‘Freaks, geeks and foreigners’: Is speed dating the way to find love in London?


SWLondoner’s Khaleda Rahman hits the speed dating scene to find out…


By Khaleda Rahman

The air buzzes with excitement and anticipation. I’m in a swanky bar in Marble Arch, and the night is young.

But, no doubt about it, there’s a subtle waft of desperation in the mix. Well, what did I expect? I am, after all, here to speed date. 

Speed dating has a certain stigma associated with it – it’s for sad, desperate people, right? 

Putting preconceived notions aside, I took a couple of single gal pals, Louise and Katie, both 22, to see if speed dating really could be the way to go. 

Katie thought speed dating was “for 40 something year olds who couldn’t meet someone ‘the normal way’”.

The concept of ‘speed dating’, a formalised match-making process, has been around since the late 1990s, created by a rabbi to help Jews meet and marry. 

Shows like Sex and the City helped glamourise it as a trend for young single professionals. Think about it; isn’t it the most efficient form of dating? London is a notoriously anti-social city and movie-style meet-cutes never happen in real life!

A spokesperson for a speed dating company said: “Speed dating is a comfortable, relaxed way of meeting single people in your area.”  

She added they had 12 marriages in 2011 and seven so far this year.

“Four minutes may not be enough to get to know someone but it’s enough to make a good impression,” she said. 

To potential first-timers, she added: “What have they got to lose?!”

Before venturing into uncertain waters I spoke to Helena Begum, 27, who recently lost her speed dating virginity.

She said: “I went to build confidence after coming out of a long-term relationship and it did just that.” 

Her experience led to a date with a charming gentleman named Alfie*.

She figured male speed daters usually belonged to one or more of the following categories – ‘freaks, geeks and foreigners!’ That is, men of the strange and unattractive type, nerdy workaholics and pretty much anyone unfamiliar with London. Would her theory prove true for my experience? 

Slow Dating Events Co-ordinator Jennifer Townsend said events attract a mixed crowd of people – “Professionals who are either disillusioned at trying to meet people in bars, have friends who are coupled up and therefore not willing to go out on the pull or just fancy trying something new and different.”

So, it’s time for the first date – I am ready to shatter some egos! 

An extremely nervous-looking chap comes over. “Hi, my name’s Henry*, I’m a research chemist and in my spare time, I like to participate in Tudor re-enactments.”

Oh, this does not bode well. 

In the Sex and the City episode, lawyer Miranda tells men she’s an air stewardess after her true profession scares them away. By the time Henry got to my friend, he was working at Sea World!

When it comes to meeting complete strangers, what’s to stop anyone from pretending to be someone they’re not? 

Now on to the next one… And you can imagine my shock when the aforementioned Alfie saunters over, with the swagger of a predator in his natural habitat.

My first question was, of course, “So Alfie, have you ever done this before?” Without missing a beat, he replied “Just the once, a couple of years ago.” Caught in a lie Mister! 

Clearly the conversation was lacking, as his eyes began to wander. That’s when I noticed the gigantic flat screen above the bar playing the football!

To be fair, they were not all bad. 

I enjoyed a pleasant conversation with a software developer who had just moved to London. It takes me about 30 seconds or so to tell if someone is genuine and this one appeared so – in this case, conversation flowed naturally.

First impressions are, of course, a vital component in speed dating. A 2005 University of Pennsylvania study found that most people make their choices within three seconds of meeting. 

Personally, it took me a fraction of a second to decide that I never wanted to see some of these men ever again.

For instance, Lewis*, a Maths teacher, had come ‘for a laugh’ or so he claimed. He ended his date with an overly-generous introduction of his friend. Alex*, a pompous metrosexual Essex lad, spent four never-ending minutes avoiding the question of what he did for a living. 

As the formal part of the night ended, insecurities and high school behaviour emerged – “Will you tick me?” “What have you written about me?” and so on.

A little worse for wear, Lewis wailed at one point: “Please be my girlfriend! I just need someone to iron my shirts!” 

I think he was joking.

“Look, you’re seeing us at the end of the night. We are much better than this.” I’m sure you are, fellas. 

Little did they know I fully appreciated their alcohol-induced candor. Seizing an opportunity to get an honest answer, I asked them their opinion of their fellow speed daters.

Alex claimed the place was full of lonely, desperate people and their friends! “So which of you is which?” That shut them up, but only for a moment. 

Lewis then slurred in Alex’s direction: “Thanks so much for bringing me tonight, man. It’s really cheered me up! I was in a dark place, and now…”

I was definitely getting bromance vibes from these two and took this as my cue to leave and call it a night! 

The verdict? 

“I thought the experience was actually a bit rubbish,” said Katie. “The company made no effort to refund us any of our money when half of the men didn’t turn up.” 

While the company in question promise between 15 and 20 dates at each event, eight men were no-shows, practically doubling the cost per date.

“A total rip-off for what you got. £16 for only 11 men and no free drinks in an expensiveLondonbar? Bloody rude!” said Louise. 

A company spokesperson said: “You would think that after paying for an event, everyone would turn up.

“We can’t guarantee everyone will, but we do our best by making sure they are aware the event is on. 

“There is no pressure to meet anyone. If you don’t tick anyone from that event we offer you another go for free.”

Hmmmm… that would explain the serial speed daters! 

Louise described her experience as “pretty awkward, but also kind of fun. It’s a bit surreal, really. I felt like I was on show and it did feel a little bit like a market!”

And the day after the night before? 

“I’m interested in the kind of first impression I make,” said Louise. “I’m never going to get this kind of feedback ever again!”

She maintained: “I didn’t fancy any of them, so no, no dates came from it. But I don’t really mind, plenty more fish in the sea!” 

Katie said: “The next day I ticked the boys I would possibly consider seeing again – there weren’t many – but one has replied.”

And myself? After the excitement of the ‘ticking’ process, a follow-up e-mail from a Borat lookalike began – ”As much as I would like you to meet the rest of the women I have locked in my basement, I prefer to wait until I am actually going on a date with someone before introducing them to our group. 

“So would you like to join me for a cup of something wonderful and some stimulating conversation?” Errrr … no, thanks!

The men at the event were definitely not an accurate reflection of the available men in London – and if so, I might just stay single forever. 

And the most romantic moment of the evening? Sharing an umbrella with the lovely Louise on the way to the tube station.

In my opinion speed dating events are not the place to go if you are seriously looking for love – the odds are just not in your favour. You’d have better luck of finding ‘the one’ by chatting up random strangers on the Tube. 

For a ridiculous night of side-splitting laughs, however…

* names changed to preserve anonymity

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