Is Speed Dating Still a Thing?
In the late winter of 2020, Maxine Simone Willams, a recent college graduate, was excited at the prospect of working, living and dating in New York City. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.
"All of this socializing kind of shut down and we never really found that back-to-normal thing," she said.
With the city shuttered, Williams, like many singles, turned to dating apps for human connection. But even there, where prospecting paramours can be anything and anyone, the pandemic's effects were palpable well after the lockdown ended.
"I just found myself having all these conversations with my friends and peers about how online dating is just so weird since the pandemic," she said.
Everyone wished there was a way to connect with other singles in person other than a party or a standard one-on-one situation.
Something, perhaps, like speed dating.
It's nothing new—the first documented speed-dating event was held in 1998—but its popularity fizzled with the advent of Tinder. Now, the concept, like flip phones and cargo pants, is back in fashion. And companies such as We Met in Real Life (We Met IRL), founded by Williams in January 2022, are giving it a trendy and TikTok-able update. These events, which have popped up in cities from Los Angeles to Barcelona, Spain, have become so popular that dating apps are beginning to mimic the practice.
Whether you're tired of swiping or looking for something fun to do this weekend, find out more about speed dating's comeback and how to make the most of your first event.
How does speed dating work?
Not every event is alike, but most feature a similar structure. We Met IRL events, for example, last about two hours, kicking off with the check-in and a group activity, where Williams and her co-host help to break the ice. After about 30 minutes, the dating begins.
Generally, there are 30 to 40 attendees, each of whom gets about four minutes to interact with each date, for 15 to 20 dates in a night. Williams and her team give everyone a list of potential questions to ask their dates to help them get beyond the basics fast.
You save time, money and energy by attending a speed-dating event because you can have 10 mini-dates in one hour.
At the end, each participant does an exit survey to rate their experience, and Williams and her team encourage folks to exchange information with anyone with whom they felt a connection. Here, We Met IRL diverges from tradition. Usually, speed daters email the organizers with a list of people they want to connect with, and the event hosts become matchmakers.
"A lot of speed-dating events, you get a cheat sheet and you write down everyone's name and then the speed-dating organizer will, quote-unquote, match you if you guys choose each other," Williams said.
Williams and her team tried that approach at first but found that most people tend to choose the most "attractive" attendees, leaving dozens without a match.
"We just encourage everyone, like, 'Hey…this is New York City. You're probably never going to see anyone again. Don't feel scared to go up to a person and talk to them and ask for an Instagram or a LinkedIn or their phone number,'" she said.
The team also stresses that "No is no," but encourages attendees who don't match to view it as a learning experience, a step closer to a "yes" from a future person.
Why is speed dating making a comeback?
Speed dating has regained popularity for three main reasons, experts said: its speed, the opportunity to make in-person connections and its higher degree of certainty.
Research indicates young people tend to have shorter attention spans than their parents, said Nelly Sudri, a dating coach and matchmaker starring in the Roku docu-series "Match Me in Miami."
For much the same reason folks love TikTok, many are wary of spending one to
three hours on a first date that could end up being a total dud.
"The biggest pro to speed dating is efficiency," Sudri said. "You save time, money and energy by attending a speed-dating event because you can have 10 mini-dates in one hour, as opposed to one date in two hours." That's true, according to Callisto Adams, Ph.D., a Los Angeles-based certified dating and relationship expert and founder of He Texted, a site offering relationship advice for women.
"Most people don't have much spare time," she said. "And speed dating can be a convenient, fun way to find a match without feeling like you've wasted precious hours."
Many people are tired of "2-D dating," Sudri said, echoing Williams' sentiment. During the pandemic, everyone learned not to take in-person interactions for granted. Going to the grocery store was a special event and an outdoor brunch with friends felt like a destination holiday.
"With speed dating, attendees can meet a dozen or more people in a single evening," Williams said. "And even if it doesn't stoke the flames of love, you could walk away with a new friend or at least a good story."
First impressions aren't everything, but an in-real-life encounter—doesn't matter how brief—can provide a better gauge of compatibility than texts and photos alone, experts said. "We are stripped of many of our natural instincts with online dating, and because speed dating is in person, it gives those participating a greater opportunity to trust their gut on whether or not there may be a connection," said Kendra Capalbo, L.I.C.S.W., a licensed sex and couples therapist at Concierge Couples Counseling in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
'You want to look for emotional intelligence, empathy, kindness and respect, though you want to keep in mind that not everyone expresses all these in the same manner.'
"Attraction is not always something that translates through a photo, but rather can be based on how someone acts, speaks, walks and even smells," Sudri said. "By their pheromones."
Plus, there's no need to spend precious energy trying to decipher your crush's emoji usage. By the end of the night, you'll know if they want to keep things going or if it's time to move on.
How speed dating has evolved
Speed dating has come a long way since the 1990s. Modern events tend to be more like a fun night out than a business conference, Williams explained. They're also more inclusive.
Before starting her company in 2022, Williams saw posters for speed-dating events around the city but noted none of them looked appealing—and it wasn't just the Comic Sans font that put her off. They also seemed to be targeting a specific demographic, one that didn't necessarily include her or her peers. To rectify that, her first speed-dating event was specifically for Black people.
"It's harder for Black women to date online because of the algorithms or whatever," she said. "And I'm a Black woman, so I wanted to create a space where Black women felt like the prize and they didn't feel like the other, because that's another thing I found in my research before I started my company. The speed-dating events happening in New York City, most of them only had white women on their flyers. And I feel like they were kind of unintentionally segregating themselves."
After the first event, however, Williams decided to expand the pool, making her events a "guaranteed diverse space." She now hosts events for people of all races and ethnicities, as well as events specifically for members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Other companies aim to attract singles of various other specific demographics, including vegans, Christians and people who prefer to speed date nude.
"If you want to meet someone with like-minded core values, then either a 'niche' dating site or speed dating is a great idea, as the work has been done for you," said Karin Ridgers, the director at Mad Promotions and owner of Veggie Vision Dating, a vegan dating site that hosts matchmaking events in the United Kingdom.
Tips for a successful speed-dating experience
Generally, when it comes to dating, the same rules apply whatever the pace. Experts said these include focusing on compatibility, asking the right questions, keeping an open mind, and relaxing and having fun.
Focus on compatibility
There's no shame in getting the number of a very hot person you'd like to have sex with and never see again. But if you're looking for something more long-term, experts suggest looking beyond a person's physical features. "You want to look for emotional intelligence, empathy, kindness and respect, though you want to keep in mind that not everyone expresses all these in the same manner," Adams said. "You can tell if a person has these through the way they approach you, the conversation, and the way they talk about other people and themselves."
If you've had negative dating experiences in the past, it's easy to be cynical, but try to approach it with optimism and positivity.
You can gauge compatibility by paying attention to factors such as a date's sense of humor, values and whether the conversation feels forced or natural, Sudri added.
Ask the right questions
Another way to assess compatibility is by asking questions that probe deeper than a person's profession and hometown. Some examples include the following, according to Adams and Lyndsey Murray, L.P.C., a licensed professional counselor, an AASECT-certified sex therapist and the owner of Relationship Matters Therapy in Hurst, Texas:
- What's your favorite childhood memory?
- What's the most precious thing you have (tangible or intangible)?
- What makes you happy?
- When do you feel most confident and proud?
- How would your friends describe you?
Pay attention to what questions they have for you, too, Capalbo said. What they want to know about you can give some indication of their priorities.
Keep an open mind
Williams noted many people have a "type," and while that's not inherently bad, it can substantially limit your choices. "We literally have an app where you can filter based on your type, so if you're coming to an in-person event, I always challenge people to keep an open mind," she said. "So maybe you'll only date men who are six-feet plus, but if you're coming to my event, be open to shorter. Maybe that's the reason you haven't had success, because you're dating a specific type and that type isn't serving you as well."
Relax and have fun.
Being open-minded applies to the event, too, Williams noted. If you've had negative dating experiences in the past, it's easy to be cynical, but try to approach it with optimism and positivity. It just might be a lot more fun than you think it's going to be. "Try seeing it as a fun way to spend your time, [get to] know people and enjoy the dynamic," Adams said. "This will keep things flowing, natural and less stressed."
The bottom line
Speed dating isn't for everyone, but for many it's a welcome alternative to the apps and websites that have dominated modern dating for more than a decade. Williams said she's only been putting on We Met IRL events for a little over a year and she doesn't have any "amazing success stories"—yet. She does routinely hear from satisfied participants who've either found their person or are happy to have given it a shot.
"Even if you don't meet the love of your life, you got yourself out of your comfort zone," she said.