Empty Bar in Seattle

She took off the last of her clothes and pulled me closer, kissing me and tightening her embrace. I thought I knew what would be next. I reached for a condom and began to tear it open. Suddenly, she said she needed to go and fetched an Uber; she was gone within minutes. She’d been delightful and I’d enjoyed her company the whole evening but seriously, what had I been doing in bed with a 24-year-old from Tinder? Apparently, in that moment, my date was asking herself the same question. The next day she texted, “you seem really great but I think our difference in age is too much for me.” Of course it was.

The honest answer to my question is that I was eager to have any kind of companionship – intimacy and sex of any kind have become increasingly scarce over the past several years. In fact, I’ve found sustaining friendships and fostering community more difficult as well. I’m long past college and have worked independently for over a decade, most of my friends have paired off and had children. Sometimes I wonder if the opportunity to begin deeper social relationships has passed me by.

I’m sharing all of this because I know that a number of you relate.

Seattle’s Changing Face

In May 2014, I blogged about Amazon’s impact on the Seattle dating scene, put simply: “not enough ladies too many mans”. The post quickly went viral and spawned a number of follow-ups – the most popular of which, “Amazon is Killing My Sex Life” by Tricia Romano, made it into the late New York Times’ columnist David Carr’s curriculum for his communications class.

Sad Google Search on Seattle Dating

Sad Google search that appeared in my web analytics

When SeattleMet included me in last July’s “Perfect Dinner Party” with Jay-Z and Beyoncé, I felt a private, poignant irony in how at odds it seemed with my actual social life.

Then, in November 2014, I wrote “‘Amageddon’: Seattle’s Increasingly Obvious Future”, which hit a nerve and received well over a hundred thousand page views. In the wake of these posts, I’ve heard from a lot of people about their love-hate relationship with Seattle and its changing face.

I also hear it frequently on my dates – of which there have been many. Too many.

If there’s one thing I can do as a writer, it’s initiate conversations about what’s happening where we live and in our society. As ill-advised as it may seem, I want to share my experience with dating, friendship and the Seattle Freeze after forty.

Friendship and the Seattle Freeze

Seattle historian and columnist Knute Berger says that “despite our smiles, we can be a passive-aggressive, cold-shouldered kind of place.” He calls it “Seattle Nice”:

If you’re the kind of person who invites neighbors you’ve never met to a get-to-know you barbecue, well, it might help you to know we have a name for people who do things like that: They’re called ‘stalkers.’

I’ve had the same neighbors for 15 years and while we’ve house-sat for each other’s cats and come over to wish them farewell on the eve of their euthanasia, we’ve never actually had dinner together.

Seattle is infamous for its freeze. For a long time, I was a skeptic but the growth of the city and its male-dominated tech scene has brought a unique new chill.

My housemates and I have hosted a number of fun dinner parties but in Seattle one serves as a perpetual host because the invitations are nearly never reciprocated. After a while those unrequited relationships get really old. I’ve gradually begun a purposeful fade from acquaintances who rarely make the effort that I do to reach out.

I’ve also signed off Facebook. The company exists primarily to market deeply personal information about us to for profit corporations. Science tells us that it can make us feel badly and “the heaviest users are either neurotics or narcissists.” Plus I thought (perhaps naively) that anyone who wanted to keep in touch would do so in person. Honestly, most haven’t.

As comfortable as I remain with my decision, my departure from Facebook has impacted my social life, as Portlandia so eloquently captures: once Carrie disconnects, Fred forgets he ever knew her:

As I’ve matured, I’m seeking more quality relationships from both friends and loved ones – relationships that are regularly nurtured with equal effort. I’ve learned that the path of finding this can be a long and solitary one.

Most of my married and/or parenting friends used to invite me to their daytime parties with other families, but slowly we all realized it’s not much fun to be the single person at those events, and my attendance and the invitations slowed.

I went to college far from where I grew up and settled in a town across the country from there. I’ve worked independently for 15 years, either running small teams or working alone. I’ve considered leaving consulting to return to traditional work partly for the social benefits but I’m pretty sure I’d be miserable if I deepen my roots any further in Seattle. I’m concerned about where the city’s headed and its values. (If “Amageddon” concerned you – note that Amazon’s acquiring enough office space to double and possibly triple its headcount by 2019.)

Isolation in the evenings is more pronounced than it used to be since few of us talk on the phone anymore. I had dinner with a woman who’d recently begun dating again after a divorce. “It seems like people do a lot of texting,” she said. I know millennials experience this differently but texts still feel transactional to me, best used when you’re running late (if you’re one of those people who still meets friends in person).

Perhaps it’s that talking on cellphones still sucks. Who wants to punctuate their conversations with, “No, I didn’t move! Can you hear me now?” Or perhaps it’s that the average American watches five hours of television a day. No wonder we’ve stopped calling each other, it interferes with “House of Cards”.

Dating in Seattle

Something broke for me when my Tinder date rode off in her Uber. Certainly, the social scientist in me found it interesting to see someone’s brain flip so quickly from sexual expression to the intellectual assessment of risks and consequences, cultural expectations, and potential emotional baggage. Ultimately, I had to accept that dating in Seattle was no longer working for me and it’s been this way for a long time now.

Frankly, dating in my 40s here has sucked.

In “You’ve Got Male”, I estimated that Amazon’s Seattle headcount has grown by nearly 20 thousand since 2010. The company refuses to release its technology diversity numbers. They’ve brought so many men to Seattle a friend said she’s heard their tech workforce is 95% male. After my dating article, I began to take more notice around town – even geekily counting at times. Once at my favorite coffee house, there were 18 men and one woman. These are numbers that don’t naturally occur in nature.

Seattle Gentrification Capitol Hill

Credit: Cultures clash as gentrification engulfs Capitol Hill: Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times

Make no mistake, the culture of Seattle is changing. In addition to Amazon, Microsoft and Boeing, Google, Apple, Facebook, SpaceX, and many other firms are moving in or expanding investments. The San Francisco-ization of Seattle is well underway.

Critics said “You’ve Got Male” sounded “entitled”, but it’s a natural human desire to find a partner and demographics matter. When every community activity you attend is overpopulated by guys, it makes finding a potential match significantly harder.

Undesired Attention

Another downside to the abundance of men in Seattle is that women are bombarded with unwanted come-ons and requests for sex. A woman I met who just arrived in town said she’s already had a dinner out interrupted by a drunk guy hitting on her and on another night, received drunk texts from a coworker. Another woman said that she frequently receives texts with unsolicited dick pics as soon as she gives out her number.

Browse any dating site and you’ll see large numbers of women with disclaimers: “NOT looking for casual hookups,” “NOT here for random sex!” or one of a plethora of variations in this theme. It’s a way women are trying to deflect this type of undesired attention.

But one of the challenges I’ve found with dating in my 40s is that most people are so focused on finding long-term relationships, that physical intimacy in between those rarified relationships is scarce.

We’re immersed in a dysfunctional culture that celebrates male promiscuity and largely shames female promiscuity. This and the current demographic trends may have other consequences as well.

Berger reports, “Seattle’s sex industry is undergoing an explosive period of growth with brothels replaced by social media and online sex sites…Human trafficking is again a major concern; feeding libidos is a lucrative business.” Diplomatically, he says, “There’s no evidence that this is due to Amazon men.” Maybe they’re only buying cars.

If women want sex, I presume it’s easy for them to find – there are guys lining up for that (with dick pics!) In “What I Learned About ‘Myself’ From Internet Trolls”, Romano found it curious that no one had suggested, “the girls are obviously not sleeping with [Reifman] because they can sleep with hot 20-year-old guys with ripped abs.”

She may be right; I’ve slept alone most of the last two years.

When I occasionally check in with “Savage Love”, I frequently wonder what universe people write from. In my experience, sexual fluidity and the opportunity for experimentation is scarce. However, I empathized with the husband who opened his marriage only to find that his wife was in high demand and he was not:

She has hundreds of men lined up to take her out on dates and is gone most nights of the week. I am happy for her and love that she’s having a good time, but I am bored and lonely at home and have no idea how to meet like-minded, young, attractive women.

Good luck with that. But let’s be honest, my dating difficulties run deeper than gender imbalance.

Shopping For People

I’ve had literally over a hundred dates in the past two years but connection has been elusive.

Maybe it’s me, but maybe it’s because the ubiquity of online and mobile dating is changing the way we meet and build relationships with people and not for the better. It’s turning us into shoppers of people.

Sharif Corinaldi, a geeky OKCupid hacker, recently wrote in The Guardian, “online dating sites are built on this perverse, inverted pyramid of desirability.” He says, “Women rated as highly attractive get 28 times more messages than women rated on the lower end of the hotness curve.”

Young women and women that reflect cultural perceptions of attractiveness are more empowered dating than ever. In their hands, they hold apps with queues of men waiting to take them out or take them home. A young sex positive female data analyst I met via OKCupid told me proudly that when she swipes right on Tinder in Seattle, 98% of the men match her back.

hacker made tinder bot

Artist Tully Arnot’s Tinder Robot

Most of the women I’ve met on OKCupid say they typically receive from 15 to 50 messages weekly – and many of them are also receiving messages on Tinder. That’s the noise a Seattle guy has to break through. Corinaldi estimated he might need to send four hundred messages to get a date.

Women frequently complain about the short messages men send them online; the reason may be that we’re exhausted. I’m a writer and even I can only send so many intriguing emails before the lack of response saps me of my last ounce of cleverness.

Yes, online dating in Seattle feels like work and as such has turned some users into professionals. Many first dates feel like interviews. Checklists are inventoried and it often feels like people are swiping me left in their mind. I try but it’s hard to inject any playfulness into these outings. A nurse I met who gets three days off weekly said she once scheduled four dates in a day (it didn’t sound to me like a one time thing.)

The amount of time people spend on Tinder is ridiculous:

Mobile Dating Apps Market Share By Session - Tinder

And its growth the past few years parallels the changes I’ve seen in the culture of dating:

tinder-mau

Tinder may be the one-click ordering of the dating world for some but for me the opposite is true. If I want to feel badly about myself, Tinder is the go-to app.

Stories abound of geeks like Corinaldi hacking dating sites, a sure indication the technology’s not working well for everyone.

Dating technology creates a perception of abundance but many men and women feel left out.

Says Corinaldi, “The problem is that the likelihood of a successful pairing decreases quadratically with the pickiness of the participants.”

Second and third dates are no longer part of the dating culture; why bother when there are always more people? This may be the first time in our lives when you meet a date that they’re comparing you to scores of recent suitors and return home to messages from half a dozen more.

Even if you set aside time for a date, same day cancellations are epidemic – it happens about a third of the time:

Seattle Dating Last minute cancellation

It used to be commonplace for me to build friendships from first and second dates that weren’t a romantic fit. These days, women I meet are often so busy socially and professionally that it’s hard to make new friends. More recently, most of my exes moved so quickly into new relationships that we drifted apart or our friendship ended as their new relationships deepened. An acquaintance that wanted to set me up said the friend she’d planned to connect me with just got engaged with a guy she recently met online.

Most of the women I’ve met in Seattle are fluidly cycling in and out of relationships, whereas I’ve been single for most of the last four years.

Fuck Yes or No

I agree with Mark Manson’s eloquent “Fuck Yes or No”:

The Law of ‘Fuck Yes or No’ states that when you want to get involved with someone new, in whatever capacity, they must inspire you to say ‘Fuck Yes’ in order for you to proceed with them [and] that when you want to get involved with someone new, in whatever capacity, THEY must respond with a ‘Fuck Yes’ in order for you to proceed with them.

But one thing I’ve noticed from my dates is that few people seem satisfied – in fact, most seem less satisfied than ever.

Recently I had a promising first date that went well enough to last three and a half hours. A few days later she emailed me, “I must say, I had a really great time with you over the course of dinner and the evening. I found you to be very relatable and I believe we share many similarities in terms of our worldview and approach to life. You certainly did and would challenge me to aspire to be my best self.” But that wasn’t enough, she continued, “At this point, I’m not sure if I feel like there is much potential for us to be great romantic partners.”

In my experience, the combination of Seattle’s gender imbalance coupled with mobile dating technologies mean that I much less frequently meet women in public who are single. In the past, I began a number of serious relationships with women I initially met offline. We’d flirt and I’d ask to join them. It might just be me, but straight flirting seems dead in Seattle. I sense a distinct lack of availability.

It might be our laptops, smartphones, headphones and our constant texting and swiping – I just don’t know how to make eye contact with people anymore. And I rarely sense that women in Seattle are open to meeting people in the real world, although if I were getting all those texts of dick pics I would probably be a little more closed off too.

The avenues by which we used to meet and build relationships in real life have been slowly closed off by our technologies.

Aging and Obesity

I’m a lefty activist with strong political views; I’m vegetarian, drug free and I prefer to live a healthy aware lifestyle inspired by yoga practice and philosophy, so meeting people out at night is difficult for me.

Age definitely makes it harder to find partners that are health conscious and have a desire to remain active.

A fit older friend who practices yoga regularly complained to me that she’s stopped dating because the men she’d met online were completely out of shape. But even a woman in her 30s told me she’s having difficulty finding fit men her age.

Seattle Techies at Happy Hour

Seattle Techies at Happy Hour

The CDC reports that 69% of adult Americans are overweight or obese. In researching How Seahawk Are You Seattle, Sorry Not Much, I learned that the average weight for men rose ‘dramatically’ from 166.3 pounds in 1960 to 191 pounds in 2002; women went from 140.2 pounds 164.3 pounds.

These results have played out in my experience in the Seattle dating pool and in my own body. An injury and surgery derailed me from running and hiking and keeping up with more active communities the last couple of seasons. I put on weight. I wasn’t obviously overweight but over the last eight months I’ve managed to lose a surprising 30 pounds and counting.

Author Brene Brown says, “We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history.” Whether with food, prescriptions, or recreational drugs, a lot of us medicate to handle the challenges of modern life. The New York Times reports, “One in 10 Americans now takes an antidepressant medication; among women in their 40s and 50s, the figure is one in four.” And those are just the pharmaceuticals.

What I’ve Learned About the Seattle Freeze and Dating

Microsoft brought me to Seattle more than 20 years ago. You could say I was part of an early wave of “program bromanagers.” I’m also a beneficiary of the region’s technology successes.

Street Art Capitol Hill Gentrification Seattle

While you can make a lot of people a lot of money, you can’t hire mostly men for decades without breaking something in a place.

I’m pleased to see Intel and Apple make significant investments in diversity but regional behemoths Amazon and Microsoft have not.

I’m not sure present and future Seattle is for me. Certainly, the demographics make dating an uphill battle I no longer want to struggle with.

There’s amusingly terrifying logic to David Kestenbaum’s anecdote from This American Life: basically the odds of finding an ideal relationship partner where you live is essentially zero.

And unfortunately for Northwest guys, gender balance is nowhere nearby:

Metros with More Single Men

As much as technology erodes our real world communication skills, I know it can bring people together. But, at the end of a day on the computer, the last thing I want to do is get back online sending messages in the hopes of meeting new people.

The week of my Amazon post, a dormant article I’d written about relationship cutoff from the year before suddenly went viral when an advice blogger wrote about it and an acquaintance of my ex launched a harassment campaign against me. For a week, my Twitter feed was filled with rage and personal attacks. Some of the nicer folks said they were glad my photo appeared on the article so Google could ensure I never got a date again. Others mocked my Amazon post and suggested I look in the mirror, that the problem was me.

Rest assured, over the last few years, I’ve considered that seriously too.

Facing Yourself

Living with sustained isolation has forced me to face myself and focus on changes I wish to make. For me, yoga has helped build capacity for this process. And, it’s also made me more selective about the kinds of people I want in my life – yet another reason that these days I date less, not more.

This past year, my writing and consulting has taken off. I’ve never been more satisfied with the person I’ve become and other areas of my life. Routinely I hear from women I date that they feel quickly comfortable with me and from acquaintances that they’re glad I’m a part of their community. I’ve stepped up my friendship game. I’ve become a better listener. I make time for people and I try to stay playful.

But in Seattle, none of this has translated into deeper friendships or meaningful romance.

I’ve never been a “grass is greener on the other side” kind of guy; I’m more of a “tend your lawn” type. But, after years of my best efforts, I have to accept that something in the soil here may have gone bad.

So I’ve decided it’s time to get out of Seattle for a bit. I’ve traveled more frequently in the Northwest and have made arrangements to be increasingly nomadic the remainder of the year.

Evolution-based theories of attraction say that online dating undermines a legacy of subtle cues we’ve developed to identify optimal partners. I’m ready to try meeting more people in the real world away from saturated areas of tech culture. Wish me luck.

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Posted by Jeff Reifman

Jeff is a technology consultant based in the Pacific Northwest. Try scheduling a meeting with his new startup Meeting Planner (https://meetingplanner.io), simpler, faster scheduling for work or play and read his series about building it). Follow @reifman on Twitter.