Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Speed dating out of my comfort zone

I should have been more nervous. Maybe I'm getting better socially or at managing my silly nerves. Sometimes.

Still, I hate small talk; the obligation to fill silence is excruciating. I judge a friendship by the quality of the silences. That's why I don't start conversations with strangers in bars; it's why I don't like telephone conversations that last more than a minute; it's why I do like Twitter.

I saw Sam Pang say on Agony of Life last week that he doesn't understand people who find small talk hard, that there's nothing easier. I love you Sam Pang but you, sir, have no idea.

He's obviously never had that annoying experience social anxiety brings where the floor falls out in your head and everything disappears and suddenly there's a silence between you and the other person - and in your head - and you become completely self-aware other than the awareness of how they must be judging you and so you are obsessed with the fact you can't think of anything to say because all you can think about is the fact you can't think of anything to say. And then, hopefully, you breath, very deeply.

Yet I was surprisingly relaxed about the prospect of 15 or so five-minute sessions with strangers, one after the other, for over an hour. Maybe because I've done the Contiki and Busabout first-day 'Speed Meeting' thing and come out without significant embarrassment. Maybe because I'm comfortable - possibly too comfortable - being single. Maybe because I was just seeing it as a bit of fun, and an opportunity to stretch my comfort zone.

Pre-brief and arrival

My companions - my 'wingmen' I suppose - were The Pro and The Enthusiast. There names have been changed. I walked the city streets to our designated pre-brief meeting point with an air of nonchalance as Nick Cave's The Mercy Seat filled my ears, playing perfectly to a renewed attitude of indifference to fear.

I've got nothing left to lose, and I'm not afraid to die.

What's there to fear anyway? The judgement of strangers? Fuck them. I don't need their approval.

And I'm afraid I told a lie.

Not a born socialite, The Pro had made speed dating his home turf, his confident space, gaining cheap experience through a spate of free tickets offered to have him even out the numbers.

I found him in a secluded booth in the bar, nearing the end of his second pint after a difficult day at work, and bought us both a fresh one.

The Enthusiast arrived full of energy. Back in Melbourne after a few years in relative social seclusion overseas, it was largely his eagerness for adventure and willingness to try anything that had  brought us here. We ordered dinner and another round of beers and got down to business.

The Pro asked what our opening questions - our ice breakers - were. He was disappointed with the empty response. We didn't have any. No angle, no plan, no preparation. The Pro's own strategy had apparently included making sure he was in a different grouping to the two of us.

I'd considered preparing a question or questions, but decided it was too formulaic, too contrived.

The Enthusiast's never even entertained the thought. Imbued with a wild energy, he could make entertaining conversation with Silent Bob. His only intention was to avoid the easy, obvious and often tedious question: "So, what do you do?"

The Pro was anxious to get moving so we made our way to the venue, just in time to check in five minutes early, mingle and have three more drinks before the formalities got under way.

My first conversation was with a cute brunette: I asked for, and she served me, a beer. As we passively mingled, various people approached us and introduced themselves; none reducing the proportion of penises in the conversation from 100 per cent. Almost all were first timers (or so they said), seemingly a little nervous and gaining some confidence in the safety of the 'brodeo' before stepping into the fire.

"So what do you do?" they invariably asked.

"Professional speed dater," I joked, also uninterested in discussing my job that particular day.

"Tram driver" The Enthusiast replied with sharp conviction, taking advantage of a stranger's trust. "Ding ding!"

The Enthusiast left us behind and mingled enthusiastically, living up to the moniker I would later give him for a blog post he doesn't know I'm writing. The Pro earnestly scoped the room.

I didn't want them to leave me. I had to man up. I stayed and talked to the men. We were joined by a master; a confident, well-groomed man who was here on a cheap ticket to even up the numbers. He gave us wide-eyed proteges a few tips - he was just here "to drink and talk shit" - before heading off to talk to women, reminding us that this was what we paid $60 for. Ah, yes.

But suddenly it was time to date with speed.

And we're off!

Having just been handed a beer by The Enthusiast, who had held up proceedings by quickly visiting the bathroom and bar, I took my seat opposite my first date, with two beers. Easy now, these are both for me. "Hi, I'm Sam," I think I might have said.

The dates all flew by pretty quickly. Conversation was generally pretty easy. If anything I over-compensated for my introversion and found myself talking too much. I was often left finishing a sentence as I shifted across to start the next date, trying to awkwardly find the right time to make notes and tick "Yes" or "No". As The Enthusiast found out, with mistaken matches the next day, you do not leave it until the end.

We were advised to take notes. I tried pathetically early on ("Lisa - teacher"; "Kate - blonde"; "Felicity - pronounces it 'Carstle'") but soon gave up due to difficulty with the dim light and their unreliable pen, and because I was actually so 'in the moment' that I felt like I'd remember the conversations. In reality they were largely gone by the start of the next date. By the end I only remembered the names and conversation of the first and last few, and a couple of interesting moments in between - such one conversation about the fact I thankfully hadn't had to resort to discussing work with too many people, which was followed by a short silence and my nervous date asking "So, what do you do?". But I did remember her ...

People mingled some more afterwards, this time in a far less segregated fashion. The Pro, who had been unimpressed with his group, did manage to get the phone number of one of the girls The Enthusiast and I chatted to from our group at the bar. Part of his strategy perhaps.

Though I freely spoke to a range of people at this point in the night - and we stayed right until the end when it was just us and the hosts left - I'll admit I still didn't start my own conversations. While The Enthusiast talked to just about everyone, and The Pro honed his wobbly focus, I just spoke to whoever was around me - passive mingling. I do that.

This isn't how I'd choose to meet people; being placed in front of an arbitrary person to see if you have any attraction and common interest. That's why I like Twitter and all the amazing people I've found (and met) there. That's why I like going to yoga and the Wheeler Centre and Golden Plains and gigs and footy and whatever else - doing things that interest me where I'm surrounded by people with at least one common interest. Yeah I should engage more with strangers, but I socialise plenty, even if passively.

And I'm not gonna lie, it seems I fared okay. The email the next day said I "scored one of the highest number of 'yes' votes at any [name of company] events", though I suspect they flatter me, given I *only* got four matches.

And no, in my busy and overly-comfortable state, I couldn't really muster the energy to contact any of them. The Pro was outraged. They were all lovely people, but no-one really grabbed me enough (so to speak).

So yeah, it was fun and I'm glad I did it. But I won't pay to do it again. Unless offered a free ticket perhaps...

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