You might be surprised to learn that speed dating still exists–and not just in limbo somewhere between Missouri, middle management, and web 1.0. In fact, speed dating is still an option for singles right here in our Tinder-addicted metropolis. And lest you think I’m referring to some kind of ironic meet-up during which people put bags on their heads and rely solely on conversation and olfactory senses to determine if doinking is in their immediate future, rest assured, straight-up, no gimmicks speed dating is still alive and well in old New York.
Speed dating was first developed in the late 90s by a Los Angeles-based Rabbi named Yaacov Deyo in order to help busy Jewish singles meet marriage material in record time. The system might seem a little outdated now, and for good reason—who needs face-to-face meet-ups when there’s an app for that? But back at the turn of the century, word got out, trend pieces were penned, and speed dating became a full-blown phenomenon. It’s kind of hard to wrap your mind around in the age of meeting over the internet, but speed dating was once considered a somewhat impersonal form of courtship, something for reluctant people pressed for time.
Now, of course, speed dating feels supremely sluggish in comparison to dating apps. How do I know this? From experience, like, last week’s experience: I attended an event organized by New York Minute Dating.
The process basically entails a series of brief, five-to-ten minute, two-way interviews with a slew of completely random people. I knew time was up when organizers ran a bell. And while generally the conversations were awkward but polite, a few seasoned participants asked “clever” questions. They were not shy about their alumni status.
One of my partners asked me if I’d heard of the psychologist Arthur Aron’s 36 questions that supposedly make you fall in love with anyone. I lied and said, no, I had not. He switched gears and asked the name of the last movie that made me cry, I admitted that a recent episode of Girls was so terrible that I felt like crying. I turned the tables on him: Police Academy II was his answer. So, you know, these conversations can be quite entertaining.
But things started out weird. I was the first to arrive–which was already an unusual thing for me–at a really rather awful dive in the East Village. The drinks were pricey, the crowd… scary, and the place smelled like piss and looked like a well-worn horse stable: ground-down wood, dark and dank, lit only by the glow of sports games and Bud Light beer signs. I could only bring myself to speak in a whisper to the bartender when I asked where the “event” was happening; she pointed me to the poorly-lit and drafty back room.
The hookup corral was exceedingly lonely, silence was broken only by the whir of a space heater. “You’re here for speed dating?” asked one of the organizers, a tall guy with a New York Minute Dating T-shirt haphazardly throw over a button-down. “Yup,” I nodded.
He did a double take: “Really? Are you sure? Speed dating?”
I sat down in a large leather booth awkwardly lit by red and blue spotlights and awaited my inevitable fate. What the hell was I doing in this shame-hole? As a few other women sat down, the guy who had checked me in walked to a mic stand in the center of the room and started reading off instructions, dropping a few terrible jokes in between.
“We’ve been doing this since the 90s,” he said. “Things were way different then. No one had cell phones.” He singled me out: “You, you wouldn’t have had a cell phone. So what would you be doing right now? Playing with a Rubik’s cube?”
No, sir; I wouldn’t have been playing with a Rubik’s cube. If I’d been here in the 90s, I likely would have been pooping in my diaper.
I actually started to get nervous. My Budweiser was almost gone and I was out of cash. Generally, I enjoy talking to strangers, but the prospect of jamming into a booth with total randoms and having to deflect pick-up lines while completely sober was starting to freak me out.
But maybe I’ve just grown used to the initial anonymity and relative distance offered by dating apps? Maybe I should try something out of my comfort zone? In what other circumstance would I feel so vulnerable? This was so public, so… real. And it would just be for five minutes at a time. How is that suddenly an eternity? I could do this.
I’m not even a regular user of dating apps. In fact, I’m just a sick weirdo who flips through profiles when I’m bored, with absolutely no intention of meeting up with people. But I can empathize with the staunchest critics of Tinder et al, who point to the encroachment of a Silicone Valley-ethos into our romantic relationships and sex lives, which reads something like: The goal is to manage one’s time efficiently so as to maximize work output for the corporate monsters we devote nearly all our waking hours to already. Why risk wasting time at a bar scoping out potential hookups when an app can eliminate all the variables that come between you and a person you consider attractive? You only need to have the smallest degree of mutual attraction and then you’re free to PM. Sex is within reach like never before.
And I have friends that swear by the convenience of Tinder while they trash OK Cupid for being a time-suck, a site to which many of these same people were once devotees. The rate at which dating aids become outmoded these days is nothing short of astounding. Call me a romantic, but when it comes to relationships, expediency seems counterintuitive. Doesn’t this sense of urgency, the quick swipe, go against what relationships and sex stand for: a welcome departure from the daily schlep, the opportunity to enjoy the closeness of another human being? Of course, dating apps can still help you arrive at these ends, but what are we missing in between if the means are so swift and calculated?
Back at the East Village bar, the room was suddenly packed with other women. All were dressed like the “young professionals” the organizers called for—attractive, prim, and fairly adept at hiding any nervousness. Though one girl sat in the shadows brushing her hair repeatedly and glancing over at me.
Another woman who sat down at the booth next to Brush Girl proved to be less reserved. “Would you like anything to drink?” one of the organizers asked her. “Get me a Bud Light and two shots of Fireball–chilled.” Brush girl looked up inquiringly. “Well, if we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do this,” the newcomer said.
Right on! I swilled the rest of my Budweiser and said fuck it.
After all the women were seated, the men began to file in toward the back of the room, sipping beers from plastic cups and milling about, unsure of themselves. The women stayed comfortably seated, shooting out last minute texts: “OMG WTF am I doing here?” “Wish me luck, everyone looks like a loser!” “This is going to be awful FML!”
The bell rang and the guys rotated about the room, stopping at each table for five minutes of either incredibly stilted conversation, typical small talk, or surprisingly honest exchanges.
My first suitor, we’ll call him K, was incredibly nervous at first. His hands were shaking and he fell back immediately on a list of painful questions he’d obviously prepared in advance.
“What do you do for fun?”
Wow. What do I do for fun, I wondered. I quickly made something up about going to shows a bunch, which I do occasionally but not enough, right? I just conveyed my ideal self, the person that goes to shows three times a week because she’d rather spend her money on supporting local music and touring bands than piss it away on beer and over-priced Negronis.
But apparently K bought it, because he immediately became more relaxed. We had something in common. Turns out K is a DJ and rapper. We talked about shows, the music industry, a record deal he almost had. But while K was defending his poetic integrity as a “lyricist,” the bell rang. He finished his sentence, we shook hands, and K moved on, even though he’d just been really starting to get somewhere.
What followed was a diverse stream of boy-men in finance, guys from New Jersey, a driver for National Grid living in Queens. And unlike the dating pool that pops up on my Tinder, these guys were a bit more of an accurate representation of New York City: one Ukrainian, a Pakistani guy, a very nice fellow from Kenya, and just a handful of white guys in the bunch. Our conversations were mostly enjoyable, but totally platonic. I wasn’t “hitting it off” with anyone. Have dating apps jaded me to the point where this seemed less like some elaborate courtship ritual than a middle school dance?
I then realized, disappointed with my own shallowness, that I would have definitely swiped 90 percent of these guys to the left had I seen them on Tinder. Being young professionals, and mostly polite, respectable people, none of them were exactly “my type.” However multiple studies have shown that our ideal type rarely matches up with who we date in reality.
Consider suitor B— he was probably one of the largest humans I’ve ever had the opportunity to shake hands with. He could have crushed me into oblivion without so much as a sneeze. But despite his intimidating physical presence, B turned out to be the most appealing suitor to me. Our conversation was so frank, so real, so free of bullshit. And it was only five minutes long. Sparks, amirite?
We talked about his work as a security guard, how being nice helps “diffuse the situation” and that being tough and mean probably never helped anyone. I know, I know. But he was being real. I could tell. B’s a chill guy, not much of a partier, he prefers to go out for a glass of wine and watch movies. B was a good listener, a good talker, and had a great sense of humor. In short, a total dreamboat.
But I’m going to be honest here—I deal exclusively in men who are about my size. It’s not a conscious decision, but things have only worked out with people that are within a few inches of me, height-wise. Otherwise, I might have proposed to B on the spot.
For a lot of these guys, whatever “flaw” inspired them to seek the help of a dating service as opposed to relying on the old fashioned pursuit of picking up broads at bars, parties, whatever, was immediately discernible. They were clearly either too busy, not conventionally attractive, not the most socially adept beings, or lived in places that are inhospitable to meeting interesting people (i.e. Jersey City). They weren’t the hippest bunch, and many of them were wary of app-based dating.
The benefit of speed dating is that it gives people a captive audience. Everyone had an opportunity to prevent that knee-jerk swipe, to make their IRL profile linger for just a little bit longer.
That’s not to say that every encounter I had was successful. Very first impressions aside, though, and each encounter for me was less about how someone looked, and more about what they said. For example, this guy D and I spent most of the five minutes discussing the lighting. It was dark and dingy, I said. He argued it was almost too bright, more so than last time at least. “You don’t want to see someone in full light when you first meet them,” he said. “Brightness is for the second or third time you meet, not the first.” I laughed, he didn’t–that’s when I realized he was serious.
And while the five minute window can protect you from having to speak to anyone like this for too long, it doesn’t necessarily protect you from avoiding any “sensitive” topics (political, ideological, religious, etc.) that could be serious deal breakers. One guy, R, turned to politics in what was maybe record time for a date. He revealed what he thinks about Mayor Bloomberg (loves him) and how he misses him (a lot). It took every bone in my body to resist asking this delivery truck driver these questions: But what about Bloomberg’s outlandish fetish for billionaires? and what the fuck is up with his habit of drinking beer on ice?
One big, weird problem was that the women were cordoned off at the event in a manner that felt so very 1950s. We were spread out, separated from one another, obligated to sit still, and lie in wait until the men approached us like so many bumbling weirdos. There was little opportunity for camaraderie or exchange amongst the women, but plenty for the men, something that resulted in pretty weird power dynamics.
But positioning aside, based on Tinder numbers, it was the men who were starting with a handicap. If the same selectiveness behavior of Tinder users is proportionate to that of speed daters, the men on average probably thought they were compatible with about half the women. While the women would have considered just 15 percent of the men worthy of a right swipe.
But in a way, speed dating is the anti-Tinder. While dating apps rely on users’ snap judgement of physical appearance, speed dating pushes beyond that. As obvious as it sounds, it’s the face-to-face interaction that changes everything. Sure you might eventually meet up with a match on Tinder, but there are several hoops to jump through way before that encounter. Making eye contact with a person, shaking their hand, hearing them nervously stumble, gauging their sense of humor, noticing them smile or frown, laugh or look confused–all of these hold remarkable clues as to whether or not you have any chemistry with another person. Maybe it’s only for five minutes, but that physical proximity is what makes the whole thing… human.
Dating apps give users time to prepare instant messages. Users could, and probably are scrolling through faces while they’re toilet, while they’re drunk and waiting for the bus–these are times of boredom, not excitement or nervousness. Selecting matches is done in your spare time, it’s not an event in itself.
On the flip side, speed dating and face-to-face interactions do leave a lot of room for forgiveness. People are more likely to be frank about rejecting someone behind the anonymous cloak of a Tinder account, or a text message to a stranger. But you also might be more likely to forgive what you perceive to be physical flaws when you vibe with someone in-person, and who knows? Maybe you’ll find someone attractive for reasons other than his or her appearance.