Playing the Game of Love
Kate Monahan is a New Zealander living and working in New York City.
"Ready, set, go!" The whistle blows and we are off - 25 guys and 25 girls in a candle-lit bar on the Lower East Side - all chatting it up for an evening of "speed-dating." I'm talking to a balding guy in his late-20s from Long Island, who I think still lives with his mother. Before we can get past the basics of "what do you do" and "how long have you been in the city," the whistle blows again. Our three-minute mini date is up, and it is time for the next suitor to rotate, Russian roulette style, to my sofa "station".
This is one of the many dating games that are popular in New York City, where there are an estimated 1 million single people. A surprise to many of my friends back in New Zealand, online dating ( match.com , nerve.com ) and speed dating ( hurrydate.com ) are fun ways to meet people in Manhattan. New York is one big playground of opportunity: young people living in the city tend to be busy, career-driven, successful, and wealthier-than-average, so dating is bound to be different here. Some things that wouldn't go down in New Zealand, or even other parts of the US, are the acceptable norm here. "In other places, things like speed-dating and online dating is hush-hush," says Maria, a pretty 30-year-old marketing manager, who is originally from the mid-west state of Michigan. "My friends back home would see that as desperate, but in New York, many young attractive people do it, it's accepted."
It is normal to be in your 20s and 30s and be single in New York. "Everyone I know outside New York has a significant other or is married, but all my friends in New York are single," says Navin, a 27-year-old market research manager who has lived in the city for over five years. As proof of how significant being single in the city is, he tells me about a marriage calculator that he found online. "If you calculate your ideal age to be married, you have to add at least 5 years if you live in New York City." It's the independence of living in the Big Apple that makes people stay single longer. Maria has another reason. "Its all one big frat party," she says. "It's a playground." With so many people to choose from, why would anyone want to settle down? "You can date and find hot people even if you are single in your 30s, 40s and 50s, especially if you have money," she adds, referencing the reoccurring importance of money as a status symbol that comes up with all my interviews on dating in Manhattan.
Lets take a moment here to talk about what "dating" really is, because it is an American social custom that is not done in New Zealand. According to Dan, 26, a young Kiwi that has lived in New York for over two years, "the way it works in the States, boy-girl wise, is that when you hang out with a chick, you do so on a "date." You don't go out in groups or mingle with others, you do one-on-one interview-style, get-to-know-you affairs, the whole point of which is to travel further down the road to a real relationship." If that seems like a lot of pressure, it is. There are rules, expectations and even spreadsheets!
One of Maria's co-workers is an online dating addict. She keeps an Excel spreadsheet to track the details all the men she dates (in one embarrassing situation she got a guy's name wrong, so now has them all filed and coded for easy reference). She dates guys that she meets on websites like match.com, where she can peruse online profiles and email cute guys (with big enough salaries - the most important consideration for Manhattan single women). She once dated a different guy every night for two weeks straight. Being a committed dater takes a lot of stamina in the city, but then again, in the American system of "dating" she had two weeks worth of free meals - the guys generally pick up the tab!
There are other rules that one has to play by, which seem to follow laws of three. If a guy likes a girl he should call you on the third day following your initial meeting (too soon is too keen, later than that implies lack of interest). Obviously these rules are a little tongue in cheek, but some people swear by them and my flatmate Lindsay, a 26 year old event coordinator, will never call the guy first and even when they are dating, will wait at least three days before calling them back.
Maria says that there is a third-date rule, "by the third date you know if you want to continue seeing them, and by the sixth, you know if you want to be exclusive." Which brings me to perhaps the strangest aspect of America's dating culture, where you can date multiple people at once, and its ok. "You can't assume that someone is dating just you. In the mid-west it is just one person, but in New York you have to assume that the other person is dating at least one or two other people," says Maria. Kiwi Dan finds this strange, but also likes this aspect of dating. "The upside is that it's normal to be "dating" more than one person at a time." However it can get expensive for guys, who traditionally pay for dates in the States. "I'd been progressing my budding relationships with girl#1 and girl#2 for a few months, all the while knowing that sooner or later my wallet, stamina or ability to remain elusive in explaining my whereabouts would give out," Dan laments.
The culture of dating in the US has now become a moneymaker for several enterprising businesses. Hurrydate has events in over 50 cities in the US and Canada. Match.com now claims to have over 8 million users and made $33.4 million in 2001. Success stories abound, according to the websites and word of mouth (one of my co-workers' brothers is engaged to someone he met online, and her sister also met someone serious through match.com). Whether for a deeper connection or just a bit of fun, the commercialization of romance is more than a passing trend in the US.
So, back to my foray into speed-dating, which passed in a bit of a blur (was it all the guys, or all the drinks?) There was Rob the pilot and what-his-name the investment banker (there were a few of those) and some German guy who associates all New Zealanders with Octoberfest beer drinkers. As I sunk back my second cosmo I agreed with Mr. Germany about Kiwi's legendary drinking habits. For most people I met, the conversation revolved around how much they wanted to go visit New Zealand ("does it really look like Lord of the Rings?") so I felt like a bored travel agent by the time I got to the last guy. Glancing at my scorecard I had said "no" to most (if in doubt, cross him out) and had double circled two (the pilot guy - free air travel, right - and Jon, who had just sailed around Bermuda on his friend's yacht - very "Pirates of the Caribbean", very cool).
The next day I went on to the Hurrydate website and put in my yes's and no's and received my matches (5 compatible out of 25). Unfortunately Jon the Pirate didn't chose me (bugger, no sailing into the sunset for me) and Rob turned out to be the history professor (I somehow screwed up my numbers) so it didn't quite work out. I did receive emails from two other guys though, and we are still talking, but to be honest I can't remember who they are. Perhaps next week I will have drinks with Jason, who according to his online profile is apparently a 6-foot tall financial analyst who likes movies and makes over $100,000 a year. Considering I already met him at the Hurrydate party with my two girlfriends (and another 50 odd people in tow) means that he is hopefully not some raging psycho (although he might be from New Jersey - ugh!)
Hurrydate was a fun experience and a good chance to meet a diversity of New Yorkers. For the guys at least, the US$35 hurrydate fee (NZ$60) was cheaper than a regular date in Manhattan (Navin tells me he has spent over NZ$250 on a date before). And for my friends and I, it was another crazy New York experience - although not necessarily a success on the romance front. "There were a few interesting guys but it was all a bit of a blur, and afterwards I forgot who was who," says Nazneen, a 32-year-old friend who I dragged along to the event. "Three minutes is not really enough time to connect, so afterwards there was no follow through, and we couldn't be bothered calling or emailing." Dating in NYC is definitely not easy although it is a lot of fun. Still, I think it is back to happy hour at the pub for me.