I want you to take a moment to actually think about the question I’m about to ask you.
When was the last time you held eye contact with a perfect stranger?
Exactly. It’s something we all go to lengths to avoid, right? Even on a subconscious level. The idea of being caught, looking at a stranger, well that’s just not allowed really, is it? Come to London and that very thought is every commuter’s mantra.
Not allowed to connect it’s no wonder there’s been such a boom of dating apps in the city. Then as if to counteract the shift of all our love lives, now taking up their permanent residency online, a secondary boom was created: The Dating Event.
A breed of evening spawned out of dissatisfaction from the dating app community, who decided, what they really wanted was a genuine connection, rather than a one night stand.
The majority of these events then mutated into three categories:
- The weird and attention seeking nights, which rely on puns, to grab headlines, rather than forge relationships.
- The flat and feelingless singles parties with no theme and in the end no heart.
- And then, every so often there are the events that are kind of onto something.
So one wet and drizzly afternoon, sat in a crowded coffee shop avoiding eye contact with the cute barista, whilst checking my email, I came across an interesting invite: ‘Silent Speed Dating’ with Shhh Dating. I wondered which category this would fall into.
When I realised I was going to a night of dating which would feature no verbal communication at all, I had a little ‘What the fuck?’ moment, too.
How was I going to communicate or even attempt to get to know someone who I wasn’t allowed to talk to? This, as a writer and a human, was completely alien to me. I worried before turning up that I would be relying on vanity, and shallow preconceptions of the way a person looked, upon making my judgements. And, that just wasn’t the kind of dating event I was interested in.
For someone who has become significantly bored with Tinder why would I want to go into the real world and stare at a person’s face before mentally right or left swiping? Let alone stand there and panic at the thought of which direction they were judging me into.
But with an open mind I walked into The Jam Tree in Clapham Old Town last Wednesday night. My mind open and my heart somewhere in my throat. It was just as well that I wouldn’t be allowed to speak.
I was supposed to be attending with a wingman. The online bookings actually encourage you to bring along a ‘non-date date’ for the rest of the party to enjoy. But mine had contracted food poisoning or possibly just lost his nerve. So I was feeling even more vulnerable turning up alone. Alone and without someone to roll my eyes at from across the room, who wasn’t my potential date.
On arrival boys and girls were separated and I was lead behind a secret book case into a private room where I waited in anticipation for silence to fall and the night to begin. Unlike many singles events this one was lead nicely by both a male and female host. They were warm and inviting and very nearly put me at ease.
It’s funny, this was supposed to be easy. I didn’t have to lie or think of any witty anecdotes as I would obviously try to do at a more conventional dating event. So really I should just relax. Go with it. I could get away with being dull little old me with just a few facial expressions and winks, no?
Our host, Adam, lead the boys into our room, a private events space at The Jam Tree, which thankfully was fully equipped with a bar. Adam then invited the room to surrender our speech and treat the space as a non-verbal zone.
We gathered like a drama group into a circle (of trust?) and I told myself, right before stifling giggles in the middle of a breathing exercise, I was Louis Theroux. I was going to give myself up and just go with it.
So for the next hour that’s what I did.
We began with a hand shaking activity. Do you remember hand shaking? I think it was more widely used before the popularity of hand sanitizer and replacement with the fist bump. But still, I was Louis Theroux, and set about walking through the crowd on a mission to shake the entire room’s hand without speech.
If that didn’t break the ice what followed certainly did. Games where we had to repeatedly find partners to jump on the spot with or play a game of tag against, and then touch fingers in ET style and proceed to dance with our eyes closed. I’m Louis Theroux, I’m Louis Theroux…
There was an interesting mix of people in the room, but I decided perhaps too quickly, that there wasn’t anyone that I actually fancied…
Then as the games moved on something happened. I got a chance to see how each person approached each new (cringeworthy) activity. Each activity being essentially a challenge, in a room full of strangers, means you begin to warm to people in ways you don’t at first expect.
There was a larger than life kiwi guy who hugged me really really really tight every time we completed a challenge together. He was so warm that remembering him makes me smile so big right now as I write this. There were the girls who were a little over dressed for the evening, but I warmed to, as we gossiped in the ‘verbal space’ of the ladies loos. There were the cute guys who weren’t really my type, but were just trying so hard, that I hope they found at least one match from the night. Then there was the girl from Aus who was wingmaning with all her mite her blue-eyed male companion. At first I exchanged nothing more than a polite grin with him from across the room. But then we got to the eye gazing portion of the games.
He really had the most warm blue to his eyes and his smile was so wide that the corners reached up as if trying to high five those big pools of blue. We stared at each other in a way I had never taken time to do before. Until the bell rang, and we had to make our way again through the crowd, to find another partner. But not before he engulfed me in a huge hug. It’s customary at Shhh Dating to thank your partner for engaging with you after each task or challenge. This can range from an awkward handshake to a hug and a kiss on the cheek. The nice thing here is that the room feels safe and you only need do what you feel comfortable with. Adam makes that very clear.
The next boy I gazed at was dark haired with intense black eyes. He was quite beautiful when I took the time to notice. On this round we were invited to touch each other’s hands very lightly. We were given around a minute to explore each other’s palms and eyes. At first I stood wondering just how stupid I looked, standing and essentially tickling this boy’s fingers. My mind buzzed around what I was doing and was I doing it right? And, would he think I was doing too much stroking and not enough of… something else? But then my brain stilled. I thought about the way he was touching my hands and realised I liked it. We smiled at each other. Embarrassed but without pause.
The silent space made me feel more connected to this group of singles than most of the people I have met on regular nights out. More connected even than with some people I have shared a flats with in city, and dare I say, some men I have allowed to share my bed.
But, it’s as if without speech, you take away a wall to hide behind. You eliminate the possibility of lies and you see a person in a truly honest way.
Of course this may all just be assumption based. Possibly down to the stirrings of an over active imagination and of wanting something to be true so much that it seems to be. But, as I let go of Louis Theroux and took the night seriously I realised it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Truly, without words I was outside of my comfort zone, a place in which nothing terribly exciting has ever happened.
It was as if the games were not only icebreakers, but acted as truth markers to help you suss the way someone is in their real life. The part that is usually guarded on any date with a new partner.
There were the guys who joked their way through every challenge, who couldn’t take it seriously and shake their insecurities. The men who tried so hard but we’re a little unoriginal. Then there were the ones who broke the rules and whispered to you, not imaginative enough to communicate without their catchy one-liners. Then the guys who just let it happen. The one’s I clicked with and with whom each time shared a genuinely new experience.
The second half of the night, after and short break to duck out into reality and refuel on gin and conversation, was the main event: Silent Speed Dating.
90 seconds of eye gazing and nothing more.
I was certainly warmed up and much more ‘ready’ than I had been when first walking into the silent space. The stigma of not talking and of making eye contact had evaporated into what now felt like ‘The Norm’.
Each 90 seconds brought something new. Some were all about pulling funny faces, some mimed questions at me, other’s just stood and stared. The guy who had held my hand made me feel warm and relaxed when he came round. Then the Blue-Eyed Aussie and I stood and giggled though our 90 seconds.
Then there was the boy who gestured for us to sit and then produced a box of matches taken from the bar. Delighted to be presented with a prop I grinned to show my approval of the gift and proceeded to open the little Jam Tree box and strike one of the wooden matches handing it to him.
This somehow wasn’t what he'd expected and there followed hysterical gesturing and stifled giggles until I blew out the flame. After we regained our composure we found just long enough to share a brief moment of eye on eye action. Then the bell sounded and he was gone.
At the end of the night Adam invited us all to not only speak, which now felt remarkably strange and like breaking a spell, but also to stay and get another drink together.
With gusto we reclaimed the room as a verbal space. Quite a few of us had hung back for a chance to flirt the old fashioned way. I found it less intimidating than I imagined to begin chatting to the guys I’d been eye balling all evening.
I kept an eye out for the hand holder and the boy with the matches but smiled when it was the Blue-Eyed Aussie who struck up conversation first.
Talking lead to drinks at the bar, lead to flirting, lead to him walking me to the tube station.
I came clean about the blog. Yes I fancied him so that broke my little rule of ‘Never Tell A Guy You Want To Date That You Date For A Living’. But, the night had distilled some new kind of honesty within me, and even though I had returned to talking, I didn’t want to betray the experience.
His response however was; "So, would you consider dating me just for fun?"
We’re going out next Tuesday. Just for fun. I may or may not fill you guys in…
So can I tell you that Shhh Dating was a success?
Are you in a ‘verbal space’?
Yes I can. In fact, I’ll be checking out their next Silent Dating Party on the 13th May at Farrs in Dalston. I’m actually really looking forward to buttoning my lip and being allowed to perform the forbidden art of staring again.
Silent Speed Dating is a great and unexpected way to move past the nerves and the barriers, which seem to come as standard with normal speed dating events. If you’re an adventurous single who’s open to stroking a strangers palms, Shhh Dating might be for you.
Click Here to get information on their up coming events, both Silent Speed Dating and Parties.