The perils of the penpal

Instagram is a dating app. Or so they say. For the single lady, this means a waiting game of “has he viewed my story yet?” and a deep analysis of every heart eyes or fire emoji reaction. But the good old DM is where things get really murky.

For women, someone sliding into your DMs is usually taken as a sign of interest. For a lot of men though, it’s just a bit of banter or – worst of all – an ego boost. Messaging can be pretty addictive and even the anticipation of each notification can give you the illusion of something deeper going on than there really is. Also, if you’re a single woman actively looking to meet someone online, you probably want to give every guy who messages you a chance. Enter the modern day penpal.

A penpal is that guy who messages you a lot, usually with a hint of flirtation, but it never really goes anywhere and you never meet in real life. What’s the harm in that, I hear you cry. Well, it gets messy when one person thinks all this chat might actually lead to romance and the other is just killing time at work. In my experience – and from what I’ve heard from other women – penpalling is very much a male pastime online, with Instagram as a favourite stomping ground. Although, I hear it’s rife on dating apps too.

So, how do you know if the guy you’re messaging wants you as a penpal or if they’re really interested? There are a few red flags to watch out for. (Side note: A lot of men who pursue female penpals are bored men in relationships so, not-so-coincidentally, the signs of an Instagram penpal are also signs the person you’re chatting to isn’t exactly single. The joy of the internet.)

Here’s a few signs that you’re in a modern day penpal situation that’s unlikely to blossom into anything red hot any time soon:

  • Have a look at who he’s following. There’s nothing worse than thinking you’re having a special connection with someone and then you notice he’s following 300 people and 295 of them are hot blondes. Chances are he messages a lot of women and you took the bait. Sorry.
  • He only messages you at specific times. Usually there’s a pattern, such as during his work hours or he’s AWOL at the weekend. My first penpal rarely messaged me after work. Plot twist: he turned out to have a partner and baby girl. Delightful.
  • He only uses one platform to message you. Usually it’s Instagram DM. Some may disagree with me here but an adult man who’s interested will ask for your number. My God, even take things to email.
  • He disappears for long periods and doesn’t explain. For example, he replies to your message 24 hours later and doesn’t say something like “Sorry, had to go fight vampires.” (Why yes, I have just re-watched all 7 seasons of Buffy). Your chat just isn’t a priority for him and he can take it or leave it. Again, sorry.
  • He never suggests or even references meeting IRL. This is the biggest red flag of all. If a man’s interested in you, he’ll want to get his hands on you, or eyeball you in person at the very least. If you put the feelers out about hanging out in person and he seems content to live in chat bubbles, you have your answer.

Of course, not all men (heheheh) who message you are desperately seeking penpals. There’s a handful of men (menpals, if you will) who message me often. I know they’re not at all romantically interested in me and I enjoy our brief exchanges for what they are. The difference is that the penpalling types know exactly what they’re doing and they know their flirty ways are going nowhere. All they want is the validation of your reply. Some might even just want someone to talk to. Harmless but a colossal waste of a woman’s time.

I also don’t want to scare any men off talking to women or replying to their content (my DMs are open!). In fact, messaging someone regularly is a great way to get to know someone and who knows where that could lead (insert wink emoji).

Thanks to my handy list of red flags above, you might’ve established that you and the chat buddy of your dreams are in fact just penpals. What’s a girl to do? Well, if the chats bring you unbridled joy and you can accept that it’s a romantic cul-de-sac, go forth and chat your heart out. On the other hand, if, like me, you can’t bear being someone’s free online fun, cut your losses and stop replying. You’ll miss the banter and buzz of a new message, but at least now you have more time to meet someone who’s more interested in kissing than corresponding.

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