I am a big fan of the motto, ‘do one thing every day that scares you’, because what is life if you’re not low-key terrified at least some of the time? There are few greater highs than the adrenaline rush that comes right after you achieve something you thought only moments before might make you vomit with fear. I try to meander outside of my comfort zone in at least some small way as often as possible. Case in point: today, I got a lunchtime Brazilian from perhaps the most thorough waxing technician ever to grace this earth. There’s no discomfort quite like leaning on all fours whilst a perfect stranger smears hot wax around your bum, let alone when she gets up in your business with the tweezers – but I digress. Not all of my comfort zone-abandoning pursuits involve hair removal. Interviews, solo travel, dreaded confrontation… I’ve done a multitude of terrifying things with varying degrees of aplomb. So when I saw an opportunity to try Speed Mate-ing last week – an event with a decent potential for fear – I was sold.
Speed Mate-ing, as the name suggests, is like speed dating but for potential new pals. The event was just one of a new and popular series hosted by a female/non-binary creative collective, the aim of which is to tackle social isolation in a fun and inclusive way. So far so good, right? I’m lucky enough not to consider myself ‘socially isolated’; I have lots of excellent friends whom I love dearly, so I went with an open mind rather than a determination to meet my new BFF. I was curious most of all, but I’m always keen to meet new people in the city now so many of my friends are scattered across the country. WhatsApp is great, but decidedly poor company when you want an acroyoga partner or an impromptu picnic on a sunny Sunday.
Having lurked in a café for half an hour after work, my trembling hands and I made my way to the venue – an unquestionably cool bar; all laid-back, no-fucks-given unfinished décor. There were already people milling around in that aimless way you do when you don’t want to be the first one at the party. I popped into the loo on the way up the stairs and exchanged nervous, too-bright smiles with a couple girls who were topping up their lipstick before we went in. Some dating habits die hard.
Comfortable at least that my lipstick wasn’t smeared across my teeth, I took a deep breath and ascended the final stairs. I gave my name and was immediately handed a piece of A4 paper with a large grid: person bingo. After grabbing a can of Dutch courage (cider), I turned my attention to the statements on the paper. They ranged from wholesomely tame (‘still in touch with someone from primary school’) to only slightly risqué (‘has been skinny dipping’), but none were too personal or controversial.
Since everybody was there for the same reason, it was only a little bit uncomfortable to approach a group and insert yourself into their conversation. Some people were rigidly focused on the game whilst others just wanted to chat, but most felt at least a little invested in filling their bingo grid. It was a great way of getting people talking, providing a legitimate reason to start and continue a conversation. After all, who can put their name by the ‘doesn’t like Christmas’ box without a solid conviction? Walking around the room, I saw women using other women’s backs as tables for their scribbling, the way we did in school. I soon found myself quite happily telling strangers about taking off my clothes and running into the sea. So far, so good.
After half an hour, the compere – a chirpy girl who stood by a slideshow at the front of the room – gathered everyone together to introduce the event. There were approximately forty of us, all clutching our drinks in one hand and sheets of paper in the other. She asked how many of the group had been to an event like this before and no hands were raised. There was a smattering of awkward laughter. We were encouraged but not yet reassured, a group of clueless social experimentees.
We were given a further five minutes to fill our grids and meet some more new faces, which descended into organised chaos. Frantic yells of “I need a vegan!” rang out across the room. Volumes reached yelling-and-nodding-blankly levels, where they remained for most of the evening. Somebody finished with only four spaces unfilled, and everybody cheered.
Much of the evening followed what I can only imagine is a ‘typical’ speed-dating format, with a few differences. As with speed dating, we were each given a piece of paper on which to write the names and details of people who we might like to stay in touch with. At the end of each five-minute chunk, the compere invited us to “swap contact details if you want to!” which necessitated a bit of awkward dodging if you, uh, didn’t. At the end of one conversation, we both blurted out, “time for the loo!” and shuffled off in opposite directions. Don’t you dare tell me I’m not smooth.
Each five-minute conversation was guided by a prompt displayed on the slideshow, which was helpful when your mind went blank or you found yourself paired with someone that you just didn’t connect with. Prompts ranged from silly (would you rather), to challenging (an elevator pitch of a book or movie), to prematurely intense (what is a problem you are having right now?). Fortunately, we were given an alternative option should we prefer not to tell our potential new friends about our dead pet/family drama/gonorrhoea. I enjoyed the variety and not feeling obliged to have the same conversations ad nauseum, which was a huge pitfall of dating. There are only so many times that you can earnestly discuss where you grew up and what you studied at University before childishness and boredom kick in and you find yourself asking whether they can fit their fist in their mouth.
Everyone stayed standing, which gave it a casual, non-committal feel, much like day drinking in Europe except it was the evening and there were no tapas. I can think of few things worse than sitting interview-style for five minutes, then awkwardly extracting yourself into the adjacent seat to start all over again in a veritable merry-go-round of social ickiness. Standing is also great for reading body language, making it super easy to tell whether someone is giving you good vibes. Let’s be real here: regardless of how friendly everyone is, you’re not going to click with them all. One girl directed all of her conversation to my left shoulder, her body turned as far away as politely possible. Herein lies the joy of the five-minute limit. Unlike a normal date, where social conventions require that you endure each other’s company for at least an hour, the speed date adheres to no such ruling. Speed dating is an anarchist! A free spirit! I mourn all of the hours I wasted on awful dates because of blasted social convention.
I had fun with these mini conversations but I don’t think the format necessarily showed everybody’s best selves. The room was awash with nervous energy; it was dark, and loud, and we had a limited time available to make a decent impression, which is tricky when you’ve been asked to explain whether you’d prefer to smell horrendous for the rest of your life or have a perpetually bad stench in your nostrils.
Owing to the time available, and the 1:1 format of most of the conversations, we weren’t able to speak to even a quarter of the people who had come along. This meant if you had turned up specifically to meet a new friend or two, your success was determined by the small selection of people you happened to be paired up with over the course of the evening. I felt that I got more organic interaction from people in the breaks between tasks, where everyone felt less obliged to stick to a script. That said, the prompts were fun and light-hearted, and I think the session was better for having them. Perhaps a greater variety of group and 1:1 tasks would have offered the perfect balance.
Our final fifteen minutes was dedicated to a longer exercise. We gathered into groups of approximately eight to discuss a more nuanced topic (fast fashion, self-care, managing your political views). Everybody was flagging by this stage and I broke the ice by suggesting that our group sit on the floor, which was perhaps the most successful suggestion I have evermade. Even more so than with regular dating, I was reminded of the need to bite my tongue, choosing to be amenable rather than trying to be right. I might have challenged a date if he had referred to self-care as ‘face masks and bubble baths,’ but I sat and nodded politely as a member of our group happily asserted the same.
At the end of the evening, a few of the group hung back to swap numbers. We agreed to go to the collective’s next big meet-up, and some of us have arranged to grab a drink later this week. I left feeling thoroughly but pleasantly exhausted, like I’d run a verbal marathon but earned myself a shiny new medal for ‘doing scary things’. Would I recommend Speed Mate-ing? Absolutely, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself – and be prepared to need some quiet time afterwards!