SCOTT DUTTON

Six-Minute Mates

Speed dating is changing the way people meet

By Michael Bowerman

If necessity is the mother of invention, speed dating may be the progeny of stalled opportunities for singles. Tired of the smoke-filled bar scene and losing faith in chance as a source of romantic opportunity, singles have been looking to improve their odds in a world where meeting Mr. or Ms. Right seems increasingly difficult. With little time in their busy lives to seek out romance, they have become averse to the blind date and the trite pick-up line. At least that’s how I felt when I received an e-mail offering me a chance to participate in the latest innovation in romance. Would I like to have 10 six-minute dates in one evening? Yes. Yes, I thought, I would.

It seemed that some savvy local entrepreneurs had noted the feelings of disenchantment among their single peers and heard the knock of opportunity on the doors of their centrally located studio apartments. They answered with speed dating. Speed dating has a variety of forms, but the basic elements are consistent. Take equal numbers of men and women, put them in a room together, and give every combination of woman and man a chance to talk during a “date” of a few minutes. At the end of the night, each person discreetly selects whom he or she would like a chance to speak with again by filling out a match form. Whenever two people choose one another, the event’s planners provide contact information so the couple can make further arrangements on their own. A matchmaking event that takes care of the hard work but leaves a do-it-yourself element.

I deliberated for a night about whether to sign up, and placed a call the next day, securing a spot at an event about two weeks away. A short search revealed rival services offering up to 25 dates of as little as three minutes each, but that seemed too speedy. As it was, I would be condensing a typical year of bars, chance meetings at the grocery store and interventions by well-intentioned friends into less than two hours of a single evening, with much of the uncertainty avoided. Thank you, Capitalism.

When my evening of hyper- romance finally arrived, I was keen to test the waters of this new environment, if somewhat daunted by the scope of it. I headed down to the café, paid the $45 fee, ordered my complimentary drink and took a seat.

Looking around the room I felt positive about the event and attendees. The café was a comfortable location I had previously frequented of my own accord, and the participants, including my fellow men, were well groomed and pleasant if nothing else. Score one for first impressions.

My dates and I got along quite well. We generally eschewed the suggested-questions cards for more impromptu dialogue, and I found  each date’s personality offered a different climate from the previous one—one table was partly cloudy and cool, the next sunny and  warm.

Date One—let’s call her Penelope—worked for a sportswear company and wanted to know what I thought about the Calgary Flames’ season. Problem One: how to tactfully say I don’t think about pro sports at all. What was my favourite sport to watch? Well, I like to play sports, but I watch maybe one game a year on TV, so I guess whichever sport that was is my favorite. She was undaunted—“We’ll have to watch a game together some time.” Two  goals scored for optimism don’t beat a hat trick for missing the point, but a nice chat nonetheless.

I saw more potential with Sylvia on date two. She was up on current events, read widely and had an interesting career and a great smile. The bell rang telling us to move on to our next date all too quickly. I put a check on my card.

After Sylvia’s warmth, Cynthia’s questions seemed like a speed marriage-proposal. “What are you looking for in a relationship?” Suddenly the suggested-questions card was very inviting. “Are you interested in having kids?” I considered refreshing our drinks. Surely six minutes had elapsed. Where was that bell?

Date four, Angela, was quite attractive, but her interests, interestingly, were non-existent. Maybe she was just a bit shy. Then again, my abrupt opening salvo, some awkward combination of personal anecdote and inquiry into how her day had been, didn’t help things much either. I checked her name on my card, thinking we might fare better in a different environment.

The only true flash of social ineptitude, other than my own, came during my last date. Josie perked up at learning I had fought forest fires for a living in British Columbia, explaining that she had “tuned out” of our conversation at first because my area of study in university had been so boring. Apparently Josie lacked that filter from brain to mouth that makes conversation graceful. What did she study? “Mechanical engineering.” I smiled, politely, and glanced at the clock. Two minutes and counting.

As I left that evening, I wanted to meet two of my dates again. I felt, not lovestruck, but some chemistry worth a closer look. The evening had been a bit of an adventure—a fun departure from the predictability of bars, dinners and parties with friends. Even if I hadn’t managed to find the woman who would bear my children and buy me things, or at least split a mortgage, I had enjoyed the company of some nice people. Even that mechanical engineer.

Speed Dating was  invented in 1998 by Rabbi Yaacov Deyo and his students at the Los Angeles branch of Aish HaTorah, an organization that provides education and services to the young Jewish professional community. “Speed dating was originally geared toward Jewish Los Angeles singles,” says Brooke Haber, the current coordinator of the speed dating and singles’ events with Aish HaTorah in  Los Angeles. “Then it was taken out of L.A. to the other Aish HaTorah branches and it became a big dating phenomenon.” Entrepreneurs picked up the idea and spread it across the continent; five years after its invention, most North American cities now have at least one company offering the service, and some companies have franchised their operations.

Alberta is no exception, with Calgary, Edmonton and Red Deer offering services for singles from 20–60 years of age. Events are usually targeted to specific age brackets, but some companies are beginning to offer services for more specific groups— runners, book-lovers, religious groups—to help people meet even closer  matches.The gay and lesbian community is also being targeted.

One explanation for the popularity of speed dating is that it has taken on the matchmaking role that was formerly filled more robustly by friends, family, religious affiliations or neighbourhood networks. David Tindall is a professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia who does research on social networks. “There is a kind of stereotype that as urbanization and industrialization has occurred people are more isolated and alienated,” he says. “Part of the reason for that is that we have this ideal image of the small community where everybody knows everyone else and are all tightly knit, but what research shows is that it isn’t so much that people are alienated and isolated, it’s that the character of their social networks has changed.” According to some theories, people today are less constrained by geography in creating their communities. They use new communication technologies to maintain long distance relationships, and they are more entrepreneurial in fulfilling their networking needs. Perhaps these changes in mating rituals are one expression of greater adaptability or flexibility in creating personal relationships.

Can I therefore console myself that my interest in speed dating is somehow a pro- found adaptation to a world wracked with momentous cultural shifts? I like to think so, but not everyone agrees. My sister, for instance, doesn’t find Professor Tindall’s social network insights all that relevant. She seems to think that people today just lack pride. At least that’s what I am infer- ring from the sympathetic look in her   eyes and the way she inflects simple statements like “You’re doing what? How… interesting” with a tone that combines worry and pity. She’s too nice to say it outloud, but not so nice she wouldn’t think it.

The trend may also be explained  by the changing expectations and values of today’s singles, as evidenced by higher divorce rates, later marriages and the prioritizing of careers over personal lives. In a time when the individual’s wants are increasingly valued, it may be that the rising demand among singles for options has caused fewer to settle. “People are pickier than they were,” notes Christine Hart, co-owner of Alberta’s first speed dating company, Six Minute Dates, “They want something that is fast, low commitment, and face-to-face, and they’re not afraid of something like this. On a grander scale, the way we lead our lives these days you do a lot more things alone or in private—working on a computer or doing lone sports like mountain biking. There’s perhaps not as much interaction as there once was.”

This pragmatic approach seems to be especially appealing for women. In Hart’s experience, the 25–35 age group have fairly even representation between genders, but a significant discrepancy appears with the 35–45 age group. “I think the main reason goes into the proactive thing,” she says. “Women look at this as something that would be a lot of fun. It’s their chance to meet 10 guys, to go out and have fun and meet people face-to- face. Men in that age category are just a little bit shyer and more of the headspace that things just  happen.”

Such discrepancies suggest  a generation gap between the values of older and younger men. Maybe all that Oprah during the formative years has created a new breed of men undaunted by the idea of talking to, even listening to, women for an hour. Speed dating may be a subtle victory for the feminist movement’s efforts to broaden gender roles.

It also may be a step toward mating rituals that are based on more artificial qualities. Bygone eras allowed people more time to get to know each other and to base relationships on more enduring traits, such as a person’s integrity or moral character.

This shallow aspect isn’t lost on participants. Carrie, an administrator in her late 20s, found her dates unsatisfying in their brevity. “We met 15 different people and by the end we were sitting with these people for three minutes,” she says. “You barely get a conversation started and then they’re moving on, so it’s very superficial. By the end, I didn’t know who anyone was.”

Brooke Haber suggests that speed dating’s superficiality is balanced by its ability to help shyer individuals meet people. “It allows shallowness in certain people,” she concedes, “but for other people it gives them a chance to really get out there. The people that can benefit so much are  the people that are shy, have difficulty finding dates and are just not good at the dating game. This kind of program can really help them to meet  and connect with people whom they otherwise would never have had the chance to meet.”

If nothing else, speed dating seems to represent the mainstreaming of dating services, making what was once considered a sign of personal failure into a possible mainstay of socialization. Hart has seen a change in attitudes toward speed dating in the less than two years it has been in Calgary. “When we first came on the scene people thought we were mental, thinking, ‘What is this? Who does that? A bunch of freaks do that,’” she says. “People now realize that this has been around for some time: it’s huge in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles—all the trend-setting cities.”

Doug, a small-business owner in his early thirties, asked a number of friends what they thought of speed dating before he tried it. “Some thought it sounded like a fun, safe way to meet a lot of people,” he says, “and others thought it was somewhat desperate.” He found the service to be a success. “It was a fun thing to do, in a nutshell. They were all quite nice people and there were definitely some that were compatible and plenty that   I was interested in dating. I’ve had some luck there. I’ve dated and found the women to be great.”

My own adventures in the speed dating world continued after that first evening. I had a date with Angie, my attractive but interest-free match. If it was shyness that had made her so reserved during our speed date, the subsequent date didn’t open her up any—I was on my own for asking questions, and answers weren’t particularly forthcoming, either. I also had  a date with Sylvia of the great smile and interesting career, but the initial spark never became anything more and we drifted out of touch when I came back from a vacation.

Meanwhile, I ended up dating some- one I met through a friend.  But should this relationship not work out, I can take some solace in knowing there’s an alternative to dusting off the pick-up lines I was never any good with. Now if only I could speed job interview.

Michael Bowerman is a freelance writer and a recent graduate of the University of Calgary.

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