About four years ago, when I’d first moved to London, I was on the last Tube home, slightly tipsy from an evening of getting hammered for free ‘freelance networking’. This was a time when taking the Tube was a grand anthropological adventure for me, and not – as it is now – an exercise in soul-crushing horror and other people’s body odour.
As I sat slightly fuzzy-headed in the corner of the carriage, I caught the eye of a handsome fella opposite me. We exchanged a coy glance and a cheeky smile, and we continued this game of visual tag for the rest of the journey, peeking at each other through the tightly-packed bodies of standing commuters. I knew nothing about this guy apart from what he looked like, that he was reading a Murakami novel, and that he had an air of confidence about him, even in his silence.
He got off one stop before me, and as he made his way past he dropped a piece of paper in my lap and gave me a heart-stopping, parting smile. It was the perfect meet-cute, I thought, and my imagination ran away with itself, projecting onto this mystery man all the qualities I’d ever want in a partner. He was thoughtful and kind, I decided. Proactive. He had a great sense of humour and was clued-up about current affairs. He was confident without being arrogant and probably knew something about wine, yadda yadda yadda.
Only once the train had pulled away did I unfold the paper, which read: “You’ve got well blue eyes. Fancy a shag?”
So when I more recently found myself standing in front of a glossy London bar, about to embark on an entire evening of gawping at other people in silence, aka ‘silent dating’, I was apprehensive to say the least. Apprehensive, and increasingly despairing that this is what it had come to: going to a gimmicky dating event in a bid to find a human man that can tolerate my exclusive company for a not-insignificant period of time.
I was already in a bad mood, because I’d only agreed to go along in the first place to appease a friend, who’d since dropped out, and I couldn’t find anyone else to come with me because literally every other woman I know in London was at home with her other half watching The Apprentice and making brunch plans. But I’d wrangled a commission to write about the experience, so I had to go. But then as I was on the bus on the way over I got an email from my editor saying that they didn’t actually need the piece any more. And then when I arrived, having decided that I didn’t want to waste my good hair day on my housemates and that I might as well give it a go, I bumped into two other journalists who were there covering the event for magazines I’d also (unsuccessfully) pitched to. Then I tripped over a chair. Oh yeah, and this all coincided with a self-enforced booze embargo.
Nice one, Universe. That was quite the coup.
After being assigned a number (I was number one, which I assure you held no glory for me on this occasion) the organisers outlined the format for the evening. For the first hour we’d be playing ice-breaking games – in silence of course – designed to bring the group together as a whole and ‘dissolve tension’. LOL. I’m a pretty outgoing and confident person, providing I have the opportunity to wow everyone with my DAZZLING WIT AND CHARM. But I can’t even watch a musical without wanting to rip my face off in cringe, so the thought of silently taking part in forced silliness, with a bunch of strangers to whom I’m trying to look alluring and mysterious, made me want to run into a wall. HOW COULD I SHOW EVERYONE I WAS BEING SELF-DEPRECATING IF NOT THROUGH MY WORDS?
The games were fairly simple: shake someone’s hand while making eye contact; find a partner and try to synchronise a jump in the air (which one guy took extremely seriously, becoming visibly exasperated – and not jokingly so – when we couldn’t get it on point); movement mirroring (one lad – and I say lad because he couldn’t have been more than 20 – was apparently so overwhelmed by the simple task of moving his limbs that he just kept shrugging at me and then eventually stared at the floor); and ‘finger-to-finger movement’, which one guy totally misunderstood and turned into a game of thumby war, which frustrated me greatly because I’m the kind of person that needs rules and structure amid whimsy and shtick.
There was also a section where we were encouraged to do some slow-mo martial arts ‘fighting’, which my friends will tell you I’m actually totally ace at, by the way, but the guy I was paired with got a little too involved and ended up punching me in the boob (which was the most action I got out of the evening).
Then we had a break where we could only order drinks at the bar in silence, much to the bemusement of the barman and to my sober chagrin, because I probably would have taken a lot of pleasure in miming the actions for ONE MASSIVE GLASS OF ALCOHOL, PLEASE.
And then to round two, where in traditional speed-dating style (not that I’ve been to one of those, either. See? Baptism of fire, this) the ladies were seated around the outside of the bar and the fellas – in a cavalcade of silent awkwardness – played musical chairs every time the bell rang. And for one whole minute, we’d sit facing our partner in total silence. The organisers encouraged ‘deep eye gazing’, which is basically just ‘looking’, but a lot of people – myself included – opted for a bit of voiceless banter in a bid to alleviate the crushing discomfort of the situation. Here’s what I learned.
- If you’re in a pretty intense one-on-one situation, it’s probably not a great idea to stare at your partner’s tits, because they’re gonna clock you. And nice try, but my identifying number sticker is actually on the other side.
- Anxious people make me anxious. Thinking about this on the way home, this is probably why I’ve been described as ‘intimidating’ by some folk, because I can’t bear awkward silences so I tend to fill them with gibbering observations. This is also probably why I’m usually foisted upon quiet people at parties by others, because I’ll just talk at them until they feel a bit more relaxed (or they leave).
- By extension, then, confident people make me feel at ease. Some of the guys I ‘dated’ at this event exuded an aura of calm self-assurance which made the business of staring into their eyes much more comfortable. This was completely unrelated to any physical attraction I felt (which was none, for all of them. Sorry guys), so I can’t really explain how that works. SCIENCE, probably.
- Regardless of where I was on the scale of comfortable-to-face-meltingly-awkward, being stared at, by anyone, is HARD. I have a pretty severe residual ugly-duckling hangover from my teen years, so while these chaps were ‘eye-gazing’ (looking – LOOKING) at me, all I could think was that they must be staring at my nose, or that my lips were flaky, or that I had mascara gloop in the corner of my eye.
- I’m probably never going to be the person who says things like ‘You don’t need a drink to have a good time’.
- My nails are sharp as hell, as evidenced by the deep and near-bleeding indentations on my palms, forged in an attempt to prevent myself from combusting with embarrassment.
In the end, I put a tick in just one of the 20 boxes on my score sheet, and that was only because the guy was wearing the wrist band of a relatively-unknown festival that I go to (which was, thinking about it, a while ago, so that’s actually pretty gross). It had nothing at all to do with his eye-gazing looking skills, and when I spoke to him for an extremely brief few minutes after the event, he managed to allude to the female attendees as ‘birds’ and another male participant as ‘a bit of gayer’. It was four years ago all over again.
Of course, this isn’t to say that silent dating doesn’t work for everyone. According to the organiser – who found his own girlfriend at a similar event – at least nine relationships have sprung from these silent beginnings, and one couple even got married. Maybe it was a case of right place, right time, for these couples. Or maybe, in a world where modern dating is primarily conducted behind the safe curtain of a computer screen, these individuals were simply more prepared to put themselves on the line and embrace an intimacy which is almost unheard of nowadays. I certainly wasn’t, but I went away feeling like that was more to do with my own emotional stuff than the behaviour of any of the ‘dates’ I encountered. And for that reason, I’m still glad I went along. But next time – if there is a next time – I’ll be having a mighty large drink beforehand.