Today's courtship: white teeth, root beer, and e-mail?

Now that Valentine's Day is here, a few of those niggling questions about relationships can be resolved. Like this one: What's one thing a lot of women look for in a man? A long résumé? A fancy car?

Nope. It's white teeth.

That's right, three-fourths of women say pearly whites are a key to attraction - a detail available at this time of year because no question is too obscure for pollsters to ask men and women about when "heart day" is at hand.

Did we mention that the white-teeth question was asked by a power-toothbrush maker?

To make the trek through the romantic wilderness easier, companies measure everything from how people meet to what women want as gifts. (This year, guys, they'd prefer something sentimental, rather than lingerie.)

The onslaught of opinions is enough to send romantics back to the less-complicated days of parlor chats and parental consent. At this rate, that may be just around the corner for beleaguered daters.

"Life was very simple when everybody knew what the rules were," says Robert Billingham, professor of human development and family studies at Indiana University. "These kind of surveys ...just confuse people."

And things are already confusing enough, what with the uncertainty of who should pay for the meal and what method should be used for asking a person out - online or phone line.

Those who offer advice on dating say courtship isn't dead, but it isn't as clearly defined as it used to be - with everything from getting lunch to living together potentially qualifying.

Modern wooing offers alternatives and devices for communicating that weary some, and empower others. Some experts even argue that all this gadgetry has limited our ability to communicate.

"A lot of people are using e-mail to ask people out," says Gilda Carle, a relationship and dating expert. It may be perfect for those who are shy or fear rejection, she says, "but it takes away the personal touch."

Perhaps, but not all the face time is gone.

Knock, don't honk

Consider the automobile - one of the first gadgets to revolutionize dating decades ago. These days it is used as a place to propose marriage and to flirt while driving, according to a survey by an online auto service. But watch out ladies and gentlemen, that same study also measured the top excuses used to get a date alone in a car, including "getting lost," "engine trouble," and the classic, "out of gas."

For some, the car holds fond memories. Keith Barkley of Johnstown, Pa., says when he courted his wife more than two decades ago, "I always used to like just getting in the car and driving."

But he felt it was important to get out of it when he came to collect his gal. "I was the only boyfriend my wife had who came to the door. Everybody else would pull up, beep the horn, and the girl would run out. It's kind of like that now," he says, recalling how his daughter's suitors have acted.

While many couples still head for dinner and a movie, some dating-doyens say it's time to try something new.

Husband-and-wife team Paul Joannides and Toni Johnson, authors of the book "Guide to Great Dates," say people need to spend more time thinking about imaginative things to do together - visiting a planetarium, volunteering, or brewing their own root beer. These activities can be less intense than sitting across from another person all night trying to make small talk, they say.

One option on Valentine's Day is The Wild Side of Love program at the Cincinatti Zoo, where couples learn "the lengths animals will go to to procreate," according to a spokesman. "No matter what extreme we go to to pursue our mate, nothing compares to the courtship rituals of the natural world," he adds.

As tempting as that sounds, many couples will likely stick with the time-honored tradition of a fancy dinner on the big day. When it is time for a restaurant, the "Great Dates" authors offer this helpful tip: "Dinner is an important part of dating. Make sure you have a reservation."

Who pays?

The question is, who should pay? In a TIPP/Christian Science Monitor poll (we couldn't resist), almost half of those asked thought the person who asked for a date should pay for it. About a third of the 903 Americans surveyed thought the man should.

"For the most part, I've never paid for a date. I've split things with guys. The first couple of times I go out with a guy, usually he'll pay," says Kate Paul, a Boston Conservatory student.

Things get a little stickier when women ask men out. That practice itself is one the Monitor survey found doesn't bother people - a vast majority in all age groups said it is fine. Some experts say women are getting into trouble when they take the man's role away, but some men don't seem to mind.

"I don't think it's that out of place. If somebody cares for somebody else, how do they know who their potential mate is without even trying?" asks Mr. Barkley.

That was the case for Karen Wright in Mankato, Minn. She and her fiancé place a high value on morals and religion and maintain a more traditional approach to romance. But she was the one who made the first move.

"He was very shy, so I'm glad I bucked tradition on that one and followed through with asking," she says.

Still, some men tell tales of women who ask them out and then expect them to pick up the tab.

Not all women are that way, though.

"If I asked a guy on a date I wouldn't expect him to pay, but I also would not expect to pay for the whole date. I'd expect it to be split," says Ms. Paul.

As the debate about who should pay rages on, some singles sidestep the issue by not being paired-up on Valentine's Day.

According to a survey by the makers of mint Skittles, some people are just as happy not to have to pick out a card or gift.

As an alternative, the candymaker suggests they round up their friends and go out on the town - with a certain mint candy, of course. Because you never know when you might meet someone new.

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