Date Lab

Sandy M. Fernandez
Washington Post Magazine Articles Editor
Wednesday, September 6, 2006; 1:00 PM

In its first dozen columns, Date Lab has hosted some terrific dates and some really, really terrible ones. But what ends up in print is only the beginning. Don't you wish you knew what went on behind the scenes? Here's your chance.

Sandy M. Fernandez, one of the editors behind "Date Lab," was online Wednesday, Sept. 6, at 1 p.m. ET to take all questions and comments on the phenomenon.

The transcript follows:


Sandy M. Fernandez: Hi there! Thanks for joining the first-ever Date Lab chat. We have loads of good questions, so let's get started.


Arlington, Va.: I find the Date Lab feature deliciously entertaining. Now, honestly, what percent of your objective is matching up two people who seem great for each other and how much of it is just about entertaining me (and allowing me and my happy partner to click our tongues and shake our heads with more than a touch of schadenfreude and declare, "no wonder he/she is having so much trouble finding a mate that he/she has to ask the Post for assistance"? Seriously, this feature is my favorite new one in the magazine, and I'm not too proud to admit it!

Sandy M. Fernandez: Thanks! Here's the sad answer: We are pretty much always trying to make a good match. Now, there may be something that we're trying to explore in the match that the couple maybe wouldn't choose--like we set up one pair largely because they were both still living at home--but the disasters are always accidental. Then again, though, so are the successes.


Bethesda, Md.: I must say, I love this feature, but most couples' focus on physical appearance is depressing. Remember the guy who said his ideal woman was an anorexic with big boobs? And his date, while slender, just wasn't slim enough? But that's OK -- his date thought he was too short? Do you think appearance matters more on blind dates, as the couple have had no chance to build any rapport before the date? I must say their tiny little picky points, like the man ate the last dumpling without first asking her permission, are pretty depressing. Date Lab, (Post, July 9)

Sandy M. Fernandez: It's been a real eye-opener for me to read these things, partly for the reasons you cite. And again, I think you're right about appearance being more important on a blind date, when you know nothing about the person. But the dumpling--that speaks to me about people's search for common values, and trying to determine if this stranger across for them shares theirs.


Springfield, Va.: I've read some of your Date Lab events and it seems like it is a hit and miss when it comes to people's personalities. What do you consider or look at before matching up the potential daters? Last week's Date Lab was just a complete disaster, so hence the inquiry. Date Lab, (Post, Sept. 3)

Sandy M. Fernandez: It's interesting about this week's date. Reading her questionnaire (Daters fill out a rather fulsome questionaire and send in pics before we match them up), we were intrigued by Soko, and wanted to find her exactly the person she wanted to date. We put an ad up on Craigslist with very specific requirements: A programmer, sarcastic, loves Vespas, etc. We picked one of the guys who answered and seemed a match. And she hated him. You never can tell, really.


Washington, D.C.: How much editing do you do behind the scenes? How much of the dates end up on the "cutting room floor"? Have you heard back from Date Lab participants, about whether they feel they were misrepresented in the Magazine, due to editing?

Sandy M. Fernandez: Well, we have a date that sometimes takes hours and we distill it to about 500 words, so obviously not everything makes it in. But it is a pretty full interviewing process--the reporter talks to each Dater at least twice after the date--so we have a pretty good idea of the overall narrative and try to take what seems representative.


Metro Centro: Judgment in your last few pairings has been questionable. I could tell the dates were doomed just by the photos and likes/dislikes.

Sandy M. Fernandez: Here's the thing: Dating, even when you are choosing people for yourself, is a questionable enterprise. How many of us can say we always made awesome choices? We really don't know how a couple will play out til they get together. We try to edit the charts, which are straight from the questionnaires, to show after the fact what the couples had in common and where they differed.


Re: Last Week's Date: Do you think that just goes to show that people very rarely know what they actually want?

Sandy M. Fernandez: Absolutely. Just wait til you read this Sunday's.


Washington, D.C.: For those who have already been matched with someone and sent on a date, would you consider sending them out again? The latest male "contestant" seemed like such a great guy.

Sandy M. Fernandez: To me, a lot of them seem great. (I've been surprised when other women here have felt otherwise; there have been many in-house discussions). Sometimes after a date we get fan letters for one or another person, and we always send those on. But we probably wouldn't set the same people up again.


Washington, D.C.: How do you get picked to be a Date Lab participant? Do you guys have an age limit? It seems like you focus on 20-somethings but there are a lot of singles over 30 in D.C.

Sandy M. Fernandez: We've run mostly late 20's, early 30s mostly because the preponderance of people who apply are in that age range. We are not against setting up older people or gay or lesbian couples, but we need to get enough applicants that we're not just setting them up because they're the same age or sexual orientation. So apply, people!


New York, N.Y.: Date Lab has the good things about Reality TV and yet is nice and short (so as to limit brain-numbing).

Kudos on a well-designed/executed, cute concept. If only the participants lived up to the excellent 'framework.'

It's a shame that some of the match-ups seemed to draw out the worst of the people -- preconceptions, narrow-mindedness, a plain lack of manners -- my guess is if people felt they met a potential match, they'd behave better or at least put on a more presentable facade.

You should be commended for your ambitious experiments for interracial/intercultural set-ups. Though, in an ideal world, race shouldn't even register on people's minds.

Unfortunately, the labs reflect the superficial differences seem to always interfere. This unfortunately perpetuates common notions that different types of people don't mix. To make things worse, some of the participants of ethnic minority backgrounds make their 'kind' look bad by their bad behaviors.

Sandy M. Fernandez: Huh. I guess I hadn't thought of them as standing for their race or ethnicity, but just for themselves. And for daters in general--it's rough out there. On the interracial dating, of course we're doing it. Surveys show that, esp for younger people, it's just a fact of life.


Dupont Circle, D.C.: A quick reality check: I know you folks have an ideal that various groups should intermingle on dates, and you're doing your best to facilitate that. But dating is a unique universe. People know what they like, and you can rarely impose something else on them. Wouldn't you rather have a higher success rate than a picture of how things "should be"?

Sandy M. Fernandez: It's not "how it should be;" it's how it is. We are, always, guided by people's questionnaires.


Chevy Chase, Md.: I assume the photographer is just there at the beginning? That alone would amp a blind date to the high-anxiety level.

Sandy M. Fernandez: I wish this was clearer on the page--there is no photographer and no reporter. The couples take the photos themselves, and the reporter calls that night or the next day. (We have to move fast because people's memories change or they have further interactions that make them misremember. Or sometimes they start fleeing!) We tried sending a photograph in the beginning--it messed with the vibe.


Arlington, Va.: How long after the date does the interview for the column take place and how long after the date does the actual article appear?

Also, how many people have signed up to be a part of this feature? Do you wade through hundreds of would-be daters or are people shy about putting themselves in the paper for this kind of thing?

Sandy M. Fernandez: We have a store of hundreds. But yes, we have called some--once just days after an application came in--and been told they were off the market. I do think, esp after a bad date appears, people get cold feet.


Alexandria, Va.: So besides the couple that got engaged, how many first dates have ended up in second dates? Date Lab, (Post, Aug. 6)

Sandy M. Fernandez: A few--we always mention it on the update. But it's interesting to see that sometimes even if the people are all enthusiastic the day after, they never get together again. Dating is fickle, whether assisted by a major metropolitan newspaper or not.


Reston, Va.: How come you don't allow your dates to see a photo first or allow them the option to have a few choices?

I think appearance plays a big part in the attraction.

Sandy M. Fernandez: For various reasons, some having to do with privacy and safety, we chose to do it this way. All they have before they meet is a name, a (public) place and a time. But anyone who's not comfortable with that doesn't have to do it, obviously.


Washington, D.C.: How do you decide who to match? I notice your questions at the end of the column each week, but I imagine you've a stack (mine's in there somewhere) of applicants from which to choose.

Sandy M. Fernandez: It's so variable. Sometimes we read a questionnaire and just think, "We HAVE to match this person up." Other times you read one that sticks in your head and then when someone else comes in, it's like, Bingo! The sad part is sometimes we find a perfect match and either they're already dating someone else or they won't return my calls. I have this awesome guy I wanted to match with this gorgeous goth girl--but we can't get her to respond, so it'll never happen.


Falls Church, Va.: So, do most of the people who want to be matched up seem to seriously want to find someone or do they seem to be more after getting a free meal and a bit of fame? And, p.s., how's the engaged couple doing? Are any of you invited to their wedding?

Sandy M. Fernandez: When people ask, I tell them to do this in the spirit of fun and adventure, not with the serious expectation of finding a life partner. I mean, no one would be happier than me to see that happen, but odds are long, long, long. As for the engaged couple--I matched them, and it was a total fluke. So no invitation yet, and I really don't deserve one.


Philadelphia, Pa.: I love this section! Any chance you will open it up beyond the metro area? Lots of us used to live in D.C. and still love it and its singles.

Sandy M. Fernandez: Nix. We've had people offer to fly in for a date, but we just can't do it. It's complicated enough setting up someone across the great MD/VA divide.


Springfield, Va.: Bravo to you for such an interesting and timely piece. It's the first thing I read every Sunday. I also give kudos to the participants; dating is hard enough without having to worry about it being published! I would also like to say that being "matched" on paper is a great way to start but not always on target. I know that my husband and I would never match on paper, but we've been together for over 10 years. Hope people have an open mind about dating, especially blind-dating.

Sandy M. Fernandez: Exactly. Do it for the lark, to open up your universe, to have a laugh. Be optimistic and open. But keep expectations low. You'll have a better time.


Alexandria, Va.: Looks like women are more attuned to notice a guy's manners - does he order dessert before she's finished with dinner, did he arrive on time properly dressed, and so on. Word to the wise, guys: shape up here! Would love it if all this means a resurgence of what used to be called "being a gentleman."

Sandy M. Fernandez: Men notice things about women, too. But as a friend pointed out, they may be less likely to spill those details to a writer. Women tend to feel more comfortable expressing their complaints. Men are more likely to be evasive after the date. Sad, but true.


Foggy Bottom, D.C.: Roughly how many applications are you receiving? I'm interested to know how many people are willing to have such a public date. I don't think I could handle it.

Sandy M. Fernandez: We have hundreds, and more coming in every day. It's definitely not for everyone, but it can be totally fun and positive, too.


When you think about it....: It's kind of surprising any of these work out. The pressure of trying to remember your impressions and reporting back and knowing that the other person is doing the same thing makes for a very large hurdle in developing a connection.

Sandy M. Fernandez: I love it when they work out. It gives me faith in people. And I honestly don't think it's all that hard. First rule: Don't go hatin' someone just because they're different than you. That's 90% of the game, IMHO.


Washington, D.C.: I get such ghoulish pleasure out of these articles--it's like watching NASCAR for the crashes! Thanks for giving us a real disaster this week! Suppose one of the reading audience was interested in one of the participants in a date that didn't work out. Would it be possible to cajole contact information out of you?

Sandy M. Fernandez: I'll never hand out contact info, but I will forward emails saying, "I think we'd get along" or whatever. Of course, whether the Dater chooses to respond is up to him/her.


Rockville, Md.: If someone lives in the suburbs, do you take that into account when making a match? I work in DC, so I'd be happy to meet someone in the city on a weeknight, and not be limited to people in Maryland simply because that's where I live.

Sandy M. Fernandez: We take into account where you live, where you work and how good the match is. If there seemed to be an incredible match between someone in Warrenton and someone in Rockville, we'd probably do it because--well, why not?


Pittsburgh, Pa.: So what're the weirdest guy and girl applications that you've received? Or some of the more particular requests, likes/dislikes/attractions that people have cited?

Sandy M. Fernandez: Good question. My favorite guy is a former wrestler. We all love him here and are dying to set him up with the right girl. One of my favorite women is a woman who saves money by camping during the summer, so she can spend the winter in Colorado being a ski bunny. It's such an unusual choice for this area--I love it. And I love people who have unusual likes: One guy said he was attracted to women with slightly bigger noses than usual. It shows individuality.


Fairfax, Va.: Are you concerned that you've got a self-selected group of people in the pool? TV programs like Blind Date and Studs have been doing this for a long time -- granted, the Post is not a tabloid trash zone -- but only exhibitionists would sign up for this thing. I'd be mortified to have someone follow me around on a blind date!

Sandy M. Fernandez: It's a self-selected crew the same way that someone on an Internet site or at a particular bar would be. But hey--everyone we set up has applied, so they've self-selected to the same crew.


Washington, D.C.: Have enjoyed reading this week after week. The couples are typically pretty young -- but the Washington, D.C. metro area is full of older singles (mid-late thirties, forties, and beyond). Are you going to set up couples in those age ranges (and if so, how do I sign up!)?

Sandy M. Fernandez: We are doing older couples--we just have fewer of them, I think because prime dating years are 20's, 30's. But the application is online, feel free to sign on!


Arlington, Va.: I've enjoyed reading the reports of the dates, and comparing the perspectives of each of the participants. What are the biggest mistakes you think participants make that turns their date off? Have there been times when you think "Oh my god, I can't believe he/she just said (or did) that!"? Also, do you expect to feature any over 40/50 couples as well as the young'uns?

Sandy M. Fernandez: I'm a big patsy--most of the time I empathize with them. Especially the guys, but maybe because I hear suck flack from women friends and coworkers. The guy who said his date was really fit, but his type was girlier? I felt like I understood where he was coming from. Not so some of my friends, who were outraged.


Springfield, Va.: This column is a must-read for all of us single folks who still hopes for the best in the dating arena. I just read that you use Craiglist to find a match? CL seems to be very leery when finding a good match, but Soko's date seems to be decent. In reference to finding the "good" date, how do you pick your applicants from the genuine people to the non-serious daters?

Sandy M. Fernandez: Believe me, we didn't take everyone who answered that CL ad. Especially the gentlemen who sent, um, private photos. We had them all then fill out the questionnaire and go through the usual screening process. And I too thought Soko's date was decent. She, obviously, felt otherwise. For space, I had to cut the line in the story where she said that maybe the Washington Post was blind. Ouch.


McLean, Va.: I went on a date for this a couple weeks ago, and can't wait to see how it gets written up! Is there any way that me and the guy I went out with can see it before it's published or do we just have to wait with everyone else?

Sandy M. Fernandez: You have to wait, but your writer should have, in the back and forth, given you a pretty good idea of what the other person said. Nothing should ever come as a total surprise.


Washington, D.C.: Am trying to convince a friend to sign up. Are you able to match people by religion (she's Catholic)? This might help.

Sandy M. Fernandez: A few potential daters have asked me this, and my answer is always that you have to be open to anything. It's just one date, for goodness sake. So no guarantees.


Washington, D.C.: Are there plans to feature any gay or lesbian pairings in future Date Labs?

Sandy M. Fernandez: You betcha. We just need to get in enough applicants that it isn't one of those soap opera dates, where if you see two gay or Latino or African American characters, they're inevitably going to hook up.

_______________________ How are the restaurants chosen? And also, what has been the most surprising revelation that you and your staff have realized while combing through all of these applications?

Sandy M. Fernandez: We choose restaurants by asking the Daters for suggestions and looking for affordable options in the locations we need. Like the rest of it, it can be a little random. To me, the biggest revelations people-wise have been the ones that seem to validate old stereotypes. Like, in my dating life it had never been important that the man pay for the first date. Apparently, I'm the only woman on earth for whom this isn't important. Sigh.


Washington, D.C.: I disagree with those who are saying that people "know what they like" and that the Post should stick with that. What I love about Date Lab is that you're setting up people who may not date against "their type." Your engaged couple is a perfect example! Through numerous blind dates and online dating, I have dated guys I never would have thought were "my type" physically. But once I started accepting dates with a much more open mind, I started meeting a wider range of guys I might not have considered before and soon realized it was a sense of humor and that undefinable "chemistry" that made me fall for someone. So, keep an open mind D.C.!

Sandy M. Fernandez: Exactly. How else are you going to go outside your comfort zone--while being in the comfort of a nice restaurant and under the wary eye of the newspaper? There is a way for people to shop for exactly the age/height/weight/occupation they want to date: It's called online dating. And I don't knock it--it's how I met my husband. But Date Lab is something different.


Washington, D.C.: Date Lab is an interesting name. Did you pick the name because you hope that the rest of us will learn something from these dates?

Sandy M. Fernandez: Exactly.


Arlington, Va.: One thing that seems strange to me-- although, I confess, entertaining (eek!)-- is how MEAN some of these daters' comments have been. I mean, like you keep saying-- it's just one date, it's for fun. Some people are gracious-- they say nice things, but then they just decline another date because they don't feel compatible. It seems strange that some folks are so malicious. Do you find this is true, or is this just my sympathetic overreaction to certain comments?

Sandy M. Fernandez: I agree. And I must say, people got meaner after the pieces started appearing in the paper. Strange. Behind the scenes is another whole issue: We've had people be very nice to each other on the date and to the reporter, only to freak out when the piece appears. It's odd.


Washington, D.C.: Hey, why not match people by religion? It's as valid as any of the other criteria you use. It was important to Soko to find a computer nerd, and you found her one. So if someone wants a catholic or Muslim or Jewish date, what's wrong with that?

Sandy M. Fernandez: Nothing wrong with it, and we have one date in the pipeline that does just that. But do we guarantee you'll get the religion you request? As with everything else, no.


Rockville, Md.: Are you really trying to setup compatible people together or just trying to see if seemingly compatible people can overcome a something that they find unattractive in their date?

Sandy M. Fernandez: We put people together that we think will offer the other person something. If they don't have anything in common--well, that would be a pretty boring date.


Sandy M. Fernandez: This has been great fun, but time is up. Feel free to send questionaire's to us anytime, and I hope you keep reading!


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