Can eight minutes lead to love? In tech-savvy Seattle, some singles are swapping swipe time for face time, spending an evening in clocked bouts of conversation that might result in a much longer connection.
The bell rings and you start talking to the stranger in front of you. You lead with your name, your profession, maybe a joke. You’re on the clock so there’s no time for awkward silences — this person might be “the one.” Eight minutes go by and the bell rings again and your time is up, so you slide one seat over, take a deep breath and maybe have a swig of IPA or dirty martini. The face in front of you is a new one, which is both a clean slate and a bit of a chore because the basics must be gone through once again — hi, how are you, what’s your deal, do you have any pets?
Two crucial questions are answered already, though: Are you single? And are you ready to mingle?
It may surprise you to learn that in 2018, when your toaster and car and front door can all talk to each other and love can be ordered via an app and a swipe, that speed dating, which you may have thought went out with VHS tapes and Hammer pants, is still a thing in tech-savvy Seattle. And in a city that has recently been decried as a dating wasteland (the “Great Love Debate” podcast declared it to be the “absolute worst place to find love in America”), swapping out screen time for face time might be a good strategy. I attended a speed-dating session held on a recent Wednesday night at Amber Seattle, a shadowy, urbane Belltown lounge that’s busy on the weekends but was mostly dead that evening except for the 30 or so men and women who trickled in, in ones and twos, to a table by the door where a man with a pile of handwritten nametags waited to greet them.
Matt Frank is the Seattle-area organizer for Pre-Dating Speed Dating, a company which, despite its vintage website, might be the largest speed-dating outfit in the country, with chapters in many major U.S. cities (and Canada!). Frank is the consummate host, a youngish gentleman in a blazer with the calm panache of a master of ceremonies and the arch wit of a game-show host. He welcomes nervous new daters, chats up frequent flyers and explains the rules of the road with a jovial authority that makes the experience seem like the most natural thing in the world.
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And Frank knows whereof he speaks — he was once a client himself. “Around eight years ago I was single and I was looking to do some dating and I myself tried this very company,” said Frank. “I enjoyed it and I became a volunteer and helped my predecessor run events for about a year and a half.” When his predecessor moved on, Frank (who also has a full-time corporate job) took over.
The group that night consisted of about 30 individuals, roughly half men and half women (by design) aged 24-39 (Pre-Dating’s Seattle events are segregated by age), who had each paid a $39 fee to be there. (Locations vary week to week, sometimes held at darkly lit Belltown lounges like Amber or the Connect Lounge, sometimes in the Twin Peaksy Dunbar Room at the Hotel Sorrento, sometimes at local breweries or even board-game cafes.) The crowd at Amber was nervous, with men on one side and women on the other, some fidgeting, some downing liquid courage-and-sodas. Attractiveness levels were all over the spectrum, but most had put on a clean shirt to go with that fleece jacket and backpack, and some looked downright snazzy in ironed pants, tight sweater dresses and even the occasional sport coat. (I myself was not in the market for love, so, having been graciously allowed to lurk for journalistic purposes, I sipped my beverage in the corner to watch the mating dance.)
The process of a Pre-Dating speed date is simple: Each woman parks herself at an assigned table with a little numbered card, one man sits across from her, chitchat is made and then, roughly every eight minutes, the men rotate seats. It certainly felt like a game show that night, with Frank ringing an actual bell as a trigger to begin and end the rounds of fervent conversation. Body language spoke volumes: One blonde woman grinned from earlobe to earlobe while chatting with one man and then sat chewing her straw and glancing down at the phone on her lap for the next.
But here, at least, they only had to endure that second dynamic for a few minutes instead of for a three-hour dinner date. Afterward, everybody fills out a sheet, circling those they want to speak to again, which they deposit with Frank. Twenty-four hours later, he emails participants a list of everyone they’ve matched with, along with contact info.
BY MOST ACCOUNTS, SPEED DATING ORIGINATED in Los Angeles in 1998, invented by a Jewish Rabbi named Yaacov Deyo as a way to bring single Jewish people together in the days before JDate.com. It quickly proliferated in the ’00s. These days the practice has been largely superseded by online and app-based dating; most of the participants I spoke with during intermission were also using dating apps like Tinder and Hinge and Match.com; they tried speed dating, they said, to add more dimension to their dates.
“You can say anything in an app, said Natalie, 28, a first-time speed dater. “I feel like meeting somebody face to face can tell you more than texting someone for an hour.”
“What attracts me to somebody is how they carry themselves, and how they speak,” said Kimberley, a dater from the 45-plus age group that I had observed a week earlier in the Dunbar Room at Hotel Sorrento. “It’s body language. I’ve been texting and said something, and the other person took it the wrong way. If we were in person that never would have happened.”
According to Frank, some people bring pre-written ice-breaker questions to facilitate their IRL conversations, while others just wing it.
“The bell rings too quick for me,” said John, a man from the 45-plus age bracket (he was 57), who seemed able to talk to anyone about anything. “And I thought there would be more direct questions but no, you just sit down, start talking, and see how it goes.”
That approach can be hit or miss, of course. The bartender at Amber said he once watched an otherwise normal-looking adult male sit down with a woman for his six to eight minutes and, without bothering with “hello, how are you,” simply turned to her and said: “I like dragons.” The bartender promptly handed his date a drink.
Pre-Dating’s demographic tends to be pretty wide, cutting across all races and ethnicities, locals and newbie Seattleites. The night I attended, there were quite a few people from the tech industry (naturally) but a wine professional, a traveling nurse and a former sports writer were also among the participants. Perhaps getting out of your usual bubble of friends and co-workers might be the magic sauce for love.
“I’ve had a lot of people come through this who, because they don’t get to pre-select who they’re dating, are dating outside their race, where they never would consider it otherwise,” said Frank. “Those kinds of moments are really cool to hear.”
Pre-Dating is pretty heteronormative for now — the company currently offers no queer or trans-specific dating events. Frank said he tried that for a while, but had trouble filling the seats because the company doesn’t have the customer database to do it. And Pre-Dating is by no means the only game in town; there are a few other companies such as dateswitch.com, realseattlesingles.com and thefun.singles.com. There’s even findveglove.com, speed dating for vegans and vegetarians.
THERE WERE UPS AND DOWNS at Amber that evening. One particularly attractive woman in the 24-39 age group abruptly disappeared at intermission; some audible grumbling told me she’d disappointed the guys who hadn’t yet rotated her way. One man reportedly spent his allotted time telling his “date” exactly what time he went to bed every night. But then afterward, a group of men and women stayed to talk and then went for an after-hours bite together, new friends (or perhaps more) in a city where meeting people is said to be a challenge.
And anything can happen in that kind of charged atmosphere. Frank once hosted a couple of strangers who found their six minutes of talking so stimulating they started making out in the middle of the session. Frank graciously steered them to the back lounge to continue their — ahem — conversation.
“I’ve had people call me and tell me we met at the event, we now have children, or we’re getting married,” he said. “That’s my open plea to Seattle: Don’t forget your speed-dating host. At least let him know, when you walk down that aisle, that’s why he doesn’t see you anymore.”
If you date …
Pre-Dating Speed Dating: Events average $39/person in Seattle. There are usually several events per month; locations vary, and include Amber, Connect Lounge, the Dunbar Room and Meeples Games. Check Pre-Dating’s Seattle schedule for next events. Preregistration is required to ensure space. pre-dating.com/seattle-speed-dating