As previously mentioned, my lack of a plan for New Year's Eve combined with a timely conversation with a co-worker had culminated in my planning to spend the last evening of last year at a speed dating party. I'd never been speed dating before (I'd actually booked to go once, seven years ago, but I cancelled because I'd started dating someone before the event date arrived - quite a result!) and I'd been interested in trying it.
As I prepared to head out for the event I could feel that I was quite nervous. Had I still been getting nerves during my most recent first dates in early 2004? Can't remember. I felt calmer after imagining some funny scenarios for the evening in my head:
1) Remember how on the first day of school there's usually a kid crying and wanting to go home? We totally had one of those. OK, OK... it was me. They even let my dad stay for a while to help me overcome my fear. I imagined myself at the age of 31 running out of the speed dating session crying "I wanna go home!" - this thought helped me to put things in perspective!
2) ...or instead of running out I could have a tantrum on the floor. Hmm, might be messy - I'm a bit bigger now than when I was 5.
3) I tried to imagine questions which I might be asked on a speed date, then wondered how my date would react if I started answering with "er... pass." Somehow this seemed highly amusing to me when I first thought of it!
Having applied my dose of "what's the worst that could happen?" therapy, I headed off and arrived just before the start time of 7pm. I had images of queues snaking round the building (they were expecting 200-300 people and the actual speed dating parts of the night were first-come-first-served) but there were just three or four women waiting outside and no other men. I like these odds so far! I managed to start chatting and joking with the women, which isn't always something that comes easily to me, so it felt like I was off to a good start.
When 7pm arrived (along with a few men - d'oh!) we went inside to pick up our awaiting name badges (having previously filled in our details on the website) and to register for the speed dating sessions. I discovered that I'd misunderstood part of the brief description of the event. I thought that if the speed dating ran for three hours it meant that anyone who wanted to could speed-date for three hours. Not so. Their plan was to split the three hours into four sessions, with the assumption that each person would only be involved in one session. That's 45 minutes of speed dating in an event which runs for 8 hours!
The activity which would be running for the rest of the time would be a lock-and-key party - each woman was given a small padlock on a necklace, each man issued with a key, and the idea was to go around trying to find the lock which your key would open, or vice versa. Well, actually, the real idea was to use this activity as an icebreaker and then get to know people, but I'm sad to say that I lost sight of this for at least some of the evening and just wandered around asking to try my luck.
My speed dating session started at 8pm. Twenty-three men and twenty-three women (a chromosome reference?) packed into a fairly small room. First realisation: with everyone talking at once it's really loud in here and I can't hear half of what my date is saying! Second realisation: I'm actually not nervous now and I'm thinking of decent questions to ask (thank you internet suggestions) and avoiding the dreaded awkward silences. I can't hear some parts of my date's replies, but I'm hopeful that I'm catching enough words to make my response fit the context.
Those three-minute chunks of time mostly went by pretty quickly and before I knew it I'd had eleven speed dates and we were being told that the session was over. Wait - what about the other women? How does three times eleven equal fourty-five? We deserve more time! Nope - time for the next session to start, so get the hell out! Get back out there and spend the next six hours doing lock-and-key. I don't think so. I managed to get myself booked into a second speed dating session. I was honest about having just done one but the woman in charge let me book again - all's fair in love and war, right?
The start of the second session was pretty cool in that I knew exactly what was going to happen while most people didn't. I was explaining about the bell ringing and how to use the ratings/comments cards. I think some people thought I worked there! The staff must have decided to make the dates longer in this session because we only got seven this time. This almost caught me out occasionally because I was thinking "I can wind down here because the bell's about to come" and then it didn't. Oops.
So, after eighteen dates, what have I learned about speed dating?
1) Unless you're a natural at this kind of thing (and I'm not!) it really is helpful to have a bit of a look at possible questions beforehand. I'd even watched two sample YouTube videos - one example of a speed date going well and one going badly. It helped me to think more about what to expect. The link is here if anyone wants it.
2) Questions like "Where are you from originally?", "What do you like to do in your spare time?", "Where would you like to travel to?", "What's your favourite film?" are not hugely original but inevitably come up a lot and actually are helpful in getting an impression of someone in such a restricted amount of time.
3) The question of "What do you do for a living?" inevitably comes up too, but beware if (like me) you struggle to make your job sound interesting even to yourself, let alone to anyone else! Be ready give a brief answer and then bounce the question back to them or, if you already asked them first, to move on to another topic. Unless your job is quite interesting, of course. Then go for it. At least for 20 seconds.
4) If you can think of an original and clever question, people will remember you for it. Unfortunately I don't think I had one! But I remember somebody asking me what the most exciting thing I'd done in 2010 was. I thought that was a good one. Hence I can actually remember her answer when I asked the same question back to her!
5) If you can tell very quickly that you're really not going be to any kind of match with someone, don't be a jerk about it - don't check texts on your phone twice in a five-minute date (I'm looking at you here, date 18!) but do perhaps take the time to relax and reduce your focus slightly and think about how your last few dates have gone. I found that I had allowed the time pressure to suck me into asking similar questions every time and not finding time to step back and reconsider my approach.
6) The whole background noise thing was a big issue - it often is for me in bars and clubs (I don't think I'm hard of hearing but I find it difficult to unjumble speech from loud background noise) but other people were commenting on it too. Still, it does mean that you might end up leaning in to get closer to your date, which could work well, depending on whether they're starting to seem like someone you'd like to get closer to. If they're not then it probably doesn't matter anyway that you can't hear what they're saying!
7) If you're speed dating in a big cosmopolitan city like London (perhaps especially on New Year's Eve), not everyone there will actually be residents of London and/or planning to stay for very long. This makes perfect sense to me in day-to-day life but I hadn't thought it through in terms of the event, so I was quite thrown by hearing that some people there actually lived in a different country and were just visiting their friend and trying something new! Not that there's anything wrong with that.
So, of my eighteen dates, how many might I actually see again? It seems that I don't need to figure out the answer to that too quickly because the website still isn't ready to receive our Yes/Friend/No responses nearly three days after the event. But of course I've been pondering this question. To be honest, I didn't get a really strong sense of a connection with anyone. But maybe I'm expecting too much from three/four/five minutes. I'd be up for the possibility of seeing maybe seven or eight of them again just to see if we might click more with more time available, but it's a bit of a stretch to convince myself that it's likely. So I'll probably tick "Yes" to somewhere between zero and eight of my dates. Probably nearer eight, to keep an open mind.
After my second speed dating session finished it was 11pm and there were no more sessions to try to sneak into. To cap it off, they took our locks and keys away too! I actually said to one of the staff "So what do I do now?" - I think she thought I was joking but I really did feel a bit lost. Now we're practically just at a normal party! Not my strong suit - that's why I wanted to be speed dating! Ah well. First I catered to one of the hobbies I'd been mentioning throughout the dates - I went and devoured a load of the food which was being neglected in a quiet corner. Then after some rather quirky encounters I made my way to the main party room in time for midnight.
As the chimes of Big Ben came through the speakers I surveyed the room in front of me. The guys with a strong total score in the looks/charisma/assertiveness categories had paired off with smitten-looking women; most other guys were looking rather drunk and/or lost; most other women were dancing and taking photos of themselves with their female friends. Wait... is everyone sure this isn't just a normal nightclub?
I headed off not too long after that. I didn't fancy my chances from that point, with the music louder and the space more restricted (they'd shut off two out of three rooms) but I was pleased that I'd given speed dating a try and stepped outside my comfort zone (before allowing myself to head back into it soon after midnight!) and even after waiting for three days I'm still curious to see if anything comes of the post-event matching process - I'll let you know!