The Dating Game
Go-Go Speed Dating Becomes Slow Dating With Matches That Matter
by Wanda Hennig
Photography by: Kyle T. Webster
Chances are, if you've found someone to love, and if the love is reciprocated, you're busy getting on with the rest of your life. But if you're single, most likely you're hoping to meet that special someone. And what about those who fall into the category of a certain age — over 40?
Oakland's Odette Pollar, a never-married go-getter entrepreneur (who says only this about her age: "I've definitely had my 50th birthday"), has long been intrigued by the quirks of the dating game. It was when a friend told Pollar that she had switched from hoping for "a date this year" to "a date this decade" that the seed was planted for Matches That Matter (www.matchesthatmatter.com) — Pollar's "slow dating" alternative to the personal columns, connecting online, speed dating, Starbucks encounters and lunch or dinner meet-ups.
"I saw it was virtually impossible for the men and women I knew to meet someone single, let along have a chance to get to know a person well enough to perhaps like them," she says. Listening to her friends, while Pollar was in a long-term relationship and not actively looking to date, she thought of her own life and how she'd worked in management and training and given keynote speeches to big crowds.
"I recognized how you can be out in the world and meet a lot of people," she says. "But when encounters are brief, you don't get to know them."
In 2009 Pollar set up a series of focus groups to find out if it was just her friends or whether men and women in the broader context were finding it hard to meet other singles. What she learned will come as no surprise: Our desire to couple up is a reality that transcends age, race, ethnicity, education, gender and income level. And, Pollar found, there is a magic number of years beyond which meeting people becomes more of a challenge. That number is 40.
She learned that many men and women older than 40 were resistant to Internet dating, citing professional sensitivity, privacy issues or just plain discomfort with the concept. Several women brought up safety as a concern. "And few over 40 were keen to go and hang out in bars," she says.
Pollar then did something else pretty interesting. She interviewed all the people she could find who had been married or living together for 20 years or longer. She asked them just one question: "What did you think of your significant other when you first saw him or her?"
Eighty percent of those she spoke to said that off the bat, their response to the person who ultimately became a long-term partner ranged from negative to neutral. "What that told me," says Pollar, "is that had they connected online and met for the typical date at a coffee shop or for lunch, 80 percent would have walked away."
While individual stories differed, the common thread was that the 80 percent who'd done the about turn had subsequently run into the other person. "They all said that at some point, what had bothered them initially, they'd got beyond."
With online dating, even before you meet, Pollar points out, there is an inclination to edit people out. "There is a tendency to make snap decisions. 'I don't like his or her grammar.' 'I don't like the photograph.' 'She or he is two years older than my ideal.'
"It's easy to be influenced by a lot of superficial things you either wouldn't know, or that wouldn't have a bearing, if you were to meet in the real world. And people make an incredible number of assumptions. 'She has eight cats? Must be a nut case.' But maybe the person is running a business involving cats."
In February 2011 Pollar launched Matches That Matter, a social introduction service specifically geared to people aged 40 and older keen to meet other singles with a view to a long-term relationship. The key to her business model, which includes plans to go national, is the "slow dating" component, which plays out in Pollar's Matches That Matter "flights" — arranged encounters, essentially.
"Just as the 'slow food' movement grew to counter the frantic pace of fast food and fast life, we see the need for slow dating to counter the online, on-demand pressure in relationships," she says. "We see our flights as the dawn of a 'slow dating' movement."
Here is how Matches That Matters works: You sign up and pay an enrollment fee ($199 for one "flight" or $297 for three flights. Your background gets checked, you're interviewed by phone (to find out what you're looking for) and you're quizzed on certain activity preferences. Then you are grouped by age and gender and commit to meet — on three consecutive weekends — to perform one of a range of volunteer activities.
"The first flight I went on, we did landscaping on a garden area off Highway 24 in the Oakland hills," says Mark Silowitz, 55, who lives in East Palo Alto and works in sales for a food service distribution company. Long-time divorced, Silowitz says by the time he connected with Pollar's service, he had tried a number of online dating sites. (He met most people through Craigslist.)
"But on the whole, it all seemed more work than fun," he says, "so I had gotten off the whole dating bandwagon for a while."
"We typically send out six men and six women," says Pollar. "It might be for a beach clean-up, or a beach habitat restoration or building a garden for a school. We've worked with [the] Friends of Sausal [Creek] clearing and restoring the creek bed. We've sent flights to do volunteer work at the Alameda Naval Air Museum at Alameda Point on the site of the former Alameda Naval Air Station.
"The idea behind the flights is that you are involved with each other over three consecutive weekends usually for around three hours each time. We also send along a host, to make sure things run smoothly."
The first weekend, she says, you get to meet everyone. "The second, you are presumably comfortable with each other and more relaxed. By the third week, there's a familiarity. Nobody in the group is a stranger anymore. I'm trying to replicate the natural sense of running into people and providing the time to decide, pretty quickly and easily, if there's an interest."
"It's really neat," says Silowitz. "It's fun, and I felt I got to know people much better over a relatively short period of time than, say, when you connect online then go meet someone at Starbucks.
"I met a lady on the first flight and we had a series of dates. And I've met other women on other flights that I connected with. I haven't found my forever partner yet, but I've met people to enjoy as friends. I've been on a couple of the Matches That Matter events that were not flights," Silowitz says. Flights are interspersed with one-off fun activities. "We had one where eight or nine people met at the Lexington Reservoir to learn how to row crew. That was a lot of fun."
The volunteer projects that come with doing the flights, Silowitz says, "make me feel I'm spending my time well." The point is not lost on Pollar.
"Busy, successful people like that they meet and do projects," says Pollar. "You've done something for the community. Whatever happens, they haven't wasted their time."
"We got involved with Matches That Matter after we got a call from Odette explaining that they like to collaborate with nonprofit organizations and they were looking for a museum to get involved with," says Kin Robles, chairman of the board of the Alameda Naval Air Museum.
"Our lifeblood is volunteers, and they were looking to have the same group of people come in to do three consecutive weekends of work. We were delighted. That they come in with a larger group means we can tackle larger projects.
"And that they were all professionals — some out of Fortune 500 companies — was great. It meant we didn't have to be hands-on; we could explain the job, and they got behind it and took it from there. Some even came back independently later."
So far, Robles says, they've had two flights work at the museum. "We have a queue of projects, including things like landscaping and painting, so we can offer people projects that interest them. The first group worked mainly on the library, with books and archival material. That was a good way for them to get to collaborate and to know one another."
Robles says from what he's observed, he feels the Matches That Matter model is a good one. "From the perspective of the nonprofit, with the economy as it is, a group like this really makes a difference. And speaking from what I've observed, I've seen people looking comfortable and having good dialogue. I've seen a lot of smiling faces and a lot of good conversation going on as they work."
Lynnette Garcia, 50, a San Mateo–based leadership coach who runs an optical boutique part time and who has been divorced for more than 20 years, participated in the first Alameda Naval Air Museum flight. "We worked in the library for three weekends. It was a lot of fun and there was a lot of interaction," she says.
In the past Garcia had tried the online services eHarmony and match.com. She also belonged to Table for Six for several months. "The Internet thing was fun initially to kind of get your feet wet, but it seemed a lot of work. It meant spending a lot of time online, and I do that enough. I enjoyed Table for Six initially and dated someone I met there for about six months."
A friendly and gregarious woman who participates in a video on the Matches That Matter website, Garcia says she's made good friends through the dating services, including Matches That Matter. "I like the casual setting [of the flights] and that you're interacting and getting to meet people face to face," she says.
"Meeting someone alone can be awkward. As fun as it is to go out, and I'm pretty easy, there's always that bit of uncomfortableness. It's a lot more comfortable to be part of a group of men and women. And I like that part of it is about giving back to the community.
That's a pretty cool concept," she says.
Shawn Anderson, 49, who has been divorced for five years, signed up for a Matches That Matter focus group out of curiosity. At the time, he says, he'd tried pretty much everything that was available online with limited success. "Dating can be a train wreck or entertaining, depending on your take," he says, adding that he found meeting people online unpredictable.
"You get a conversation going and, poof, they just evaporate." And he had a couple of crazy dates. "One person claimed she had been abducted by an alien."
Plus, he says, to date, you have to have self-esteem. "And many of the people I encountered online were challenged in that department. Lack of assertiveness and follow through. Online dating I think shows up the flaws in a person's communication skills."
Anderson, a friendly and gregarious guy who in his own words is "adventurous and nomadic," lives between Campbell and San Jose. He has run his own business since 1992 "working on cars all over the Bay Area." He finds the Matches That Matter flight concept works on a number of levels.
"The service seems to attract good communicators. It was easy to have a conversation with everyone I met. And it takes out the guesswork as in wondering if the person you're seeing online is really who they say they are," he says.
"The first week, you know you're all there to meet each other. By the second meeting, you get to catch up from the previous week and you're remembering people's names. By the third week, you're pals. The last flight I did, we all exchanged phone numbers at the end."
On the flights, people get to wear nametags with only their first name. "It's up to you to decide if you want to give someone your last name and your phone number," says Pollar.
Veterinarian Martha Davis, 56, who runs a busy practice in Marin, heard about Pollar's concept from her sister. "I thought it a great idea, getting groups together like that so you don't have the awkwardness of meeting up with strangers," she says.
"I dated someone I met online for about a year, so it's not that it can't work. But online dating is a real crapshoot. People exaggerate. Someone will say they do all these things that it turns out they've maybe dabbled in once. People often say they're in better physical shape than they are. I know Matches That Matter does a lot more serious screening. The others pretty much take people at their word and what they say is not always accurate."
Davis has fit in three Matches that Matter one-off events. She went kayaking by moonlight in Sausalito followed by dinner. "We had a kayaking lesson and went out on the bay after dark to look at the lights. It was a lot of fun," she says. She went to learn about beer making in Oakland. "I'd probably never make beer, but it was fun talking to people who are into it." And she did a rowing event in the South Bay. "We had a rowing lesson at
the reservoir followed by a catered lunch. I also enjoyed that too."
"Our society has changed in revolutionary ways. We have long commutes. We don't socialize with neighbors. We don't spend much time being sociable, period," Pollar says. "We meet people at work, but we don't have a lot of leisure time at work. Look at your average coffee shop. … People come out to be with others but bring the thing that isolates them: the computer. Loneliness and isolation are a national problem."
Matches That Matter is a service geared to heterosexuals but Pollar does not intend to exclude the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. She hopes to grow to include such groups later. Right now her challenge is to have equal numbers of men and women participating.
Does Matches That Matter offer interaction advice, like whether to have sex on the first date?
"We understand that these are all people over 40, and many are more than half a century old," she says. "You've probably made up your mind about things like having sex on the first date long ago. We don't have to tell you what to do and how to behave. That's your decision."
So there you have it: Pollar will do her best to find you a match. The rest is up to Cupid, chemistry and you.