One night this summer, Jason Kellogg, a 24-year-old publishing assistant, left a bar in Brooklyn after spending a good deal of time talking with a woman he had met that evening. When he left the bar, his friends demanded the requisite information: How old is she? Is she from the area? Does she have any good-looking friends? And most important, did you get a phone number?
Kellogg hesitated on the last question. "Well, not exactly," he said. "She gave me her e-mail."
That was a first for Kellogg. He sent her an e-mail message a few days later, although nothing came of their correspondence. "I suppose it was better than a flat-out rejection," he said. "She was probably turned off by my bad spelling."
E-mail, which has long been an indispensable tool in business, is beginning to influence romantic relationships as well. With more and more Americans in front of computers at work and spending time on them at home, e-mail is changing the ways people meet, court and even break up.
"It's changed every aspect of dating," said Sherry Amatenstein, a dating expert for the iVillage online network and author of "The Q&A Dating Book." "Our new technology is both boon and curse."
One reason for the change in etiquette from requesting a phone number to requesting an e-mail address is comfort, particularly for women. "It's safer than a phone number," said Brenda Ross, dating adviser for About.com and creator of the Dating Advice for Geeks Web site. "With a few e-mails you can get some details, find out what a guy is like and then decide if you want to go out with him. It takes a lot of pressure off."
Some women now use e-mail as a way to avoid people they have no intention of ever going out with. In many instances, Ross said, a woman doesn't want to give out her phone number, but she also doesn't want to be pestered all night for it by some libidinous Neanderthal. Solution: Give him your e-mail address and never respond, or give an e-mail address that you never use, an update of the time-honored dating tradition of giving a wrong phone number. Eventually he will get the idea, and trashing an e-mail message is easier than dodging a phone call.
Of course, that may seem a bit disingenuous, but one thing about dating hasn't changed: It's still war out there.
Many single people have found that e-mail can be a solution to another age-old dating problem - when to call? Ellen Lavery, a 25-year-old from Manhattan, found herself in that situation a few months ago, the morning after a party where she exchanged phone numbers and e-mail addresses with a man. "The next day, I would have absolutely considered a phone call too soon, too desperate," she said, "a severe violation of the three-day rule. So I shot him off a brief `we should get together sometime' e-mail. It seemed more acceptable and less threatening, but not overbearing."
Leslie, 31, a publishing executive in Manhattan, has used e-mail as a follow-up to a date. (She and several other people interviewed for this article spoke on the condition that their last names not be used.) "It would be a little too awkward to call, seeing as how you just saw that person the night before, and a letter is too formal, so e-mail comes in handy."
And what about that first e-mail note? Traditionally, the first phone call can be more nerve-racking than transporting nuclear weapons across a rope bridge. You have to be on your toes: funny but not obnoxious, charming yet not hammy, deep but not psychotic, all on the spot. An e-mail message, however, can go through multiple drafts; wording and tone can painstakingly be thought out, reviewed, edited and, if it's not quite right, sent back to committee. "I always show my e-mails to friends before I send them out," said Drew Brooks, 25, of Manhattan.
Single people who follow up on chance encounters with e-mail are finding that the awkward first stages of a relationship can be made easier online.
One reason relationships can move so far so fast over the Internet is the solitary nature of e-mail. "When you're e-mailing, you can be at home, cozy, in your pajamas," Amatenstein said. "It's so psychologically inviting, people say things they normally would not say."
Ling, a 23-year-old student in Manhattan who is dating someone she met on the Asian Avenue Web site, found that to be the case.
"We just started talking, and pretty soon we were writing each other every day," she said. "It's like a psychiatrist's office: You get in, and you feel like you can say anything. It was weird when we first talked to each other on the phone, because we already knew so much about each other."
Brooks said that he and many of his friends find it easier to be themselves behind the veil of e-mail, saying whatever they want without the risk of a raised eyebrow, a nervous laugh or a dropped jaw. "In e-mail, your needs and feelings are much more important and apparent," he said, "because you're basically exchanging a series of monologues."