Lonely Hearts Ads, Embattled Lives, and Collegiate Cognition

Albert WaldingerDepartment of Sociology Wake Forest University


This article presents a step-by-step methodology for the use of the lonely hearts ad in interpreting and reconstituting syntactic and semantic relationships that have been deleted in a corrupt and incomplete cognitive and social context. Such a method is both basic to instilling ”sentence sense“ in the students of Freshman Composition and moral awareneness in college. As a second stage in the methodology, the article proposes giving the students a solid understanding of Humanistic Psychology as a way of strengthening the collegiate individual threatened by becoming no more than a product in the ”diplomaed personality market.

Deleted Discourse1

Pauline Kael (1985), in a film critique of “ The Lonely Guy “ starring Steve Martin, lingers on a scene in which one single desperado howls to another on the rooftops of Manhattan and his howl is echoed and passed on to another “howler”(p.129). She was moved by the authenticity of the metropolitan American “talking drum”: in the tropical rain forest of the United States, the fact of loneliness is as strident, insistent and choking as the cry of a toucan and the winding of a creeper (and “creepiness”) and many “lonely hearts” place “personal ads” in local newspapers. These “presentations of self in everyday life” are written in a cryptic, syntactically truncated style which sends out a complex social message, and the college student, whether alienated himself or simply concerned about the integrity of his social world, must know how to “read between the lines.” It is the task of the socially responsible teacher to give his students the savvy to do so.

But the code of loneliness is not really exotic. It is part of the world of college-age “young adults,” nothing more than one “SWM” (“Single White Male”) crying out to a like-minded (?) “SWF” (“Single White Female”)—-or a “SBM” (“Single Black Male”), a “SJM” (“Single Jewish Male”) and even a “DWF” (“Divorced White Female”) in a politically correct universe of discourse. Of course , the cry may be rhythmically annotated and syncopated by “N/S” and “N/D,” which only mean that the reader and respondent must have sworn off Philip Morris and amphetamines (May Shopper, 1991, p. 6). But the forms of the negative acronym may be various—”Non– smoker” and “No drugs”—so that the answerer of the ad must be skilled in the twists and turns of negativity.

Accordingly, it may be quite challenging to decipher the S.O.S. sent by a “SWM, 30, enjoys life, sense of humor, athletic, caring, educated, cute, slender, financially secure, looking for SWF, Friendship/Romance” ( Coast Weekly, Feb., 1991, p. 37 ; the Coast Weekly is the “News, Arts and Entertainment Bulletin for Monterey County”).

In addition to the acronyms, much of the difficulty lies in a daunting array of calculated syntactic deletions, both verbal (“has sense of humor,” “is athletic…financially secure”) and relational (“who enjoys life,” “for Friendship/Romance”). Moreover, the lexical and semantic problem resides in plethora of purposely elastic expressions, subjective to the point of bewilderment: “enjoys life,” “sense of humor,” “caring,” “cute,” and “Friendship/Romance”—in fact, the slash is an indication of the indistinctness and ambiguity of “Friendship.”

The first “task” (as set by Cook, 1989) is a definition of the passage’s “Discourse Typology,” whether it is like a “TV news broadcast” or “a chat with your next door neighbor” (p. 50, p. 61). In fact, it is like both in that a lonely hearts ad is an intimate and pseudo-neighborly listening ear—the man who gives you “the name of someone available”—plus the same intimacy made public (meaning that this discourse type has, as a situation, some stigma attached, much like hanging one’s panties to dry in a dorm restroom). In short, the form brings with it a difficult and ambiguous “reciprocity” (Cook, 1989, p. 61).

The second task is the identification of the deletions according to functional rather than traditional grammatical categories—I would suggest Halliday’s 1985 notions of “expansion, relation, and verbality.” Related to it is the re-integration of the passage through the restoration of its syntax and what could only be called “self-presentational ellipses”(Cook,1989,p. 20).

Subsequently, much class discussion and decoding of societal and linguistic guidelines about this self-presentation should precede a written response to the ad and semiological insight into Roland Barthes’ “Basque Chalet in Paris” (from Mythologies, 1957) can guide such discussion. It will be seen that an “artsy-crafty” rusticity in an urban setting can have a certain false indigenousness—in this case, a self-conscious “Basqueness”—lending to the whole a picture-postcard halo in a world which normally features publicity and representative abstraction (pp.210-211). Likewise, the lonely hearts ad is a public, transplanted statement that may or may or may not represent the authentic “SWM heart,” but it certainly represents a distorted and exaggerated image.

Thus, the “sense of humor” announced here may or may not be real, may or may not be a concrete reflex of the general ability to “enjoy life,” which could well penetrate the mind of the SWF reader as another delightful and illusory halo lighting up all of the grey and dateless weekends spent at the university library. She sees “love of life/ sense of humor” as realized facts because she ardently wants to bring their haziness and misty unreality down to earth, wants to “make them innocent” of unclarity, as Barthes phrases it (p.211).

In other words, the significance and signifier of a personal depend largely on the motivations of the “signifying parties,” on the writer and recipient of the message and their “fatal attraction.” This fact makes the lonely hearts ad a subtype of “myth” in Barthes’ terminology, according to which it may “signify” no more than an open-ended communicative structure (p.193), one waiting for “reciprocity” to give it value. In this sense, loneliness is “mythical” and the SWM who advertises himself as “athletic and slender” is doing more than lying; he is fabricating the image of a Greek hero for the body- builder inclined readers of Coast Weekly.

The compositional response of one student to the fulfillment of Task IV was “anti- heroic.” Moreover, I had wanted her gorge to rise so much that she would react adamantly rather than meekly respond, but it turned out as over-reactive and “ counterreactionary decoding” (to use Paulo Freire’s terminology, which should be used sensitively for ESL learners from “reactionary” regimes, but can be applied shockingly to American reality).

Let me state first that this student was a “DWF, 36, 2 Children” who had suffered much humiliation from men and was hoping to rehabilitate herself by going to college (a California Community College). She wasn’t really convinced of the Genteel Decade adage that “men are deceivers ever,” but she responded with all of the moral indignation of that earlier day. Thus, the “SWM, 30” was no more than a “cad” who was masterminding a plot to ensnare the helpless SWF, whom he would then introduce to his rich, patriarchal family. On the surface, this is no ‘90’s scenario, but it is encouraged by selected TV programs (“General Hospital,” for example) and should be encouraged likewise: it is spontaneous and shows the power of a lonely hearts ad to bring up a student’s individual and folk history, even when this is atavistic. A personal may be conceived in deleted, stenographic terms, but the response to it should be undiluted and undeleted—real “Tasks.”

Nesting and Feathering

Reading the stenographic style, which constitutes what one expert in Hebrew discourse analysis has called “Headline Syntax” (Nir, 1984, p.60), is one of the chief challenges presented to the students of the Hebrew Department of the Defense Language Institute. To this end, simulated blurbs of matchmaking are presented for cognitive as well as cultural stimulation. The pedagogical process runs as follows: after the presentation and explication of the ad, a series of exercises is given in which the student must fill in the prepositions and relevant verbs and must select from a list of self- commendatory adjectives (Blum et al, 1984, pp. 166-167), thereby activating a grammar of self- enhancement (and “self-presentation”) in a foreign language. The systematic truncation involves dropping “verbs of movement and existence” as self-understood (a dangerous existential mistake!) as well as the accompanying particles, prepositions and conjunctions (Nir, 1984, p. 60, p. 62). The student (“SWF” or “E-1”) must reduce “iffiness” to operational clarity and commitment, must fill out an emaciated blurb from his/her larder. If this “cupboard is bare,” a relevant response will also be lacking.

In traditional Jewish culture, the cupboard is always well-stocked with unambiguous marriage brokers like those in the Yediot akhronot (“Latest News”), which features “family and ethnic” matchmakers. But “Liberal Orthodox” patrons of these may also find what they are looking for in the pages of Laisha (“For the Woman”), the Israeli Elle: “Religious Hunk, Apartment, Seeks Religious Girl.” Of course, “religion” and “apartment” are still relatively concrete, but “one man’s (or woman’s) ‘hunk’ is another man’s poison,” so the term in Hebrew (the same as “piece” in English but without the demeaning connotation) is a cipher that needs to be deciphered and disambiguated.

Even more unclear is the “true-blue female” sought by a Yemenite male in Laisha (who evidently abandoned his “family” marriage broker in Yediot akhronot) in an ad identical to the March number of The Monterey Shopper’s “datemaker” (p. 10). In Hebrew, “true-blue” has racial overtones, faintly suggestive of the English “purebred.” In other words, both Israeli and Monterey seekers have to contend with “the race card.”

Likewise, both Laisha and The Monterey Shopper feature “warm nesting,” the former in a general note (p. 87) and the latter in a full-scale personal where the “SWF seeks Quiet Evenings at Home” (March, 1991, p. 10). This is precisely the same as the “chaumiere heureuse” or “idyllically happy thatched roof” that Sylviane Carpentier, a former Miss Europe, found when she married a humble electrician (Barthes, 1957, p. 48, p. 172). So we are involved with a very syrupy and “homey” sweetness justifying the sleaze and therefore needing some serious decoding.

The advertisement of “commitment” makes up a high point of psycho-social fetishism. Every lonely hearts ad can be seen as a kind of fetish proclaiming the dubious hope of fulfillment in what Marx described as a “ topsy-turvy world” in which people become “commodities” (Qtd. in Rader, 1979, p. 107). Fromm (1976), not pulling any punches, called this “the personality market” (p.136). So the hapless Junior is up against a very puzzling question: Is the person announcing human warmth no more than a mechanical clone himself? Can this be?

The SCM or SCF (“Single College Male/Female”) can unscramble the puzzle through a thoroughgoing study of Maslow’s Humanistic Psychology, which may be thirty years old but is still relevant. He/She must be taught that “B-Cognition” in Maslow’s system, “self-actualization,” is a kind of moral graduation from “D-Cognition,” which equals giving into lust, deception, false hopes, and need, the prime movers of many lonely hearts ads. He must learn, moreover, that “rubricity” or being labeled (“SCM, Computer Science and Business Major”) is a form of “cheap cognition” and as slapdash, unthinkingly “stenographic,” and far from the “idiographic ideal” as a hasty memo (Maslow, 1968, pp. 74-75, p. 126).

At the end of all of the Tasks, after the compositional response to loneliness, he/she should be confronted with a listed profile of “Self-Actualizing People” (Maslow, 1969, pp. 162- 163), much like a more mature and diagnostic Graduate Record Examination. The aim of such a profile is to test whether he/she can measure up to the cognitive challenge of loneliness met by humanistic role models who “do not need to be loved by everyone,” “do not need to seek for or even enjoy very much flattery, applause, popularity, status, prestige, money, honors, etc, “ and who “ try to free themselves from illusions, to look at the facts courageously, [and ] take away the blindfold.” In this way, the empowerment should be complete, should come full circle. The student is given all the means of mastery, both cognitive and humanistic.


1. This essay is a revised version of a paper projected for presentation at the Northern Pacific Popular Culture Association Convention held at Portland, OR (April 19, 1991) under the title “Lonely Hearts Ads, Embattled Lives and the Teaching of Foreign Languages.”


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Waldinger, Albert. (1999). Lonely Hearts Ads, Embattled Lives, and Collegiate Cognition. Radical Pedagogy: 1, 1. [iuicode:]