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Illustration by nuglybird for Rice.

An old friend of mine, let’s call her Elise, invited me to a singles party.  She was organising the event with seven other ladies in similar situations– happily married to successful men, and having born them beautiful babies, made organising charity or social events a regular part of life. Still, for name card-giving sake, these ladies maintained cushy versions of what was previously intense professions. “I’m now a locum”, “I’m going in-house”, “now on buy-side”, “helping out at my dad’s office”, are all common responses for this post-baby set. A balanced life is a good life, and a job is the perfect excuse to get out of the house, interact with the world, and do some online shopping away from screaming children. All this, while collecting a salary budgeted for fine dining purposes only. Perfect.

The crowd was supposed to be a “curated” lot: only the most eligible of these eight organisers’ friends were invited, apparently. Everyone is curating some thing or another these days, humans being the latest subject of personal taste. It was two days before the event that I received the call. It was a last minute decision by Elise to balance the guy-girl ratio, and that was my way of making the cut.  She knew I had no pride when it comes to attending events ripe for gossip, and that I wouldn’t have anything better to do anyway. I gladly accepted.

By having the event on a weekday night, everyone had an attire excuse (“just came from work”), and didn’t have to suffer the embarrassment of spending a weekend night at a singles event. Smart move by the organisers. And yet, while dressing for work that morning, I chose my brown leather shoes over my usual black deck shoes, and selected a tapered shirt over my standard billowy casual shirts. I wanted to look like I could very well have been one of the husbands the event organisers had married, with a professional job downtown and not one in an industrial part of Singapore, a severely side-parted hairdo, and a firm handshake enough to convince the world of their “rising star” status in the office. On first sight, girls want to know what they were dealing with, and I didn’t want to send the wrong signals.

I arrived exactly fifteen minutes late, the sweet spot between appearing too eager and being plain rude.

A restaurant (now closed) near Robertson Quay was booked out for the event. It was one of the many new restaurants in Singapore that consider themselves casual and chic, which is another way of saying we’d charge a lot for trainee-level service, cheap furniture, and simple food. Not accessible by public transport, check. General western food with Caesar salad, roast chicken, a cheap cut of steak, and some variation of chocolate cake on the menu, check. Exposed ceilings, subway tiles, bare metal finish, mismatched chairs, check. It was the type of restaurant everyone knows about but never makes a reservation at precisely because it’s too obvious a choice.

Staying trendy in Singapore requires a restaurant to be situated in what must always be described as “tucked away”, best if in heritage buildings. This restaurant, though, faces a main road on the ground floor of a prestigious residential development in an area designated by the government as a “lifestyle hub”. It is too visible and no matter how good the food is, eating there risks the company of teenagers on first dates, middle-aged tourists from nearby hotels, and young families. But a good choice for a singles party as it is easy to find, and the mood is sufficient to put everyone at ease.

I arrived exactly fifteen minutes late, the sweet spot between appearing too eager and being plain rude. After registration, I made a beeline to a huge bowl of Sangria at the bar which was the evening’s calming potion of choice. There were about forty people in the room, standing in between tables chit chatting, creating quite a din typical of industrial-themed restaurants with hard surfaces that amplify every single mutter.

Everyone looked like they had just come from work with the ladies carrying their expensive handbags with too many tassels, trinkets, and straps. The guys were in their downtown office uniform of light-colored shirts and dark pants– tight everywhere and with collars that can really stand. There were fat people, skinny people, Chinese people, and Caucasian guys. Everyone was roughly in their mid 20s to early 30s.

They were having a good time, as the Romans do when watching gladiators fight in the Colosseum.

All the organisers were dressed in black, just so no single guy attendee dare make a mistake. The organisers’ husbands huddled around a high counter in the corner clinking glasses and laughing quite loudly, with one or two of their wives draped over them smiling coyly. They were having a good time, as the Romans do when watching gladiators fight in the Colosseum, seeking comfort in the knowledge that they were safe and beyond the game. Good idea to have the husbands around as it gave all the singletons something to aspire to. I had better work hard tonight, I thought to myself.

My eyes darted around and spotted one or two friends. We got over the awkwardness of meeting each other at a singles event (“you still single ah?”), spoke about who invited us, and then there was nothing really left to talk about. Because all our senses were primed to MEET NEW PEOPLE NOW.

The format of the proceedings was loosely modeled after the booking clubs in Korea. Every ten minutes or so, the organisers would swop people around the tables of three or four. The organisers also take requests: say you spot a guy or girl who you think you may like from across the room, you can discreetly tell one of the organisers, and they will move you over. There was also a charity angle to the evening too, of course, as everyone was encouraged to buy bottles of wine for the tables, a portion of which was donated to some cause I cannot remember.

I first sat down with two girls that had just completed medical school, and a guy that was in charge of digital media for a major newspaper. The guy was clean cut, good looking, and well dressed. While his gingham shirt fit him perfectly, it unfortunately almost exactly matched the same blue shade and check size of the all the shirts the wait staff wore. (Restaurants should never let their staff wear uniforms that do not decidedly look like uniforms.) The two girls were friends and appear in my mind as one unit. There was nothing particularly outstanding about them, which is not a bad thing, considering I pick up on laughable things mostly.

As has become natural for young people living in big cities, we started off with asking each other what we did for a living. The checked-shirt guy asked the girls to guess, and they went on to guess DJ, then designer. Alarm bells went off in my head.  Nothing wrong the jobs they suggested, in fact they were pretty flattering. I just wondered why the two girls didn’t feel it necessary to check themselves before immediately calling out possible jobs based on perceived physical stereotypes. If I had met a heavy set girl, dessert chef would definitely not have been my first guess.

When you rush through so many girls in one evening, each girl loses context.

The safe bet is to always guess finance, no matter who sat in front of you. Firstly because this is Singapore, and all the organisers drive nice cars, so chances were on your side. Also, there are just so many types of finance-related jobs, so it’s a safe choice to not be caught profiling someone. But most importantly, anyone would always be mildly flattered with the guess, even if they sound instinctively insulted, of which always follow up with guessing advertising.

Many girls I subsequently met that night were slightly older than me, which was established very quickly, if not visually, then from the first minute of conversation. The interest level cliffs off immediately, and from there on conversation was pure effort on both sides. A little bit of game theory is necessary to explain this phenomenon – age does not matter to me, and I am sure not all of the girls mind a younger guy, but both sides think either side would mind, so everyone just closes the option. I was stuck alone at a table in one such situation and after the third five-second silence, I just had to end the suffering by excusing myself to the bathroom, leaving the girl there to toy with her phone.

After the fifth group of people, everything and everyone became a blur. Girls start to lose their personality as I went through the motion of asking the same set of questions and receiving roughly the same set of replies. Culturally, everyone there was pretty homogenous, a downside of the organisers being friends and their very act of people “curation”. Everyone was equally polite and guarded, and so it was hard to feel the personality of a person in a short ten minutes. In the end, it boils down to chemistry, doesn’t it? Which, to me, is a nice way of saying how physically attracted people are to each other.

This brings me to my problem with single parties. When you rush through so many girls in one evening, each girl loses context. There is no intrigue. I like the process of hearing about a girl from a friend before an introduction is arranged. I  know just enough about her to pique my interest, nothing more. There is a mental hype, a movie trailer of a girl in my mind, that exists before we finally have the chance of a proper conversation. Imagine meeting a girl this way versus speaking to her for ten minutes between girl number 4 and girl number 6 at some singles event.

Also, consider the serendipitous meeting, which gives any human interaction a considerable boost. If I had met the same girl from the singles party in a different setting, say while sitting next to each other in an airplane, or in line at a rock concert, I believe things may end very differently. A lot of being attracted to a girl, the desire to want to see her again, is dependent on context, or the story behind the girl.

If what all the guys wanted was to get to know the hottest girl in the room, they may have been better off staying home and using Tinder.

That being said, context is irrelevant if the girl is attractive. There was one such girl at the single’s event, let’s call her Jane, a younger sister of one of the organisers. At one point in the evening, I was at a table with a guy and girl who were so deep in conversation that I started checking my phone just so I wouldn’t look like I was eavesdropping. One of the organisers noticed, took pity on me, and decided to seat Jane in front of me. She must have been so sick of making conversation that she came right out and said: “I really don’t like talking about myself. I am really hungry, do you mind if I ate?” I joined her and ate a cold burger slider while I tried to talk about myself between bites. After five minutes, she was whisked away to another table. That was the most exciting five minutes of my evening.

As the night wore on, there was less and less shuffling of people. I was surprised to see quite a few couples deep in conversation and the organisers had the sense to not disturb them. The event seemed to be working for some people. By then, I had run out of hope of meeting anyone special, and just spent my time drinking and speaking with the friends I knew, including Elise. It was a few hours in, and people started leaving.

A few days later, I called Elise to do a little event post-mortem. We discussed the format of the party and I explained that it was hard to get a feel of each person’s personality through the rush. Elise spoke about Jane and mentioned how she was the most popular girl that night, with many guys requesting to be seated with her.

If what all the guys wanted was to get to know the hottest girl in the room, they may have been better off staying home and using Tinder. All the effort put into organising the event, as a proper forum for like-minded single people to have a chance to meet and chat, was exactly set up to let non-physical traits of people shine through. I wondered how much of that was achieved.

My only takeaway from the party was that I successfully added Jane on Facebook. And now, years later, I will tell you that nothing else happened thereafter.

phil@readrice.co

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