The Press Box is not a romantic spot. It is a corner casino at a highway intersection, its flimsy decor obscured by the temporary banners blaring “Budweiser” and “NASCAR.” A cocktail waitress in a tight pink T-shirt wanders aimlessly, trolling for orders. A thuggish trio of college guys shares a pitcher at a pool table. No string quartet softens the mood; instead hard rock songs compete with the televisions dripping from the walls. The trace of bleach cleanser in the air cannot obscure the odor of beer-dampened wood. This is the setting for Speed Dating Montana’s inaugural event.
Twelve people have shown up to try out speed dating, the popular national trend that seems to blend cyber-convenience with reality TV shows. Everyone is nervous. A few people gather at a table covered with deep-fried appetizers, food that augurs badly, considering that grease ruins carefully applied lipstick. Nina S. (not her real name) has come at the insistence of a friend, out of curiosity and moral support. She rarely dates and she is girlishly nervous about this set-up. One man sits alone near the wall. Three college kids arrive together. Each one hands over $40 and confirms registration. The emcee peels off nametag stickers for each. Then someone else hauls the dater off to have a picture taken. “We upload them onto the Web site,” explains coordinator Andrea Behunin, “so dates can refer to them when they want to match up.” Agreed, photos would help, as all the nametags seem to say “John,” or something very like John. Once the official start is announced, each of the six women heads off to the tables where the Johns already sit.
What is this whiff of prostitution? Is it the cash? Is it the tinge of the nervous, painful longing to be wanted? Is it the four minutes? “We found that three minutes was too short,” Behunin says. “And five minutes was too long, so we chose four.” Although this is hardly a Nobel-winning theorem, it actually does matter. First of all, anyone can be polite for four minutes. Also, once you have looked right into the eye of your temporary match, you feel the weight of those seconds. If two people like each other, the date rushes past, halted by the feeble ding of a bell. Otherwise you pray: “Next, next, next.”
The formula for speed dating can vary. Jane B. tried it in Boston where she found herself in a huge Ramada ballroom off a freeway in a crowd of nearly 200. She met eight men for seven minutes each, but who’s to say if the details matter? SpeedDatingMontana.com suggests that happy matches are just four minutes away, but real life is a little harder. “There was one guy I did actually go out with two or three times,” says Jane B. “During the Speed Dating, we seemed to hit it off in terms of sense of humor. He was about my age and seemed bright. But he turned out to be kind of bland. The upshot was, I was not at all attracted to him.” Another connection came to nothing when Jane B. later realized that the man, in spite of extensive mutual interests, had not been interested in her. “Not even in the ‘would like to hang out as friends’ category. Guess I had misread him. And I was bummed.”
“You’re not going to find the man of your dreams. If you’re looking for some tall hunk with wavy black hair, then you’re not going to find that here,” says an organizer whose nametag says Gwen. “But Speed Dating Montana is great if you just want to have fun.” Curiously enough, the event is fun, a rush of social adrenaline that is safely prevented from becoming a regrettable mistake. “I feel like I’m on a game show,” one man whispers as he and his date listen to the “rules” (a waiver releases Speed Dating Montana from any liability after the event): “You cannot ask for a date while you are speed dating, please do not ask anyone for personal information, you may not talk about sex or make sexual comments” (everyone immediately thinks about sex).
After the six dates last week, almost every person confessed to having more fun than he or she had expected, and no one seemed much to care about the potential—or lack thereof—for long-term match-ups. There’s no pressure to keep up the small talk, because Speed Dating provides prompter cards with supposed ice-breakers on each table in case a couple is stuck for a subject—“Have you ever scuba-dived?” “What is the name of your first pet?” Your bite-sized conversation ends, and you never have to see these people again (except this is Missoula, and it’s likely that John from table #5 will be John your waiter, John your dental hygienist or John your professor by tomorrow morning).
Built on the premise that first impressions are all you really need to decide about someone, speed dating forces you into high alert, as if efficiency is all that’s been missing from this timeless ritual. Gone is the notion that experience can render you a richer person. This is Relationships, Buffet-Style, and you can learn a surprising amount about your date in his first sentences. It is your own performance and personality, however, that stand out. Who is the pretend, social you boiled down to a condensed potion? You are cruel with jokes, or hard with disdain, or desperate with friendliness or aching with sexual compulsion. You may thrive on the discomfort of your date, or worry jealously about the looks of everyone else in the room. This is the dark side of speed dating, the sudden, brutal dose of exaggerated reality.
Nina S. has sparked with John, an affable, Montana-sized guy. She will wait to be notified by e-mail if they have made a match. A few days later, as soon as he gets her number, John calls and they schedule a date. A slow date, an expansive date, a date of possibility.