FriendSwap, the matchmaking party devoted to the young and powerful of Washington, is a singles scene that favors suit jackets over bare shoulders and business cards over lipsticked napkins. This is as it should be, really -- mature, methodical dating for mature, methodical people. They are overachievers, 80 percent of whom have graduate degrees, the sort of people who, asked to describe themselves, offer their Myers-Briggs personality types.
The group was founded in 2002 by a Harvard lawyer, and before this year was called Harvard Hotties FriendSwap. When the organizers throw their yearly party, smart young lawyers walk in and discover themselves surrounded by smart young lawyers. This is generally regarded as a good thing. One smart young lawyer praised a FriendSwap party as "a room full of people who were pretty much like me."
When 500 FriendSwap members get together one Wednesday night in March at Maxim Restaurant near the White House, the cumulative effect is less that of a singles scene and more of a convention at the Omni Shoreham. Most people are in their work clothes. The men don't loosen their ties. The women sport a startling dearth of cleavage. Sex appeal is buttoned down, pinned back and impaled on dainty pearl earrings. There are few lustful glances, unless you count the folks staring intently at each other's chests, trying to read the name tags. This is dating for people whose primary skill is networking. It is the inverse of a meat market like Lulu's Club Mardi Gras on M Street NW, which for tightness of jeans and divulgence of midriffs has few rivals.
If you can push through the well-behaved crowd, abundant -- perhaps slightly more than the general population -- with men of below-average height, you'll find a remarkable fellow named Dan Prieto. He has designed an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the 15 women who've been selected for him as possible love matches. The spreadsheet lists the women's jobs, hobbies and physical characteristics, and ranks them on a scale he devised of 1 to 3. Prieto, 35, uses it as a crib sheet for his conversations tonight with the women, whom he has scheduled at regular intervals.
"I made appointments every half-hour," says Prieto, who works on Capitol Hill. The idea for the spreadsheet came naturally to him, he says, because he used to be an investment banker.
The principles of finance, it seems, are not so different from the principles of dating.
If the attendees seem organized, consider the organizers, who do this entirely for fun and for free. Founder Heather Dawn Thompson and her friend Eric Columbus, both 32, have been planning this event for months. They've been working with a Web site, an online database designed by a friend of Thompson's, and a team of about 15 organizers who've given up the better part of a month to matchmaking the 550 singles of FriendSwap.
Each single gets assigned anywhere from one to 15 love matches or "swaps," whom they are encouraged to e-mail and then meet at the party, which will last around four hours.
This matchmaking is made easier by profiles all the singles have filled out, in which they are asked to specify their political affiliation from among eight options that parse the political spectrum. The options differentiate between "very conservative," "conservative" and "right of center," offering "fiscally conservative/socially liberal" for the moderates and so on, all the way to "very liberal."
At Maxim, as the clock ticks closer to the 6:30 p.m. opening, all of the organizers put on purple or red fedoras with leopard-print bands that they call "pimp hats," to distinguish them from the singles. Tables are set up by the door to process attendees alphabetically by last name. Thompson gives last-minute directions to the volunteers running the door. Columbus stands nearby, his face pinched with anticipation. He is keeping a dime in his shoe for good luck. All evening, while people drink wine and flirt, Columbus will roam officiously through the crowd, carrying a clipboard, combing a sheaf of paper for names. He looks like a high school administrator, except for the pimp hat.
"If I'm not nervous, there's something wrong," Columbus says in a stout voice, the kind a coach uses before a big game.
A Familiar Setting
For many people, a FriendSwap party is like a reunion. Singles arrive with friends, or they arrive and see people they know. Maybe they know each other from law school or from work. Sometimes they find they're being swapped with someone they already know.
"D.C. is a small town," says Erin Mahan, a single to whom this happens, but it's not so much smallness as selectiveness that's being showcased here. Even when a single doesn't know her swap, she probably knows someone similar to that swap, which is to say similar to herself. The insularity of FriendSwap comes from the fact that it's invite-only. Via e-mail, the organizers invite their friends and participants from the year before, telling them to forward the e-mail to any other people for whom they can "personally vouch."
"Even if you don't wind up hitting it off with the person, you're still meeting someone with a similar background," says Jon Edgar, 29, a lawyer, who was matched with another lawyer, Allison Buchko, 27, through FriendSwap 2002. They were given each other's e-mail addresses by the FriendSwap organizers, and when Buchko couldn't make it to the big matchmaking party, she invited Edgar along on a triple date, made up -- naturally -- of six lawyers. Edgar and Buchko discovered they have similar jobs, similar values, and they both love animals. Now they're engaged.