Sometimes, the only explanation for an action is that it seemed like a good idea at the time. That’s definitely the only one that explains why I attended a speed dating event yesterday evening. After eighteen months of being a widower, I have neither great desire for another relationship, nor any real expectation of one. But I was curious and had nothing planned for the evening. So I went.
The event was held in the back room of a sports bar – a windowless room that echoed with a dozen different conversations until at times I could hardly hear. The company putting on the event, an organizer told me, consists of half a dozen people, and specializes in various projects that require few expenses and bring only modest profits. It holds one speed dating event for different age groups or ethnicities each week, but, since I doubt that it clears more than $900 per event, this is hardly capitalism on a grand scale. At most, the events might be seen as advertising for the company, or perhaps groundwork for some larger project such as a relationship website.
Whatever the exact situation, the format of the event is simple: twelve women sit at tables around the room, and twelve men go around to each table, talking to each woman for five minutes before moving on. There’s a break for appetizers at the midway point, and throughout men and women scribble notes to themselves about each other. At the end of the evening, everyone hands in a form, indicating who they might want to see more of.
I arrived at the event fifteen minutes early, and watched everyone come in, a little nervously, eying both the members of the opposite sex and the members of the same sex who would be their competition. At least two women were friends, and a couple of the men had obviously come to other events, since they were recognized immediately by the organizers.
My first reaction was a mixture of vanity and nervousness: I looked younger than the other men. The fact pleased me at first, but then I wondered if I would be taken less seriously than them. I hardly seemed the contemporary of the women, either, and I wondered how accurate my self-image was.
Just before I could bolt in panic, the event got under way. I had a variety of moderately interesting conversations with a variety of moderately pleasant women, trotting out some of my stock lines about myself and what I do, and doing my best to seem animated, interesting, and interested. As happens with repetition, my self-presentation become progressively glibber.
I didn’t immediately find a soul-mate, but neither did I find anyone strongly obnoxious. The strongest antipathy I had was for a couple of women with whom five minutes was not enough to make any connection. By contrast, I also met two women I wouldn’t mind talking to for a longer period.
Ironically, the people I got along with best were not the women I was supposed to be getting to know at all. Instead, they were several of the other men (probably because we had no stake in whether we made a good impression on each other or not), and one of the organizers, with whom I had a common background in graphic design and communications. She was obviously far too young for me, but I had more to talk about with her than I did with any of the other women in the room.
Once the exercise was completed, participants were invited to stay and mingle, but few did. The event had started late, and most people had to work the next day. For myself, I had satisfied my curiosity, and didn’t feel enough desire to continue mingling to justify a late start to my work tomorrow.
Speed dating is supposed to provide a safe atmosphere for people to meet, and I suppose it does that. But for all the claims that it is a modern and sensible way to meet, the experience is not much different from a cocktail party in which the pressure of the crowd means that you are constantly talking to other people. The arrangement is more formal, and, unlike a cocktail party, you have more of a chance of actually having a conversation, but against that, I have to set the fact that the conversations end just as they are getting interested. I would be surprised if anyone finds someone compatible at such events except by random chance.
I had few expectations, so I wasn’t disappointed. But neither am I left with any strong interest in repeating the experience. If I’d had a match (that is if I’d indicated an interest in a woman and she had, too), I’d probably have followed up. However, I didn’t, and I can’t say that I’m particularly upset.
Assuming my experience was typical, speed dating is neither the nerve-wracking or contemptible arrangement I half-expected. But neither does it live up to its own hype. It simply seems one of the strange customs of the early twenty-first century. It may not be the wrong place to look for companionship (let alone love), but it doesn’t strike me as particularly the right place, either.