“I’m a cougar,” says Woman Number Five. Her friend, Woman Number Six, quickly corroborates.
“She is. I've never met anyone more cougar-y.”
“You know that the men are all going to be over 45, right?” I say.
“Yes,” says Six. “We’re trying to reform her.”
* * *
On Monday nights, I’m a speed-dating host. I cover two venues in southeast England for one of the largest dating companies in the country.
Speed-dating has become ironic; it’s actually one of the slowest forms of dating around. I spend half an hour setting up the room, putting café numbers on the tables, and writing out name badges. Then the daters arrive, in ones and twos, slowly filling the bar. They stand for the next 15 minutes nervously twiddling straws and re-tucking shirts. That’s before they even start dating.
Since the advent of Tinder, Grindr, Tingle, and numerous other dating apps, the attention span of the dating world has shrunk. At a conference in Los Angeles earlier this year, Tinder CEO Sean Rad told press that the app now matches 10 million people every day.
Speed-daters, by contrast, have on any given night around 10 potential matches. The only preconditions are that they have all paid some money, dressed up a bit, come to a bar in town, and pinned on a name badge. Some would probably not survive a dating app flick session. Some are bald, some are overweight, and a few are gorgeous. Together, they are a unique group that tells an overlooked part of the story of how we meet each other in 2014.
* * *
Man Number One is blind and arrives a lot earlier than the other daters. I’m still placing out table numbers when he walks in. He scans the floor with his cane, feeling out the spaces between tables. He smiles broadly.
Before I can even worry about it, he tells me what I should do. I should change the rules of the evening so that the men stay seated and the women switch tables. He can pin his name badge on himself and won’t be needing a scorecard.
Man Number One has what some in the dating world might call “baggage.”
For him, speed-dating has a practical benefit: It gives potentials the chance to sit with him for three minutes and get to know him, but also to assess the weight of that baggage and whether they think they can manage it.
According to a Guardian article titled "Tinder: The Shallowest App Ever?", app daters should leave their baggage off-screen. “No photos of weddings or babies in your profile—especially if either is yours,” it suggests.
But at speed-dating, baggage comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s not just babies and spouses. It’s extra freckles, extra hair, the way we laugh, or the fact that we subconsciously put on a cockney accent when we’re around cockney people. It’s the awkward stuff. And no matter how we choose to date, we can’t really connect without exposing and being exposed to all of that.
* * *
If the daters aren't moving along, I ring the bell a second time. As they push back their chairs, I listen to their conversations winding down.
“It was lovely to meet you.”
“Ooh, guess we’re being moved on.”
“Might see you later then.”
Even at speed-dating, you can’t just up and leave. As I start the timer for the next round, the conversation gets going again, hands being clasped and shaken, preparatory sips of wine taken hurriedly from glasses.