The electronic kiss-off

It's fast. It's easy. But is it fair?

BY MOLLY WOULFE Times Features Writer
Posted on Sunday, February 24, 2002

"This message will be brief -- there's nothing much to tell.

My heart is signing off -- direct from AOL."

-- Brooke Allison, from "The Kiss-Off (Good-bye)"

"I'll be honest, I've had two guys break up with me by e-mail. It's getting to the point where I don't even want to check my e-mail. It's like, 'Ding! You've got rejection!' I should have seen the signs. My last boyfriend always had problems with attachments."

-- Stand-up comic Emily Singer

You've got mail -- and it stings.

You've been dumped.

For aspiring filmmaker Alan Currie, cyber-breakups are a hazard of 21st-century life. He's severed ties with "three or four" females via e-mail. He's also received his online walking papers at least once.

Why not, the Gary-based screenwriter shrugged. "It's where technology has taken us, the electronic Dear John letter," he said.

Lest the 38-year-old bachelor sound cavalier, the above romances weren't serious. One woman outfoxed him in the last-word department, too. She spiked him from her buddy list.


"It's a major insult when someone takes you off her buddy list," Currie explained. "I was really hurt. When someone has you on the buddy list, they hold you in high esteem. It was like, 'Oh, man, I've been demoted.' "

Breaking up is always hard to do. But the high-tech kiss-off, the offshoot of virtual dating and hanky-panky, puts a confusing spin on heartache. Especially for the thunderstruck recipient.

"Who wants to wake up and check their e-mail and discover a 'Dear John' letter?" social strategist Robin Gorman Newman asked.

"What kind of subject header is listed for that e-mail?" the founder of added. " 'Goodbye forever'?"

Wanted: protocol

Previous generations had it easy. The classic kiss-off -- a weepy letter, phone call or "Casablanca"-style parting -- invited a sense of closure. Both dumper and dumpee knew their roles and performed accordingly.

One party mumbled they needed space. The other sobbed, gathered their tattered dignity and spent weeks rehashing the tragic event with their best friend/mother/mechanic. Or threw the first party's stuff on the lawn.

By contrast, e-mail is a fast, impersonal, one-way sayanora. There's no eye contact, no last kiss, no drawn-out farewell. The rejected party is stranded in cyberspace. No one hears you scream.

It's a little-documented trend that transcends age and gender. Anthropologists would have a field day just tracking lovelorn teens.

Pop singer Brooke Allison, 15, is a textbook case. Her single "The Kiss-Off," an ode to high-tech bust-ups, proved prophetic as it cracked the Billboard 50 last year. When Allison learned her sweetie was two-timing her, an online spat ensued.

She dumped him mid-dispute. "I instant-messaged him," she said.

It's a safe bet such incidents will soar as Internet use continues to grow. According to the Nielsen/NetRatings, the female online population climbed 9 percent last year to 52 percent, or 55 million at-home Internet users. The male online population rose 3 percent from 48.2 million to 49.8 million.

He says/she says

Count Bridgette Cush of, a Dallas-based online dating service with 2.7 million members, among those who suspect cyber-jilting is widespread.

A casual pre-Valentine's Day poll concerning the issue generated a mountain of e-mails. She fielded nearly 500 replies from Chicago and Northwest Indiana alone.

Singletons were divided on the issue, Cush reported. One-third of respondents -- "the breaker-uppers" -- thought e-mail kiss-offs spare feelings and confrontations. A third branded the idea gutless and heartless. The last endorsed it as a fitting way to end a casual relationship.

A mouse click "reflects the depth of a relationship," one sage wrote.

Interestingly, about 70 percent of respondents were female, and males were more riled over the trend. One spurned Romeo wrote that he was shocked "that someone would be so casual about using e-mail to dump me."

Generally speaking, guys "think it's a sick cop-out," Cush summed up.

Other patterns that emerged were the natures of the letters. Women tend to "fudge" details to avoid hurting an ex's feelings. Guys, meanwhile, dash off brief, blunt notes, e.g. "I don't think this is going to work out for us. Goodbye."

Most fellows swore they initiated a breakup before tapping the "send" key, Cush added. "The e-mail was a formality. In their minds, it's just a courtesy," she said.

Traditional rules still apply

No surprise, e-etiquette doyennes find the trend disturbing, along with Web sites like Cyrano ( that offer fill-in-the-blank "see-ya" letters.

While she is convinced a boss should fire an employee in person, "I hesitate to make such an inflexible policy about breakups," said Kaitlin Duck Sherwood, author of the "Overcome E-Mail Overload" book series.

"If the dumper is clumsy and awkward dumping in person -- and who isn't? -- then he or she might actually make the dumpee feel worse," she said.

Charlotte Ford begs to differ. If a meeting is impractical, "the next recourse is the phone," the author of "21st Century Etiquette" said. "Anything in writing is tacky. It's not courteous and it shows no respect to the other person."

Forget it, noted psychologist Joyce Brothers advised. Common decency mandates a face-to-face encounter.

"The politest, bravest, nicest, hardest thing to do is face them and give them a chance to say what they feel," Brothers said. "You don't have to tell them their negatives. Just say, 'We don't fit and I don't think there's a future.' Face the music."

At the very least, the rejected party knows his/her Dear John/Jane letter isn't cause for global merriment.

"Our e-mail isn't as private as we think it is," Brothers warned. "It gets picked up by other people. It can go around the world."

An unshrinking violet

Lisa Pipher of downstate Bedford sides with the in-person camp. The divorced mother of two was indignant when her long-distance beau broke off their six-month romance by e-mail.

"It looks like I won't be coming to Indiana after all," Will in Florida typed. " ... I'll be happy to send back your lighter."

She knew the relationship was shaky, "but I didn't expect it to end like that," said Pipher, 32. "I was at work when I read the e-mail. The adrenaline kicked in and flamed. Flamed.

"I called him and kept getting his voice mail. I said, 'I know you don't like confrontation but I'm not letting you off the hook that easy. Your breakup sucked. I want a better one.' "

The scrappy teacher got her wish. Will eventually picked up the phone. An intense two-hour conversation followed "with all the typical closure statements: 'You're a great girl,' 'Hope we can be friends,' 'I'm sorry this had to happen,' " she listed. "It gave me a better sense of closure than I got through the e-mail."

A postscript: The lovers reconciled via e-mail and phone calls a month later. Now they're planning a romantic rendezvous in New York.

"We're starting over," Pipher said. "But that e-mail. Boy, will that hang over both our heads for a while."

Molly Woulfe can be reached at or at (219) 852-4329.