I’m in a basement bar in Shoreditch, east London listening to a man trying to tell me a joke. My eyes dart between his glass and my jacket because he is gesticulating while holding a cocktail. “Most quotes aren’t accurate,” he says. “You know, Churchill famously said, ‘Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.’”
I don’t laugh. He chuckles, saying that the joke must have gone over my head. “Obviously, Churchill wasn’t around when the internet came about,” he clarifies.
I’m at a dating event. I still have 19 more men to meet tonight.
It has been seven years since the launch of Tinder, and while it and the slew of other dating apps that followed in its wake – Bumble, Hinge, uh, Raya – remain popular, there has also been widespread disillusion with hookup culture, ghosting and the hurtful rejections that can come from making a snap judgement on someone’s online profile. Sick of dick pics and disappointing dates, many millennials have now ditched dating apps altogether. The problem comes, however, with figuring out how to meet people outside of the convenient confines of a right swipe or Super Like.
That’s where speed-dating comes in. Over the past four years, Eventbrite reports a 400 percent increase in the number of face-to-face dating events added to the site, as an increasing number of us look for IRL ways to meet people. A search on the site throws up a whole range of singles events: Christian singles, Black professionals, lesbian dating, and if you have an inkling that you’ll still be single in February and you hate yourself, you can preemptively buy a ticket for a Valentine’s Day event. There are also a lot of what one PR email I receive refers to as ‘quirky’ events. These include a ‘Halloween Singles Ghost Walk’, blindfolded speed-dating and ‘lock and keys’ parties, in which daters are given a padlock or key and spend the night finding their match.
Rob Ryall is founder of Date in a Dash, a London-based company that puts on novelty dating events, including a recent singles party inspired by Channel 4’s Naked Attraction. Attendees disrobed in front of the room, before sitting down to speed-date either completely naked or in their underwear. “If you’re willing to strip off,” Ryall reasons, “you’re probably looking for someone equally confident. You’ll find that there.”
Ryall believes that IRL dating events – not online apps – are the key to finding a partner. He met his wife at a dating event, and left the police force eight years ago to run Date in a Dash full-time. “The general feeling I get is that people are just getting sick and tired of dick pics and players on dating apps,” he says. “People who pay £20 to come speed-dating are actually looking for a serious relationship. It’s not a casual thing.”
He adds that some men have attended up to 50 of his events. “People that come actually want to look for someone. It’s definitely a lot more serious than dating apps. ”
I ask Ryall if there’s any speed-dating etiquette I should know about before attending an event. “The number one thing I always say is to stay after the event ends,” he says. “Rushing off is a fatal mistake.”
Women often come to speed-dating events in groups, he says, so men can improve their chances by approaching friends. “For guys, it’s good to work out who is friends with who," Ryall says. "If you’ve got a group of girls, you’re going to talk to all of them. Keep in mind that they’re all going to talk to each other after – you don’t want to be saying you’re doing X job to this person, and Y job to this person.”
I settle on attending a Cards Against Humanity singles event. Joining the Churchill joke guy, around 40 single people gather in the basement bar to spend the evening playing the card game, which involves creating fill-in-the-blank statements with ~outrageous~ words and phrases.
The night begins with an ‘ice-breaker’ game. The men in the room are given cards displaying statements or questions with missing words, like ‘What gives me uncontrollable gas?’ and ‘Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s _________.’ They walk around the bar speaking to the women, who hold the corresponding response cards (‘Amputees’, ‘The bombing of Nagasaki’, ‘Dead parents.’) The funniest match is judged by the night's host.
After the ice is broken, we divide into four groups to play the card game in full. A woman on my table tells me that she came along with two friends. She says that all three of them are single and love bad jokes, so a Cards Against Humanity singles event seemed perfect. One of the men says that his colleague made him come along with her, and that this wouldn’t usually be his thing.
After our first 15-minute round, another woman asks me if I’ve seen anyone I like the look of so far. She makes a note on the match sheets we’ve been given to rate the other daters, trying to remember the name of a guy who just left our table. “I think he’s alright,” she says.
After two more rounds, there’s a drinks break, during which a man on my left keeps ‘accidentally’ elbowing me. Later, he leans over to say that he has “never been more attracted to someone before in my life.”
Attendees at singles events are often encouraged to rate each other, but they often write online reviews of the night too. While most are positive, the negative reviews tend to run along the same lines. One such response reads: “I got on really well with three guys, one where I was in stitches laughing and I find it bit difficult to believe that guy didn't tick yes. [sic]”
Ryall says that comments like this aren’t uncommon. The disappointment that comes from getting no matches on a dating app can happen at real-life dating events, too. “You get people who think they’re doing well at speed-dating just because the girl or the other person is laughing or smiling,” he says. “They could just be polite. We have a ‘yes’ column and a ‘friend’ column [on the match c], to let people down more gently, as a straight no can seem quite harsh.”
As the Cards Against Humanity event comes to an end, I ignore Ryall’s advice and head straight to grab my coat. I hand my blank scorecard back and rush out, unnoticed by both the man with the elbows and the Churchill joke guy.
The biggest dopamine hit I got this evening was from winning a card game that I don’t even like much (“Sex with Patrick Stewart”, thank you), rather than from finding a potential shag. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with singles events, but just as there is something unsettling about passively right-swiping on Tinder, watching people make notes on a clipboard about the interaction you’ve just had with them is weird. We might be done with dating apps but the difficulties of dating will remain, however we choose to meet people.