Last summer, Date Lab welcomed four new writers: Michelle Cottle, a political writer for the Atlantic; Neil Drumming, a filmmaker and radio producer; Rich Juzwiak, a writer for Jezebel; and Vijai Nathan, a local stand-up comedian and storyteller. On Feb. 16, 2018, three of them (Drumming could not make it) sat down with Solo-ish columnist Lisa Bonos at our office to talk about what they have learned about dating in D.C. during their first eight months on the job. (This transcript has been edited.)
Bonos: Why do you think second dates are so rare in Date Lab?
Juzwiak: I don’t know. To me, to not have sex with somebody on the first date is kind of inconceivable. This is another world that I’m looking into. For me, if by the second date we haven’t had some sort of intimacy, I’m like, “What is going on here?” So, I don’t quite understand. My boyfriend first asked me out two weeks after my previous relationship ended. We went to a movie and we had dinner. Then we went back to his place. It’s been wonderful ever since.
I think part of it is that people know that they’re under the microscope. You don’t necessarily get the full them. I always get the feeling that people are holding back. People have talked about the fact that they’re holding back. “Oh, we talked about not talking s--- about each other.”
Nathan: Why are they signing up if they’re not going to talk to us? It drives me crazy if they don’t want to tell us anything. I say to them, “Talk to me like I’m your friend. I’m not going to make you look like a d---.” But then in my head I’m thinking: “unless you are a d---.” So I feel like I get some pretty honest answers out of them, but sometimes I have to kind of battle for them because people are always like, “It was fine.”
Juzwiak: I’ve started telling my daters you can control the narrative here. The most honest person is going to be the most interesting storyteller who is going to get the most ink, so you have the power here. But I still find myself combing through the date. Why did that happen? Why did you say that? What did you feel when he said that? Just trying to uncover every single nuance to get the actual meat there because if left to their own devices, people will say, “He’s not my type,” and that’s it.
But that’s a very tangential way of answering the question that you asked. I don’t really know why there aren’t many second dates. I guess it’s because this is such a unique situation. And people are used to having some concept of each other before they go out. A true blind date basically doesn’t exist anymore except in Date Lab.
Cottle: You get that a lot from the daters. They are accustomed to having multiple photos and extensive profiles. And the idea that we hand them a first name and send them on their way flips some of them out.
Bonos: Is it terrifying for them?
Cottle: I don’t think you get people applying to Date Lab for whom it’s super terrifying. These days, everybody is so accustomed to having their business out there that a lot of these people are applying specifically because they want a story. They want to be able to say, “You know, I did Date Lab and here’s what happened in the paper.”
Nathan: People want to have that experience. I don’t even think they’re thinking, “I’m hoping to go on a second date.” It’s like, “It’s a D.C. thing to do.”
Bonos: It’s like having a one-night stand, a thing on your dating bucket list.
Juzwiak: Never underestimate the power of the promise of a free meal. I would do it. A free meal in a nice place is incentive enough for a lot of people.
Bonos: Couples that have gotten to second dates or farther, why do you think they went out again?
Cottle: Well, one straight couple I’m thinking of started making plans for their second date on their first. They were both really extroverted. They must have hit four different establishments and were out drinking until 2 a.m. I have no idea how the evening ended because the guy made it pretty clear he was not going to tell me. He’s like, My mother reads this column.
Bonos: Your mother wants you to have sex, too.
Cottle: They just let it all hang out there and they had a great time. It is the people who tend to be too nervous that don’t go out again. This last couple I interviewed, he was like, Well, I couldn’t possibly tell her what I was really like on the first date. I’m like, Then how is she supposed to get to know you? How are women supposed to get to know you? He said, I’ll just gradually break it to them on later dates. I said, You’re never going to get a second date with that attitude.
And his date desperately wanted him to cut loose. But he just wouldn’t do it. You’re not going to get to date number two if you’re not going to show a little leg, so to speak.
Juzwiak: Yeah, literally and figuratively. I think physical attraction is huge.
Cottle: That’s basically what it comes down to. And there are these awkward dates where one person shows up and they’re just so much hotter than the other person and everybody knows it from the get-go. And there is this awkward thing where men often don’t realize it. The women almost always realize it. And there’s nothing you can do. If there’s no chemistry, it’s just hard.
Nathan: For me, it’s been more of a disconnect between their personalities, or one was an extrovert and the other too introverted, or sometimes it’s age.
Juzwiak: I had a couple where she didn’t think he was tall enough. He was 5-10. She was 5-5. We had an interesting conversation, too. She was like, You know I’m a feminist, and yet I hold on to all of these traditional beliefs of what I want in a man physically and they conflict with my actual politics.
Cottle: The heart wants what it wants.
Juzwiak: Exactly. But there are a few crucial things that I find are automatic dealbreakers. Like the woman’s position on chivalry. Depending on how the guy acts in the moment when given the opportunity, it’s a make-or-break. It could be that the woman is traditional or that she is not traditional. But if the guy doesn’t align in that moment, it’s over.
Bonos: But nobody knows what the person wants.
Juzwiak: Nobody knows until it happens.
Bonos: Did you have the date where they went over the Date Lab dinner stipend and then they split what was left?
Juzwiak: Yeah, she didn’t like that at all.
Bonos: I was on a first date recently, and we were talking about that Date Lab date and would you split the check or not. It’s not like the man asked the woman out and then doesn’t want to pay. You’re coming into it as two equal people.
Nathan: But if you want to go out with the person again, it would be nice to pay. With one couple, the guy picked up the extra 15 bucks or whatever they went over and she appreciated that. So, I think it is nice if you want to go out with the person again. But if you don’t, split the check!
Bonos: A recent date that got a lot of attention involved a woman who is really talkative and the man didn’t have much to say. He even said she didn’t give him any guidance for the conversation. Do you guys have any guidance for first-date conversation?
Cottle: Finding the balance between talking too much or revealing too much is tricky. But you at least need to take a shot at it. Some people that I’ve come across, if they know they don’t want the date to go anywhere, they won’t share anything about themselves. They spend the whole evening grilling the other person. So that’s a bad sign. At the same time, if you spend the whole evening talking about yourself and don’t ask the other person anything, they’re going to think you’re a d---. You need to make sure that you at least express an interest in them and you’re not just there to tell them how awesome you are, because this is Washington. And there’s a whole lot of “I want to go out and tell you how awesome I am” stories.
Nathan: I haven’t had any horrible dates to write up. They may not have resulted in second dates, but I tell them beforehand to just have a really good time. Don’t put any expectations on this. So, I really haven’t had two people who hated each other.
Juzwiak: You’ve written about your pre-date conversations with them before. How much communication do you have with them? I don’t talk to them until after the date.
Nathan: I call them, so I talk to them. I come from a storytelling background and I teach storytelling, so I’m always like, “So tell me about your family.” I try to get all that stuff to help inform me when I hear them talk about the date later. But one thing that I like to do is that if they say something in the pre-interview, I can call them on it in the second interview so they can’t throw the other person under the bus.
Cottle: I talk for like 10 minutes beforehand, or I’ll swap emails back and forth, just to kind of gauge expectations and find out what they most fear.
Bonos: What do people most fear?
Cottle: Weirdly, I’ve had multiple people fear they are going to be on a date with someone they’ve already been out on a date with because the town is so small.
Bonos: That’s happened to me.
Cottle: It’s happened to some of the people that I’ve talked to. Then mostly they just fear awkwardly staring at each other over the course of several hours. And I haven’t seen that problem. Almost everybody can carry a conversation or at least one of the people can carry a conversation.
Nathan [to Juzwiak]: I’m curious about your approach. Is there something that you use as your starting point for the interview?
Juzwiak: I always start with “Where are you with dating? Why do Date Lab? What’s your dating history?” And then I have them narrate the date for me and I jump in. And I’ll keep jumping in when I feel there needs to be more color.
And then the question is always, How much do you tell the second person what the first person said, for basic fact-checking reasons? I try to keep it separate as much as possible. If there is some sort of accusation the other person should be aware of, I might ask, “Did you realize you were doing this thing?” It happened with a case of splitting the check where the guy didn’t mention it at all. But it was very forward in her mind. So, I had to interrogate him about that.
Cottle: It’s surprising sometimes the different perspectives. I had one couple where he absolutely didn’t want kids. She didn’t want kids either. But she didn’t telegraph that strongly enough. And so, within the first 15 minutes of the date, he somehow became convinced that she wanted kids, and that was it. He was shut down for the rest of the date. They were on different dates.
Juzwiak: Well, self-awareness is a rare commodity.
Bonos: Yeah, I feel like I go on lots of dates where the person is not self-aware at all. I don’t know how you teach that.
Nathan: You can’t. They have to want to become self-aware, right? They have to want to acknowledge that they’re full of s--- or whatever.
Bonos: I’ve been writing about dating in D.C. for years, and women always complain there are not enough men. Do you think that concern is fair? And what other reasons do the people you interview give for thinking dating in D.C. is difficult?
Cottle: Everybody’s so work focused. The “What do you do for a living?” question makes people insane.
Nathan: Sometimes, the daters tell me with dating in D.C. in general, there’s a feeling of one-upmanship or that the date feels too much like networking. In fact, some of them found it refreshing that they didn’t know anything about the person they were meeting for Date Lab because that way, none of those other things entered into the date. And then some people have felt that people are not always authentic.
Cottle: It’s also super tribal here. I’ve heard conservatives complain that they can’t date outside of the small conservative circles that they exist in. Or you spend so much time at work that you don’t get out of your profession. If you’re in the media, you date somebody from the media.
Bonos: Is there one moment that stands out from your first date with your now-partner as the reason that you went out with them again?
Cottle: Even before we were romantically involved, I remember walking around San Francisco one night and some homeless guy was asking him for change. He whipped out his wallet and gave the guy money. That was just one of those weird early things that sticks with you.
Bonos [to Nathan]: What about you? You met your boyfriend here.
Nathan: I was on OkCupid and he just asked me out. Like it was very clear that it was not a hang; it wasn’t “Let’s meet for coffee.” It wasn’t like this feeling of “I’m going to give you 45 minutes of my time before I decide if you’re worth a dinner.” And I was like: This is a man.
But for a long time before that, I felt I had such a hard time because I’m not white. I felt like that with any dating app.
Juzwiak: I’ve found that people don’t talk about race on dates, even if it’s an interracial pairing. I’ll ask because it’s interesting to me and it’s always like, “We didn’t talk about that.”
Nathan: Sometimes I think it’s because I’m too old when I’m asking the younger daters whether talking about race is a problem for them. They’re like, “I don’t see color.” Well, I’m like, “I always saw color.” And I’ve had to live with that. But I do think they don’t have necessarily the same way of looking at things as I do because they don’t have to deal with certain kinds of racism anymore.
Bonos: What do people bond over?
Cottle: How weird it is to be on Date Lab. That’s the first topic of conversation. Why did you do this? And how weird is this? And the awkward picture taking. I explain that [Date Lab photographer] Dani Seiss is going to make them look good all the time.
Juzwiak: I mean, it’s weird. The most recent couple I interviewed — he’s a biologist and she’s studying biology. They could talk shop hardcore in a way that when they recounted it to me I was like, I just don’t know what you’re talking about. As I talked to them it became more evident that it was a perfect match. But then he made her sound like she was eccentric, and when I talked to her, she was so kind and down-to-earth. In those cases, I just try to be as fair as possible, and let the person weigh in to explain why she came off as she did.
Nathan: I try to be neutral toward my daters. There are times when I was like, “This guy seems like too much of a bro.” And I’ll have opinions and I’ll say to myself, “Okay, I can’t do that.” And I’m discovering that a lot of things that I may have assumed don’t always turn out to be true.
Juzwiak: I think a compassionate approach beyond maybe what you would have in a hard-news reported story is fine. We're not uncovering the deep secrets that are changing the world. It's okay to treat your subjects with kindness.