It’s no big reveal to say that dating is hard work, especially in a city like Washington, where everyone seems to focus on three things: work, work, and work. Even the most pragmatic daters sometimes wish for a magic wand to conjure up perfect suitors. Fantasies aside, there are real-world options. Each year, millions of people take to online sites and speed-dating courses in search of romance, but right here in the District, we’ve got a pretty special dating service: The Washington Post's Date Lab column.
For those not in the know, Date Lab matches potential couples using answers asked in an online survey. The couple goes out on a blind date, and the experience gets documented in the Post's Sunday magazine. The results vary, but one thing is certain: Date Lab is a veritable cultural institution in the District. Nearly everyone’s heard of it, and chances are you know someone who's been featured (or at least filled out the survey).
But just what goes on behind those closed-laboratory doors? Mad science? Some kind of weird love-spell voodoo? We caught up with Date Lab editor Amanda McGrath to get the full story. Ahead, McGrath dishes the nitty-gritty about the Date Lab team, the selection progress, and even some dating advice.
(Editor's note: The author is a Date Lab alum; you can read her semi-embarrassing story here.)
Date Lab has such a devoted following! What can you tell us about the feature's history?
"We ran this anniversary story in July 2011 — it lays out the history pretty clearly (though the statistics are obviously somewhat out of date). More recently, we've been trying to shake up the process now and then — sending couples out rock climbing or sailing instead of to restaurants; letting daters choose their own match (we have two of these experiments coming up); getting fans to vote for which person we should send out on a date. And there's lots of new stuff on the horizon that we're very excited about."
It seems like Date Lab combines the best of online dating with traditional matchmaking. Potential daters fill out an online survey and then real humans — your team — match them up. What’s special about this process, and how does it make Date Lab stand out from other dating options?
"We are a little bit old-fashioned, in the sense that we don't use any algorithms or science or strict rules in our matchmaking process. There's a back-and-forth discussion between myself and my fellow Date Lab editor, Christina Breda Antoniades. We try to find some common ground for the couple, whether it's specific interests, or backgrounds, or sense of humor. I think what makes Date Lab most unique is the fact that these are truly blind dates. Most of the time, you know at least something about the other person — you chatted in a bar briefly, or you've seen his online dating profile, or your friend gave you a few details when she set the two of you up. With Date Lab, you only know the person's first name, and that two strangers at The Washington Post thought you might click. It's a really bold move on the part of daters, and that's something we try to respect in the matchmaking process."
Is the Date Lab team full of starry-eyed romantics, or stern pragmatists?
"Ha! We are a little bit of both. You can't work on a column like this and not have some appreciation for romance and kismet. We want our couples to hit it off, and we're always thrilled when they do. But I think we take a realistic approach to what dating means in this day and age. It is Date Lab, after all, not Marriage Lab. We don't expect there to be some kind of movie-style insta-spark that makes our couple immediately fall in love.
When Date Labbers meet, they are total strangers; most people aren't going to go from zero to true love in a single night. We've had online commenters get annoyed when one of the participants mentions going on dates with other people at the same time that they're giving Date Lab a shot. But I don't think dating is always the linear process that outside observers want it to be. We don't expect our daters to put their lives on hold when we call. And we also recognize that there are superficial hurdles that not everyone wants to take the time to get over, or truths about their likes and dislikes that they haven't revealed to us, so not every perfect-on-paper match is going to pan out. You can't get too cynical or too clinical, though, or you forget the stuff that makes dating interesting to begin with.
There is undoubtedly some sort of mysterious, unquantifiable element that draws two people together, that prompts the butterflies or gets them to connect on a certain level. And you have to trust that that kind of chemistry is possible if you're going to do this job."
What about the applicants — any patterns you’ve seen in who applies? What kind of person is an ideal applicant?
"If you can hold your own in a conversation with someone you just met, and you're willing to take a little bit of an adventurous leap, you're a good fit for Date Lab. In the applications, we really appreciate people who have something interesting to say, something that gets beyond the usual clichés. Every time I read that someone "likes to go out, but also likes to stay in" and "likes to have fun," a little piece of me dies. You just described 99% of the people on Earth. The best Date Lab applicants are the ones who include specifics, own their quirks, and are willing to reveal something unexpected or atypical about themselves."
Photos: Courtesy of Date Lab
- 1 of 2