Think You've Had Weird Dates? The Post's Date Lab Guru Can Top 'Em

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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anniversary story in July 2011 — it lays out the history pretty clearly (though the statistics are obviously somewhat out of date).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
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What can you tell us about your method of matching up dates?
"We're always trying to make a good match — we don't aim for disasters, and we don't want anyone to be uncomfortable. Christina and I usually zero in on one applicant and pull a handful of potential matches for him or her. We'll debate the pros and cons of each for a while until we settle on one. If that person isn't available (we've called people up only to find out they've moved, or are in a relationship, or even got married since they submitted their application), we go back to the well. It's wholly unscientific.

Sometimes, we're looking at specific interests or hobbies that they've mentioned; other times, their answers might be about entirely different things, but share a sense of humor or tone of voice. And we also spend a lot of time trying to read between the lines — if a guy mentions that he prefers blondes, will sending him out with a brunette be a non-starter? Sometimes, it will be, and sometimes, it won't matter at all. It's very rare that people match up on every level, so we play a bit of a guessing game to determine which details are deal breakers, and which ones can be swept under the rug for the right match."

Sometimes dates don’t go as planned — see “the great bathroom disappearing act” of 2012 — but it can’t always be bad. Can you tell us about any of your favorite Date Lab successes?
"Hey, most of the time, it doesn't go badly! The disasters are pretty few and far between. We've had two couples get married since I took over, so obviously those stories warm our hearts. And though we don't keep regular tabs on everyone, we do sometimes hear from couples who have stayed together. I got in touch with Jane and Bennett this past summer just before they celebrated their one-year anniversary. They were both very candid and seemed so happy...you can't come away from a conversation like that and not have your faith in the process restored a little bit.
Date Lab is a very light-hearted endeavor, but when we do hear from couples who have been together long-term or gotten married, it really makes us aware that all our messing around in a database and picking and choosing can have a big impact on people's lives."

Working at Date Lab, you must have seen it all when it comes to dates: the good, the bad, and the ugly. In your eyes, what’s the formula for a successful date?
"One part optimism, one part openness, two parts mutual attraction, and at least two drinks. Sprinkle in a sense of humor and stir."

We heard a rumor that Date Lab gets way more female applicants than male applicants. Any truth to that statement? Do the men of D.C. need to step it up?
"It is true! Although not terribly surprising. I think women are more likely to take a leap with something like Date Lab; men seem to need a little more cajoling. A lot of the guys who apply tell us, 'Oh, my coworkers made me do it,' or 'My sister told me I should sign up.' They need a push. In terms of the demographics of our database, we do get more straight women than straight men; more 20-somethings than older daters; more white daters than daters of color; and never enough gay or lesbian daters. We're doing our best to balance those out so that the couples we feature in Date Lab are more representative of the D.C. dating scene. Tell your readers to help us out! Cajole your single friends of any age, race or gender into filling out the application."

This year Date Lab celebrated its sixth anniversary. If you could dig into your well of dating knowledge and give Date Labbers one piece of advice before they go out, what would it be?
"I hope anyone we send out on Date Lab is going into it with an open mind. But the best thing they can do, as hard as it may be, is to completely ignore the fact that a reporter is going to call you the next day with a bunch of questions. Be yourself, have a good time, and forget that The Washington Post is looking over your shoulder — you'll have more fun that way."


Photos: Courtesy of Date Lab