“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.
Woman Number Four sidles over to me, waving a ringing phone.
“It’s a man!” she whispers. “He’s from [the dating site] Plenty of Fish. I’m sorry!”
I feel a sense of loyalty to my speed-daters – why should this online opportunity interrupt our three-minute rhythm? Does the mystery Fish man just have better bone structure than the 10 men present? Maybe this stranger just has more potential, simply because he's a photograph, than, for example, Man Number Four sitting in front of her, with his almost empty pint of beer and pinkish stubble.
With the industry’s change in speed has come a change in depth. Using a dating app is an inherently shallow process, like shopping through a catalog of faces. Speed-dating is also shallow, but it’s more like going into the actual store. It allows you to look at all sides of the product before committing to it.
Speed-daters are people who, for whatever reason, have decided they want to walk into the actual showroom. They want to see the "merchandise," but they still like the idea of choice. Maybe they’re not comfortable with a smartphone, or maybe they have qualities they feel can only be appreciated face to face.
During the break, Man Number Two comes over to my table and asks if he needs to write comments about the women he’s meeting.
“The scorecard is just for your own reference,” I tell him. “So just put down whatever you need to keep track.”
He turns his scorecard to me. “But, like, is this okay?”
The scorecard is blank, apart from the word CHASER–slang for “clingy”—printed angrily next to Number 7.
Perhaps surprisingly, the speed-dating demographic also includes a number of people in their 20s. In my experience, events for the 21-to-31 age category are some of the busiest and most successful. The other day I had a trio of men all under 25 tell me they had found their latest girlfriends at a recent event.
These young daters seem to be looking beyond newfangled methods like Tinder in the same way that they are wearing vintage hats and buying vinyl records. Just as trendiness has spawned the dating app phenomenon, it has also brought people back to practices they consider nostalgic, like dance lessons, love letters, and now, speed-dating.
Woman Number 10, who is Chinese, has brought along her friend Lin. While Number 10 is dating, Lin sits by me and watches the scene. I ask her why she came along.
“My friend just wanted some support,” she says. “She didn't really want to do it. In China, her parents are telling her that she needs to find somebody, she needs to date. All her friends are married, you know?”
“Oh,” I say, trying to cover up that I find her story sad. But at least Number 10 looks like she’s having a good time. She catches Lin and I watching and makes a face.
“Look, I’m doing it!” she seems to say.