Sarah Ellis

What's Speed Dating Really Like? I Tried It & Learned The Most Surprising Lesson

“So, what do you like to do for fun?," my date asks and I immediately panic. I showed up here with big expectations, curious about what speed dating is really like and hopeful I might at least meet someone intriguing. Now it's 10 seconds into Date One and I fear this was a terrible mistake. Five minutes per person can’t be that hard, right? He looks at me expectantly as I clutch my $5 house white wine and take a sip.

“I really love to... eat? Oh, and running. I enjoy that, too, sometimes.”

I came here tonight with the hopes of meeting my next boyfriend. Or, well, that’s what I was supposed to expect. In truth, I came here hoping for a funny story, something I could joke about with my friends as I recalled the things I do to try to salvage my struggling love life. I’ve developed a habit of reporting on dating culture — the good, the bad, and the ugly of trying to navigate love in your 20s. You’d think I’d have it figured out by now, but the truth is that I have a horrible track record in practice. Apps are exhausting, life is hectic, and I can never seem to attract the type of men I want to meet.

The natural solution to this? Attend a speed dating event. In theory, it’s an ideal format for busy people: seven dates, five minutes each, two hours of my night, max. As it turns out, speed dating is a bit like the old-school version of dating apps. It gives you the benefit of meeting several people in a short amount of time, which ups the odds that you’ll find someone you click with.

Michelle McSweeney, linguist and expert on digital relationships, says that speed dating can work well simply because of numbers: “It’s the Tinder idea. Get your face in front of as many other faces as possible," she tells Elite Daily. Apparently it’s also important to make yourself stand out from the crowd. “The quality of relationship-defining memories predicts relationship satisfaction, so really good, emotionally intense and meaningful early memories can fuel a lifetime of love,” McSweeney says. “So if you do go speed dating, make sure it's memorable!” Challenge accepted.

I find NY Minute Dating online and sign up for an event called “Single Professionals, 20s and 30s,” which sounds more promising than others on the list like “Halloween Singles Party” or “Cougars and Cubs.” It’s $35 per event, which feels steep, but I take the plunge. I am a sophisticated Single Professional, and I intend to get my money’s worth.

I show up to the Muses 35 karaoke bar in Midtown Manhattan on a Friday night, dressed in a gray sweater tucked into a dark skirt with riding boots. It’s the same thing I wore to work, which feels very Single Professional and therefore makes me proud. The Girl in Charge greets me with a name tag and a slip of paper to write down everyone’s names. Apparently the way this works is that at the end of the night, we can each go online and submit the names of people we want to see again. Then we’ll find out in a few days whether we have any “matches.” This feels unnervingly like a real-world dating app where you’re sorting through men sitting there in the flesh, trying their hardest to make you swipe right on them.

Sarah Ellis

The first people I meet are two women who showed up together. They’re adorable and good-natured about the whole thing, which makes me feel better immediately. One of them tells me she attended one of these events a year ago and met a guy she dated for a while. Having zero expectations is key, she says. You just have to have fun.

A few minutes after 7 p.m., Girl in Charge rings a bell, signaling the first date to begin. Date One is in a blue-and-white checked button-down and works in transportation. He looks like he’s probably in his early 30s, and he’s definitely nice enough, but I'm not super into him right off the bat. What really throws me is that initial question about my hobbies and my surprisingly pathetic response.

Wait, what do I actually like to do for fun? Am I THAT boring?

We chat for a few minutes about how he’s lived in the city for over a decade, so he knows it pretty well. I tell him I’m still new here, I’m from the South, I’m a writer, everything I can think of that would make me seem Interesting and Witty.

Next bell rings. Date Two wears glasses and works in I.T. He’s been to several speed dating events before. He gives me advice on the process, telling me it won’t do me any good to overthink it, the best thing to do is just let the conversation flow. This is also the point I remember this is a karaoke bar, as a girl 20 feet away starts screeching “I Will Always Love You” at a fever pitch so loud I can’t hear Date Two tell me about his hobbies. We pause for a moment and look at each other as we let the song play out. Great song, I comment, he agrees. The bell rings and I’m grateful.

Date Three is from Ukraine, but he’s lived in the States since he was 4 years old. I decide this is the perfect opportunity to tell him about my recent trip to Budapest, which I know isn’t really all that close to Ukraine, but of course, I’d love to visit Ukraine one day if I ever have the chance because it seems like a beautiful country and of course, I loved every moment of my time in Eastern Europe this summer.

He nods in silence. This is the moment I realize I’m going to be talking to myself for the entirety of the next five minutes. The music is only getting louder, so I’m leaning in until I’m about two inches from his ear and screaming about how much I love to write and can he tell I’m from the South because usually people can’t detect my accent. I think he tells me what he does for a living, but I can’t quite make it out, and the one piece of information I manage to gather is that he goes to a lot of concerts and is losing hearing in his left ear as a result. Thankfully I’m leaning into his right.

To my immense relief, Date Four wants to talk at me while I listen intently. He’s a native New Yorker, believe it or not, and his suit jacket tells me he probably works in finance (this assumption proves to be correct). The music seems to have calmed down a bit, which I later discover is because Girl in Charge asked the venue owners to please lower the volume because there is a serious event happening. My date decides to take full advantage of our brief five-minute window together:

“So, Sarah, why are you single?”

Well, then. Let’s just cut to the chase. I tell him I haven’t met anyone I really jive with, and his natural follow-up question is, “Well, what are you looking for?”

“Umm, I don’t know. Someone to hang out with?”

Jesus. I’m horrible at this. The biggest epiphany I’m having is that I’m incredibly bad at marketing myself in this setting. Put me in a job interview and I’ll dazzle you with the hard skills on my resume, but ask me about my hobbies and the best thing I can squeak out is, “I really love to eat!”

How very Single Professional of me.

Date Five wears a puffer vest and loves that I’m a writer. He’d be a writer full-time if he could, he says, but he’s really let his creative side go lately. He works with the homeless and he’s a DJ on the side, but if he had the time he’d write a whole book about dreams. The group behind us has moved on to belting out "I’ll Make a Man Out of You” from Mulan, a classic, and I comment that it’s an excellent karaoke song choice. He asks me what my favorite Disney movie is, and the best thing I can think of is 101 Dalmatians. “Well, that’s a first,” he responds (for the record, I stand by this choice — it’s a quality film about familial loyalty and I refused to be convinced otherwise).

By Date Six, I’m most of the way through my house wine and have almost no voice left. At this point I’ve really embraced the “I love to eat” persona, and Date Six and I are thrilled to discover that we both enjoy Puerto Rican food. He says he can hear my Southern accent, which I find terribly offensive, but he assures me that he doesn’t think it’s a bad thing.

The final date of the night works in HR. He’s somewhat of a regular at singles events, and he’s apparently quite comfortable in this setting. He asks me if I’m into comedy, at which point we both quote John Mulaney’s famous sketch about getting lost in New York: “It’s a grid system, motherf*cker, where you at?” I proceed to tell him that he simply must go to more comedy shows and there are so many in the city and really it’s quite cheap if you know where to look. I’m talking a lot, but truthfully I’m quite ready to be done with this and retreat back to my phone screen, where I can swipe away in silence without having to invent lame hobbies for myself.

The moment the event is over, I make my exit. Exhausted, I start venting to my roommate the moment I walk through the door. When I tell her about the “I love to eat” debacle, she can’t stop laughing. What Dates One through Seven didn’t know about me — what I never bothered to tell them — is that I have a veritable army of food allergies, meaning I don’t exactly qualify as a typical foodie. As I tell her about it, I start to realize how ridiculous I must have sounded the entire evening.

“Seriously, I wouldn’t even date me, I had nothing interesting to say!” I bemoan.

“So what you really learned is that you’re boring as hell,” Hannah responds. Thank god for honest friends.

The lesson I learned here wasn’t what I expected. I confess that I showed up thinking my dates would be the story, but the real narrative was my realization of how exceptionally uninteresting I must have sounded to these guys. Selling yourself as a potential partner is a lot different than selling yourself as an employee, and I’ve approached my dating life like a job interview when it has to be a lot more organic than that. For some reason — be it the manufactured setting or my own insecurities — I both oversold and undersold my interests in a way that made me seem totally unlike myself.

Maybe the moment I stop forcing it will be the moment things fall together. Until then, I’m giving speed dating and apps a break so I can get back to what I really love… food.