in fact, they were not losers, and that they were quite worthy of asking for somebody's hand in marriage or just somebody's hand for dinner or somebody's hand for a walk - I don't know. But I always, you know - I would always have to kind of talk people down from the ledge initially when they were placing personal ads. That was always fun, too.
CONAN: How many of your correspondents, if I can call them that, I mean, had contact with you? I always thought of this as a pretty impersonal process where you sent in your 25 or 30 words or whatever it was and sent them a check and that was that.
Mr. BEAUMIER: Well, I would say the vast majority had no idea, I mean that I think that if they sat and really thought out that part of the process, they would have to realize that there would have to be somebody there on the receiving end to look at these things. But initially people didn't really talk to me. People wouldn't correspond directly with me, that they would correspond with the newspaper that I wrote for, and I kept my mouth shut, that my job was to be as invisible as possible.
But once people realized that I was there, that they would ask for tips or they would more often than not tell me about their terrible dating experiences or their very positive dating experiences or they would share, especially round about I'd say the beginning of the year, we'd get flooded with people who were getting married to people that they had met through their personals.
Mr. BEAUMIER: And so they would say can you send me a copy of my personal, or can you destroy any evidence that I ever placed a personal at all?
CONAN: And the irony of all of this is you're there editing these, you know, these little rafts of hope that people are floating out there in your newspaper. At the same time, the way you describe it, you spent the last two years sleeping on the couch.
Mr. BEAUMIER: Yes, exactly. I had the slowest moving breakup in the history of relationships. It took me - I think we started breaking up about nine years previously and then we finally finished. You know, that if I do something, I do it thoroughly and that's how that works.
It was a very comfortable couch, though. I will say that.
CONAN: We're talking with Michael Beaumier about his book I Know You're Out There: Private Longings, Public Humiliations and Other Tales from the Personals. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And here's an e-mail we got from Dee in St. Louis. Gregarious, cute, confident woman seeking fun-loving, happy, adventurous man to enjoy travel, experiential dining, theater, concerts and sporting events. Must look for the fun in life. How'd she do?
Mr. BEAUMIER: Well, that's pretty good, but I am a little bit leery of fun-loving. Looking for somebody who's fun-loving might be somebody who is fun drunk. I think you need to think about it in terms of the way that men think about words and fun-loving sounds like sort of a license to drink.
CONAN: I see.
CONAN: So that might be difficult. Here's another one. Hobbit i.s.o. Elf. Hey, if you're looking to find a good guy who's somewhat the hobbit, loves comfort and adventure, here is everything but the furry feet looking for a companion in fun, work, life and love. That from Revere.
Mr. BEAUMIER: Without the furry feet - I don't know if that works, really, but we have a lot of people who placed ads that were, suddenly they were characters from Star Trek, a lot of Star Wars people, too. I can remember when Bridget Jones's Diary came out and I got really sick of that.
CONAN: Aha, because everybody was framing their life in terms of those particular lives.
Mr. BEAUMIER: You can certainly see what's current in the culture by the way that people place their personal ads. I do remember there were an awful lot of hobbits around about the Lord of the Rings trilogy. That went on for quite some time.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller on the line, and this is Jim. Jim's calling us from McCall, Idaho.
JIM (Caller): Hey, hi.
CONAN: How are you doing?
JIM: All right. It's lots of forest fires here, but other than that, fine.
JIM: Anyway, about 10 years ago in grad school we took our statistics class and we had to pick a project. So a couple colleagues of mine picked a project of comparing men's and women's classified ads in the Seattle Weekly. And what we discovered was I thought rather interesting, and that's generally that men talked a whole lot more about themselves and women talked about what they wanted in a man. And there was a statistically significant difference, whether they used descriptive terms or not and there was all kinds of things. It just came down on the gender side of things. I was just wondering if your -
CONAN: Michael Beaumier, you've been in the trenches of this particular conflict.
Mr. BEAUMIER: Well, I think that that's very true. I think that's demonstrably true even if you just look at the ads. I'm not a - I'm very bad at math. I'm still on fractions, honestly, but it's - just in my personal sort of emotive way of looking at the ads, you can have a woman who is in great shape who has a job, fabulous hair, knows how to dress and she'll say that she's okay. And you can have a man who's living in his parents' basement playing Nintendo who has dirty fingernails and he can describe himself as a great catch.
And so I'm not sure why that is, because - I don't know it's that personals draws that kind of character - men who talk about themselves are going to use this wonderful venue where they get to, you know, be published, you know, even if it's in this tiny, tiny way.
CONAN: And even if they're paying for it.
Mr. BEAUMIER: Yes. Well, oftentimes they're not, because a lot of newspapers allow these ads to run for free. Where they make their money is how people answer them, so that's how they get you.
CONAN: Jim, thanks for the call, appreciate it.
JIM: Hey, no problem, thanks a lot.
CONAN: I was fascinated by decoding some of the words used. I mean, we all get confused by the SWF and all of that, but you say there's different codes for what women say and what women hear and vice versa. If women say adventurous, you say men hear slutty.
Mr. BEAUMIER: Yes.
CONAN: And similarly, if men say athletic, what women hear is watches football on TV.
Mr. BEAUMIER: While sitting on the couch.
CONAN: Yes, exactly. So you have to be careful about your terminology here.
Mr. BEAUMIER: Oh, you have to be very careful about it and you also can't really predict a lot of it. There are a lot of people who would say well, I had this really interesting woman who answered my ad and she was really sort of into the fact that I used plethora in the text of my ad. And that words completely out of any context of what you've written suddenly strike a chord with somebody. Oh, that guy knows the word plethora.
CONAN: Yeah, that's -
Mr. BEAUMIER: He sounds like a good date. I think I'll have dinner with him.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from David. A writer with no lines, I'm a newspaper writer who wants to meet a woman. I would like it if she looked like a million bucks because that's the closest to a million bucks I'll ever have. I am devoted to my job and would be to family responsibilities. Another man describing himself.
Mr. BEAUMIER: Interesting, and a newspaper writer.
CONAN: Yeah, well.
Mr. BEAUMIER: How strange how those things go together, hand in hand.
CONAN: And poverty stricken, too.
Mr. BEAUMIER: I could cry.
CONAN: We have time for one last one. This one: Looking for lover of the great outdoors. Do you love the mountains or kayaking in a river? SWM, 23, looking for an upbeat, adventuresome SWF.
Mr. BEAUMIER: Well, when you're 23 years old, you can be completely into running around the outdoors, but what happens what you're 45 and you just want to sit around? You're too tired and your feet hurt. Think about the future, my friend.
CONAN: Michael Beaumier, thanks very much. Good luck.
Mr. BEAUMIER: Thank you.
CONAN: Michael Beaumier's book, I Know You're Out There: Private Longings, Public Humiliations and Other Tales from the Personals. I'm Neal Conan, this is NPR News.
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