Dating 101
Five ways to mix, mingle and make a connection

By Ellen McCarthy
Friday, March 7, 2008

Spring is almost upon us. The birds are back, the daffodils are peeking up, the sun is reclaiming its evening hours.

You know what that means: It's time to hop to it and really start reveling in the delights of your ergonomically incorrect office chair.

No. Come on -- it's dating season.

So get out there and nab yourself a live one!

Um . . . right.

Easy enough, perhaps, for the spectacularly attractive and extremely outgoing.

For the other 98 percent of humanity, what's easy is whatever you've always done: staying late at the office, going home in time for "Law & Order," meeting the same three friends at the same neighborhood dive. Again and again and again. Until you wake up one morning and realize that it has been 267 days and 10 hours since your last decent date. (Give or take 20 minutes . . . )

The thing is, this stuff is hard.

Maybe it shouldn't be, but it is.

It's hard to meet new people, people you might like who might like you back. And then to make those fleeting ties translate into an actual date.

And dating in Washington is different, as any veteran of the scene will tell you -- probably in a lengthy, sigh-filled rant. For one reason or another (ahem, work), people in Washington stay single. Behind Boston, in fact, it has the second-largest percentage of singles of all major metropolitan areas in the country, according to 2006 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Which means there are plenty of people out there to date. You just gotta find a way to do it.

To get in the mood, we spent a couple of weeks sifting through the collective wisdom of Washington's dating coaches, relationship counselors and Web sites. And we tried to extract the least-ridiculous advice the self-help industrial complex had to offer.

We sought answers to this question only: How do you get a date in Washington?

First we should say what every expert, every Web site and every book said first: No one wants to date a self-loathing grump. So, take a commercial break, give yourself a hug, tell your inner cynic to wipe that smirk off his face and then return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Great. Now onto the dating game . . .

Non-Self-Help

Ask and you shall receive.

That's not a promise, but it might be a start.

Especially if what you're asking for is help. Help meeting people, arranging dates, improving your chances.

Think of it as a good deed: How many would-be yentas are just waiting to be asked if they can help do a little matchmaking?

"We live in a society where people are more and more entrenched in themselves and are scared to ask for help," says local relationship therapist Audrey Chapman. Even if you're not asking to be set up, Chapman suggests checking in with close friends for a little dose of honesty. "Every once in a while you can ask a friend, 'How do you think I'm doing? Are there things you think I should be taking more care of, to change or work on?' Getting feedback is so important," she says.

That might mean working first on your platonic friendships: being proactive about spending time with the folks who will keep you laughing, drag you to new places and maybe help explain the opposite sex. (And remember the buddy system: Everything in life is easier when done in the company of a good friend. Dating included.)

But if you prefer help that's a little further removed from your inner circle, there are plenty of folks to whom you can outsource the task. Your best friend might not tell you it's time to buy jeans from this decade, but your dating coach, matchmaker or image consultant surely will.

Because as much as this stuff seems like it should come naturally, it often just doesn't.

"Nobody talks about relationships in school," Chapman says. "Then you get thrown out into the world and you don't have the tools to know how to do this."

But they're just tools, she adds, and tools can always be acquired.

Tip: New to town or looking to broaden your universe of friends? Try one of these extremely welcoming social groups: Meetin DC ( http://www.meetindc.org), and Girls and the City ( http://www.girlsandthecity.com). If you want professional guidance, there are plenty of dating coaches in the area, including Amy Schoen ( http://www.heartmindconnection.com), Toni Coleman ( http://www.consum-mate.com) and Jae Ellis ( http://www.askromeo.com).

BlackBerry Blackout

Buried. Every hour, every day, every week.

This is Washington. People don't come here to loaf. They work, work, work, and then, sometimes, they wind up on the phone with a dating coach like McLean-based Toni Coleman, wondering why they can't get a date.

"They're so work-focused. So career-focused," Coleman says. "People tend to run through their week, and then the weekend comes and they don't have any plans."

Which is not to say romance can't happen in the workplace. It does, obviously, so much so that in this town, girl-next-door appeal is possessed primarily by the girl three cubicles down. But relying too heavily on that scene can be problematic: "We're talking sexual harassment cases because the only people you're meeting are in your office," warns Patti Feinstein, a Chicago dating guru who has clients in the Washington area. "Stop it. Stop it. Stop it."

Work is kind of a double-edged sword, because it simultaneously prevents people from having enough time for a healthy social life and serves as a convenient excuse not to even think about that area of life.

To succeed in dating, Coleman says, "you're really going to have to carve out time in your life and dedicate resources to it."

Tip: On the side of your BlackBerry, there's a little on/off switch. Turn it off. Look up. If there are fluorescent lights within eyeshot, exit the building. Don't come back until Monday. (This won't be at all easy, we realize, but a lifetime in which the BlackBerry is your closest companion won't be either.)

Just Relax

The high school reunion is this summer. Mom is on the phone, mentioning that your old flame's wedding announcement ran in today's paper. There'll be seven weddings this year -- none of them yours -- and you have Tried. It. All.

The Internet. The blind dates. The smiling at strangers in grocery stores. (Does that ever actually work?)

Anyway, 'A' for effort, 'F' for results and you're just tired.

So: Rest.

"You need to take a sabbatical," says Chapman, the therapist. "You need to take time off and not look for a while."

All the rushing and searching can backfire, she says, like dousing yourself in too much perfume. The word, and it's an ugly one, is "desperation." People can smell that, too.

So take the night. Take the weekend. Take a month or three and turn off the pressure valve. The world and its people will still be there when you come back, fresh-faced and ready.

Incidentally, you do know what they say about people who aren't looking, right?

Tip: Giant has ice cream on sale this week for $2.74. And "Into the Wild" came out on DVD three days ago. Enjoy!

Get Out. Now.

Now, forget what we just said.

Well, don't forget it altogether. Just forget it long enough to listen to these wise words from Ann Wood, a Washington matchmaker of more than two decades: "Snow White was a jerk; she was lying there waiting for life to come to her."

Amen.

It's true, of course. Every fairy tale has white knights just showing up. But unless you order a lot of pizza and are convinced that a delivery guy is your perfect destiny, well, you're going to have to get off the couch.

Repositioning yourself in a dark movie theater doesn't really count either.

"You want to get out and meet enough people, but you have to put yourself in a position to meet the right people," says Amy Schoen, the dating coach who also runs a Web site called DCDatingInfo.com.

"Doing stuff" can feel like a chore, especially if you're forcing yourself into situations that don't feel natural (e.g., speed dating). So, okay. Just promise yourself you'll try two new things a month, and only things that are legitimately interesting to you. An opening night reception at an art gallery, a two-hour introductory sailing class, a community service project, happy hour at a new lounge. Whatever -- as long as it's fun.

And you know Snow White missed some awfully good times holed up in those woods, just waiting.

Tip: There's no shortage of stuff going on in this town, and there's a group for just about every activity. For all-purpose events, try the International Club of DC ( http://www.internationalclubdc.com) or ThingstoDo.com. If you're politically minded, think about volunteering a few hours with a campaign you support.

Everyone Needs an (Online) Editor

About me: I'm a kind, caring, person with a good heart. I'm fit, smart, ambitious. I love spending time with my family and friends. Outside of work, I like to read, travel, eat out, see movies and hang with friends. I love to laugh and really just want enjoy life.

About you: Please be intelligent, attractive and in shape. I hope you have a good sense of humor, like great food and enjoy the occasional adventure. You'd be game for a hike in the woods or a black-tie gala. I'm looking for someone who knows who they are and wants the best life has to offer! Is it you?

Read, rinse, repeat. Now go claw your eyes out or toss your laptop into the path of an oncoming MARC train. Seriously folks, who doesn't like to laugh? Where's the random specimen of humanity hoping for a long slog through a joyless, tortured existence? (At least that dude would be interesting.)

Romantic or not, online dating is almost a given part of the process today. Match.com alone has more than 15 million registered users, and the Washington area has the site's fourth-highest concentration of members.

But just paying the fee and slapping up a blurry photo isn't enough to reel folks in. Your profile has to be engaging, original and ideally funny (ha-ha funny, not absurdly pathetic funny).

A sharp-tongued friend with decent writing skills can probably polish your profile into second-glance condition. After all, if half the world is going to have access to this, a once-over by a trusted set of eyes isn't going to hurt -- if only to make sure you're not getting an automatic dismissal for spelling errors or misplaced commas. Or for treating yourself like a cliche. (Read: Please, please cut the crap about the sunsets.)

Tip: Don't happen to have a gaggle of friends with English lit degrees? Okay, well, a little cottage industry has popped up to serve you, for a fee, of course. Check out such Web sites as http://www.romancelanguage.org and http://www.targetlove.com, which promise to up your online appeal.

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