This was originally published at BlogHer by Hilory Wagner. Reposted here with permission.
The moment of truth was the sound of the bell, like the “ring for assistance” chime in hotel lobbies. When those eight minutes were up, the ding was either a welcome peal signaling the end of the longest eight minutes ever, or an abrupt end to a beautiful beginning. I could tell which was more likely by how fast participants shot out of their seats. Sometimes, the couple didn’t even notice the gentle ding, to the impatient dismay of the man and woman awaiting their new seats. This was a best-case scenario: a speed-dating match—and a job well done.
When the bell tolled for me—that is, my stint as a speed-dating event coordinator ended—I wistfully packed up the vestiges of the tumultuous relationship in a cardboard box. The speed dating company had requested their stuff back when I informed them it “just wasn’t working out.” I layered colored folders labeled “Dating Cards,” “Seating Assignments,” and “Welcome Posters” upon each other, slid them lovingly into the black canvas briefcase branded “8minuteDating,” and sighed. Perhaps I had cared too much.
Sure, it felt a bit petty to me that after all we’ve been through in the last eight months, that they’d make a stink over a stapler, some folders, and an electronic timer that malfunctioned from the get-go. I will grant them, however, the black canvas briefcase—that was pretty sweet. But frankly, I had no use for the Valentine-red baby doll T-shirt they sent me with “Single?” emblazoned upon the chest.
I may have been too emotionally involved for the job, too eager to see love blossom. Every speed-dating event I hosted was like sending my kids off to the junior prom. I wanted all my “kids” to find true, magical love. To me, they were all princes and princesses arriving at the ball, but with name tags and cocktails.
Plus, single myself at the time, I saw this as more than a professional development experience; it was a promising way to meet men and get paid for it. Wait, that didn’t sound quite right. Let me explain.
A Night of Latin Passion
My first event, geared to the 30-something crowd, was at a hot Latin restaurant, known for its authentic dishes and outrageous salsa parties. Registrations filtered in slowly, but by event day I had booked a perfect 16 men to 16 women ratio. Headquarters had suggested I bring a generic Bingo-style ice-breaker for folks, so I created my own: I e-mailed participants ahead of time, requesting “factoids” about their lives.
The responses not only reflected an amazing group of individuals, but proved the point that participants are not as odd or desperate as speed-dating critics or Hollywood directors might portray them. Any single who’s snubbed a speed-dating event may have missed the opportunity to chat with a woman who spent a week at wilderness survival school, someone who has seen the world’s three biggest barrier reefs, a Habitat for Humanity devotee, or a man who had a one-on-one lunch with Bill Gates. One guy had “two black belts, acted on TV for the History Channel, and trained in massage,” and another “can crack two eggs in one hand—no shells!”
Here’s how it is supposed to work: Participants have paid for eight dates, each eight minutes long. Whether there were eight or 80 couples in the restaurant, they would have eight dates. After the event, participants would log into their computerized accounts, choose who they were interested in either dating again, forming a friendship with, or networking with, and put a check next to their name-codes. If your would-be date/friend/business associate checked the same box you did, the system would alert you both and exchange contact information. But until that point, you were really as anonymous as you wanted to be.
That night, after all eight dates were through, I heard for the first time a line that would come at me at least once during every event. “Hey, when do I get my eight minutes with you?” My heart leapt. This is exactly what I was hoping for, right?
One of the first sentiments out of this man’s mouth was that the women at this event were judgmental and unfriendly. “No surprise they’re here,” he smirked. Bingo. I didn’t need eight minutes with him; 20 seconds was enough. But he was a customer, after all, and I was in essence being paid for setting him up with these women. I was his 8minute madam, so I felt the need to listen.
I asked him what he did for a living, and he said, “A little of this, a little of that.” He told me he has “bought companies, sold them; some successful, some not as much.” Wait, so… “What do you do?” I asked again, wondering what I missed. “Would you think less of me if I told you I worked at Wal-Mart?” he said. What I thought of him had nothing to do with his job or lack thereof. I could not get one straight answer out of this man. My guess is the eight women he sat with couldn’t either.
In the News
I had high hopes for my second event. The setting was country-elegant, an historic inn, and the venue well known for live jazz downstairs several nights a week. Attracting participants was a breeze; the age range, 34-47, seemed a good fit for the sophisticated venue.
I was flooded with excitement and confusion when I saw a local TV anchor towering in the confines of the colonial entranceway. I hadn’t remembered him signing up for this event. Was he single? Could I have eight minutes with him? And then he set me straight: “We’re here to cover the event.”
Great press, but how did they know? Nevertheless, I gave them the “hang on a minute” index finger and ran back to kick off my party. Following my prepared introduction to speed dating, I said, “One more thing. The local NBC station is here…” The collective groan shook the faux-antique teacups in the English pine corner cupboards.
“They are not filming in here,” one woman blared.
“No, no way,” shouted another. Arms crossed, brows furrowed. I could have sworn they were going to raise pitchforks.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” I said, “I’ll take care of it. Let’s just get started—please head to Table 1!” Dashing back to the foyer, I told the anchorman that it might not happen.
“So why did you call us?”
“I didn’t!” And it hit me. The owners did their own publicity. Can’t blame them, but a heads-up would have been nice.
At that moment, a reporter from another station walked in with her cameraman.
“We’re not getting anything,” said Anchorman 1 to the new arrival.
“What? Why are we here?” the new reporter responded in disgust. Was it really that slow a news day?
I had an idea. There was one attendee, a talkative, confident “regular” who I recognized from my first event. What if we filmed him and only showed the woman’s head from the back? I asked the TV crews to wait again, and slinked into the main section of the restaurant. I stood behind Mr. Talkative’s date of the moment and motioned a charade of a hand-crank movie camera, and pointed at him. He beamed and nodded. But then his date whipped around at me. “Get away,” she said. I wished I could.
My allegiance, my responsibility, was to my customers. They paid to be there. But before the camera crews packed up, the male owner offered a final plea. “C’mon, what’s the big deal? Just get a couple of people on camera. You know, I saw a woman head down to the ladies room. She seemed nice. Can I go down there and ask her myself?”
Although I kept the cameraman out of the bathroom, that night we did make the news. “Imagine eight dates in one night,” the newscaster bellowed. They flashed the wooden street sign for the restaurant and showed a few people in silhouette—not even from my event—talking outside. You could say, everyone got what they wanted. (Recently, though, that restaurant went out of business.)
Hilory Wagner is an author, national magazine contributor, and social mediaholic who blogs about the impacts of new age communications on our lives, work, and relationships. Visit her blog, “The Social Medium” (hilorywithano.wordpress.com) and follow her on Twitter (@hilorywagner).