Wednesday, July 14, 2004

This is an older story I did on a trip turbodating - originally appeared in remix magazine

Our Man Goes Turbodating.
Are more people alone these days? With the huge divorce rates and the ever shrinking marriage numbers it would certainly seem so. One truism is that there is always someone around to make a dollar out of that basic human wish to cohabitate. As a result there are classified ads, dating agencies, table for six and other even older professions.
And now something about our career and entertainment driven lives has thrown up a new mutation. Recently we have seen the emergence of the marriage between the game show and the search for love. Reality TV does have a lot to answer for, but not nearly so much as those who watch these shows and make them popular. Shows such as Joe Millionaire and The Bachelor have taken elements from Survivor, It’s in the Bag and Blind Date chucked them all together and altered the face of dating. It would seem that although we’d love life to imitate art, it in practice resembles crap TV.
Turbodating is one such attempt to cater for the enthusiasm rich and time poor. It is the perfect example of the acceptance of Reality TV premises as a way to live your life. Anyway, the general idea is that you take ten woman seeking men, add ten men seeking women and run a series of seven minute dates. You rate each other as you go, and if you made the right match you progress to the second round.
In practise they spread the women around the room to ten stations, and have the blokes traipse around like travelling salesmen. You meet, chat, sparkle, and charm if you can and then at the end of your seven minutes move to repeat the process. Every participant is furnished with a scorecard listing the names of all the members of the opposite sex, with a corresponding blank box. To say scorecard is misleading though as no scores are recorded, only a very direct Yes or No. At the end of the evening the cards are collected by the organisers, and only if both man and woman have indicated Yes do any numbers get swapped. To increase safety, and one suspects the relevance of the organisers, this is done by e-mail on the following day. In cases of one party saying Yes and the other No then no numbers will be swapped. This last situation is referred to with a lovely euphemism as a partial match.
Well it is all very good in theory, seven minutes isn’t too long if the person is abominable, and is only a teaser if you are interested. It is safe, there is free flowing booze and all quite novel. But to really know if it is any good you’ve really got to go. So I did, fortune favouring the brave and all that.

I’d like to say I turned up without any expectations, with an open mind, no preconceptions. However, the fact is that I had spent the preceding week speculating and pre-judging terrifically. It went so far that I actually had money riding on meeting an overweight Dental receptionist from Botany Downs.
The event was held early in the week at a suitably innocuous inner city suburban Bar, which I will identify only as having a name so improbably and absolutely 80’s so as to make me wonder if this wasn’t a candid camera type set up. In fact between the internet-only contact with the organisers, the credit-card billing and the final disclosure of venue and time just 24 hours before the event the whole affair had a tinge of skull-duggery or at the very least felt as if it had arrived in discreet brown paper packaging.
The evening I selected catered for those between 25 and 35. Unsurprisingly the crowd was at least 75 percent That side of thirty. Still, I felt my youthful male vigour wouldn’t count against me… and perhaps something about a woman’s sexual peak being around thirty also passed through my mind.....
There was something amusingly schoolyard about the initial awkward atmosphere. Before the festivities began everyone turned up, one by one of course, and the boys chatted to the boys while the girls also stuck to themselves. Body language in these situations is always telling. The men stood with that curious blokes-around-the-barbeque stance that men unknown to each other always assume. You know the one, the hand in the pocket, the beer firmly grasped, the conversation strictly sports or work. The ladies seemed to be commenting on clothes and much polite laughter and soft shoulder touching paired with significant craning of necks was going on. I say seemed as too open a gawk would have broken the subtle rules of engagement that had emerged. To look too closely at this stage of proceedings you would seem to be either over eager or reminiscent of a lion searching out the lame gazelle. That’s not to say no appraisals were going on as the whole process resembles a job interview and performance review rolled into one.
In keeping with the schoolyard feel a bell was rung and our attention required. The organisers then set out the Rules for the evening: no talking about your jobs, no mention of last names and nothing unsavoury thank you very much. Toilet breaks were promised and play lunch was provided in the form of roving trays of nibbly things.
The pitfalls of food then. As ever these morsels were badly matched to well mannered consumption. I’m sure that somewhere there lurks a secret covenant between event caterers everywhere. Something that sets out that all snacks, nibbles and canapés must have poppy seeds to lodge between teeth, crumbly biscuits to attach to woollen clothing, inappropriately sized portions that are just to big to politely wolf in one but too small to reasonably bite twice and of course grapes with plentiful pips. Then they never provide anywhere to dump napkins, skewers or any other associated debris. It doesn’t matter what type of occasion it is the food always presents an embarrassing obstacle. This was no different. Whilst in the company of one of the ten she took something from the proffered tray while I declined. Embarrassed, she then murmured something like I was ‘not to think her greedy’. I hadn’t thought her greedy but I now certainly thought that comment inane. Perhaps we should dispense with food all together and stick to alcohol, justifiably known as the social lubricant. The other benefit being that which Groucho Marks maintained – ‘I drink to make other people interesting’.
That’s not to say the Turbodaters were not interesting. Whenever I’ve spoken with people about the evening the first question has always been on the calibre of the participants. There seems to be a deep seated curiosity and suspicion over who actually goes to these things. A couple of factors in the way Turbodating is put together work to weed out the less desirable. Firstly it costs $75 bucks. That may not seem like much but you have to have the available disposable income to part with that amount on what is literally a site unseen basis. This means that you are serious enough to pay for the privilege of taking that risk. And more importantly, that you are so confidant of appearing attractive and interesting to others that you’ll effectively bet money on it. Also not that many people are happy putting themselves into a series of potentially awkward seven minute appraisals where they will then be given a pass or fail grade. Just to ten times break the ice takes a bit of courage and for that reason the scared and socially inept would tend to give this particular dating scenario a miss. Perhaps it is this group, unable or unwilling to make actual human to human contact that trawls the internet sites.
Now I’m not wishing to appear rude, but the blokes just didn’t inspire that much confidence. They were all solid, upstanding blokes. No significant or at least obvious disfigurements, no facial tics. No fatties, no shorties, no Hawaiian shirts. All very standard. Hell they even looked the same, thanks to that awful kind of inept youthful smart casual wardrobe that afflicts those around thirty. Between the pants that look like cargo pants without all the pockets and the striped or block coloured shirts that are made to be worn out, they looked like they all lived near the same shopping mall. Though I suppose these days shopping malls are so generic that everyone sort of does. The general feeling was that this was a bunch of good guys, beta males. But I guess Turbodating isn’t where you go to meet Clark Gable.
From what I could gather of their jobs they all pulled in a reasonably good wicket. Amongst them one was a stockbroker; one looked honestly like the most stereotypical accountant; one travelled regularly between here and Australia. They all were well spoken, seemed intelligent enough and there were no louts. As you can see as a cross section of men in general they failed abysmally but as for men you may wish to have 2.2 children with they shaped up admirably. One of the ten men got a case of cold feet and failed to show, earning all women present a ten dollar refund. And unwittingly emphasising the basic reliable impression these blokes radiated. Cruel material for the undercover journo seemed in very short supply here, though I’m sure these guys would have a thing or two to say about the ponce in the fashionable suit and baby blue shoes.
The women were much more interesting. As with everyone it would be lovely if I didn’t immediately compartmentalize, rate, sort and generally check people out when I met them. But I do, you do, we all do. So, one was hot by any standard. Two more were highly attractive and the rest were as entirely defect free as the blokes. As with women in general their clothes styles varied, much as their overall attractiveness, from the fantastic to the frumpy. Another group of successful professionals amongst which there was to be found: a singer, a lawyer, a café owner and a marketing manager.
Because of the restrictions on conversation every mini-date seemed to start with questioning how they heard about Turbodating or why they came. With the first person I spoke with the question was very much why. I left thinking she may have been a plant of some sort as she was pretty much the opposite of any preconception you could have had. When you first meet someone in a place like Auckland, that is smaller than we can ever give credit to, the first thing you do is try to find common ground. What do you do, What School, when at Uni, worked where, go to which bars. This is always followed by Do you know so and so? And chances are if you don’t know so and so you do know their brother. That’s just how it goes. But to try to follow the rules and to preserve anonymity all such approaches were out of bounds. Which left a lot of questions about travel, general interests, What is on your reading list? Tame stuff, but as a weeder-outer it certainly works.

At the end of the evening the cards were collected and we were invited to step into the bar next door and enjoy an informal. Pretty much everyone did move next door to the new, restriction free environment. Again schoolyard rules prevailed and an anxiousness over whom to address and how. After having just emerged from the heavily structured nature of Turbodating everyone was at a bit of a loss. The desire to not offend was strong. Everyone felt that they were in effect giving up some pride in attending an organised dating event and were therefore acutely aware of peoples’ sensitivities. Add in the fact that everyone in the room had in the last two hours either passed or failed everyone else and you don’t know yet whether you were a passer or a failer in their eyes and the element of the unknown became somewhat oppressive.
Enter alcohol. It turned out in the free form conversation that we then cautiously picked our way through that pretty much everyone had had a stiff drink or two before coming along. Funny this, but that made everyone feel a bit better, to know that everyone was nervous, that no-one was at any advantage or impervious to the nerves. Even among a group of competent professionals who probably hadn’t been in an environment of such spoonfeeding and awkwardness in years. We’ll do odd things to ourselves if we think the gains are worth it.

And were they? Having entered into this evening with a story and an off the beaten track experience as my objective I was pleasantly surprised. It was quite fun. No seven minutes was too long, no partner uninteresting, no male or female objectionable. I can see that for some people this could be a very useful way to meet new people.
Perhaps for people that have reached or are in a static period in their social life. As in they have been in the same job for years, their social circle has shrunk, they are not meeting many new single and interested people. In any of these cases it would be great. Personally I found the whole event far too contrived, and try as the organisers might have to avoid this, patronising. The only way to have made this experience any less organic, natural and real would have been to have cameras rolling, and in a way I guess, this article is that camera. So if we do want dating and who knows what other elements of our lives to take on the same feel as being a Big Brother inmate this really is perfect. To be fair no-one there was looking at it in these terms; they were sincerely interested in meeting people in a different way or determined to have a bit of fun, not take it too seriously.

On the day following the event I received a call from the organisers. Attending as I did on somewhat false pretences I hadn’t indicated Yes or No for anyone. This, they informed me, was not good enough. I was to furnish them with my favourites or that would not be fair to those who entered into the event innocently.
Apparently somewhat more than half of them were charitable enough to send a Yes my way, which may bring the taste of the assembled ladies into significant question. Suitably chastened I picked three, as much to not be rude as of seriousness. I’d got a bit inventive you see when in my mini dates, all in the purpose of self-amusement, and I haven’t a good enough memory to make it as a polygamist liar. Between fudging my age and glossing over insincerity I didn’t feel it would be quite right to pursue anything, as interesting as the people may have been.
Then my big mouth, not for the first time, dropped me in it. I ended up talking Turbodating with a friend, live to air on Auckland’s’ best radio station, b. I only mentioned one of the participants in enough detail for her to identify herself. One who also happened to be one who I had ticked, who therefore had my e-mail address. With characteristic charm and tact I think I described her as hot or stunning or something equally cringe worthy, and then proceeded to doubt her story that friends had paid for her to go as a birthday surprise. Smooth, I know. The next day checking my e-mail one single worded subject line leapt out – Sprung!
None too impressed was she either. Having just listened to me blow my cover she thought she’d give me a piece of her mind, though not without a flirtatious tone. What are the odds? I hadn’t contacted anyone for the reasons above, but, as my return email said, having caught me out, you’re now entirely fair game. Numbers have been exchanged, who knows; maybe this Turbodating doesn’t have to be entirely inorganic.


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