TBD, February 10, 2011

Dating in D.C.: At least these awkward dates end quickly by Daniel Victor

Reporters shouldn’t mix their personal and professional lives. Journalists “should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know,” according to our most popular code of ethics.

But few journalists know about the all-important corollary: “Unless you’re writing a first-person story about speed-dating and the French girl was really hot. Then go talk to her, you pansy.”

And that’s how I talked-to-slash-interviewed Camille Rouget for longer than our allotted four minutes. We had a pleasant conversation for those 240 seconds we sat across from each other at a numbered table in the back room of Chi-Cha Lounge on U Street NW. The red walls, red couches, soft light, soft jazz, and small candles on each table set the mood impeccably.

They were all supposed to suggest romance, or at least as much romance as you can squeeze into 1/15 of an hour. But Michael Karlan, president of the D.C.-area networking group Professionals in the City, says you can usually tell within a few seconds who you can definitely rule out, and who you’ll be attracted to.

“It’s an emotional response, not a logical response,” he says. “That’s the problem with online dating. You can see a list of characteristics you think you’ll like, but then you’ll meet the person and you’re not interested.”

Karlan said he was doing four speed-dating events per year when he started a few years ago; now he puts on six events per week, attracting 30 to 50 people on weekdays and 70 to 100 people on weekends. But even as popularity grows, Karlan says a lot of attendees are still hesitant to tell friends they’ve done it. Engaged couples who met through his programs will often tell people they met at the Chi-Cha Lounge, glossing over the particulars. Every single person I asked said it was their first time speed-dating — no one wants to ‘fess up that they’re getting good at this.

Based on every previous stereotype, you figure speed-daters will fall into two camps: Those who are there to gather some funny stories for later, and those who are desperate. (Let’s just get this out of the way: No, there was not anyone named Gina there. Yes, The 40-Year Old Virgin was a hilarious film. Moving on.) The key seems to be going in with absolutely no expectations, and the self-assurance that you don’t need to be there. There’s a certain mental barrier you need to cross before you sign up; for some, it’s deciding that they’re merely there for anthropological reasons, while everyone else will be the freakshows. For others, it’s just not caring what comes out of it, figuring the ultimate downside is still going to be hilarious. Meanwhile, there’s always that chance it could work.

“I think it’s like a cover letter,” Kristen McGrath, 26, said as we chatted afterward. “You get a taste of who that person is, and then you engage with that person to feel out more.”

Disclosure necessary: McGrath is one of the two people with whom I made further plans after the night. As it turned out, I didn’t meet any desperate women; in fact, I was surprised at how many thoroughly datable women there were. TBD’s Nathasha Lim, who was less willing to awkwardly smash her work and personal lives together, said the same of the male side. “I was pleasantly surprised that there were non-losers there,” she said.

Four minutes, unquestionably, is not enough time to have any kind of significant conversation. You’re encouraged to go beyond the biographical questions (What do you do?) and try to invoke emotional responses (Do you love what you do?). Generally, though, it becomes apparent pretty quickly whether those four minutes will feel like an eternity or way too short.

“Just when you started to get in a decent conversation with someone you liked, you had to move on,” says Ryan, a 32-year-old speed-dater who didn’t want to share his last name.

“At the end of the four minutes, I either wish I had more time, or I don’t,” Rouget says.

The men flitted table-to-table, drink in hand, often taking the first few seconds of each interaction to scribble notes about the last woman they’d met. Meeting 15 people in the space of an hour is a challenge to anyone’s memory, so we were given a golf pencil and a piece of paper with a table to fill out to keep our notes. For the first two women, I wrote, simply: “Travel.” This reveals me to be horrible at more than just speed-dating.

For one, I had written “EPA Awesome.” She’s EPA consultant Patty Satkiewicz (disclosure: we made plans, too), and we fist-pounded after I acknowledged her Family Guy reference. She encountered some less fist-pounding moments. One guy seemed overwhelmed talking to that many women. One sidled next to the women in the booth instead of across the table like all of the other guys. One was really drunk and told a completely different story to her friend who was sitting next to her.

But the good news, Karlan says, is those women were quickly able to escape those awful “dates.” If you realize three minutes into a traditional first date that he or she is hopeless, you’ve got an hour or two of discomfort ahead of you unless you wiggle out with a fake emergency. With speed dating, you’ll wave goodbye 1 minute later.

Every experience is surely different. Date Me, D.C., for example, has some doozies. The casual twentysomething sessions are far different than those for people in their 50s and 60s, who’ll often dress to the nines. If you’ve tried it, I hope you’ll add your own experience to the comments section here.