There are blind dates, and then there are paper bag dates.
To test the theory that it's possible to form a love connection with someone without seeing his or her face, a U.K.-based dating app held an unusual speed-dating event last week in which prospective daters wore paper bags over their heads.
With an open heart (you never know where you're going to find love!) I traveled to the New York Hall of Science in Corona, Queens to be a guinea pig for this experiment, joining roughly 60 singles (30 women, 30 men) to experience the phenomenon of "Paper Bag Dating."
Upon arrival, I was handed a medium-sized brown paper bag, complete with cutouts for my mouth and eyes, and directed to a decoration room to make my bag look ready for love. (In the absence of our faces, we had to rely on our bags to convey some aspects of our personalities.)
LoveFlutter, the app behind the date night, declares its motto and guiding philosophy as "Say No To Shallow" and aims to create less "superficial" connections by not allowing users to see each other's photos until they've mutually agreed they like each other's profiles.
For the real-life version of this approach, we each wrote "fun facts" on our bags and decorated them with drawings, ranging from cartoon heroes like Spider-Man and Garfield to abstract cityscapes and pipe cleaner mustaches.
Tables were set up to accommodate two couples each, and the women were instructed to stay put while the men rotated round-robin every two minutes. We were each given a score sheet to remember which people we liked, and which we didn’t. I created a Morse-like code so the guys wouldn’t be able to sneak a peek at how I was rating the dates.
Despite the strangeness of the situation, conversations were generally pleasant, touching on hometowns, jobs, and our fun facts. Most of the men seemed to be there out of genuine curiosity and interest in meeting new people. A couple of guys also brought along a pair of Shih Tzus — which didn't make for very substantive dates, but at least kept things interesting.
But it was pretty disorienting to have a conversation with a talking paper bag, and I found myself staring at my dates' mouths, trying to get some indication of what they looked like.
After 10 or so dates, the guys began to blend together, and it became apparent that I wasn’t going to find a soul mate here. Despite the fact that I had come in with an open mind, the combination of alcohol, trouble breathing inside a paper bag, and not having much in common with any of the male participants soon became disheartening — even without seeing their faces.
I did my best to charm the bags off them, but it became clear that facial cues are important when getting to know someone. It's hard to know if the person across from you appreciates what you're saying if you can't see any response.
Once everyone had met, it was time for the “big reveal,” where everyone simultaneously removed their bags to show their faces. The moment was surprisingly low-impact, and once it was done, we all stared at each other uncomfortably. Then, it was time to mingle. Since no one's personality had sparked my interest during the speed round, and seeing their faces didn't change that, I politely made chit-chat for a few minutes and then bowed out.
While I didn't find my mate, I wanted to know if the paper bag approach was just an attention-grabbing gimmick or if it could actually lead to love. At least one expert thinks the company could be on to something.
“I think it’s kind of a fun way for people to see what they can pick up from other cues, and see how attractive they’d find people if they didn’t have facial cues,” Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociologist not affiliated with LoveFlutter, told me.
“It’s bit of a gag, but it’s also real, in terms of trying to see past knee-jerk reactions, and see if one might make better choices if the usual cues were absent.”