NEW YORK -- I'm too self-deprecating and I dress weird.
Otherwise, I'm the perfect date. Turns out I don't even have as big a mouth as I thought I did.
These were the revelations disclosed after three hours and $200 spent on First Impressions, a service in New York City designed to refine your dating skills. You go on a mock, one-hour date with a shrink who then criticizes, I mean, critiques you for two hours.
"It's not just our gut feel and it's not just our personal opinion," says one of the founders, Ann Demarais, who has a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from New York University. Her partner, Valerie White, has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Fordham University in New York. "We looked into the research about what's considered broadly appealing vs. less broadly appealing."
Now, these people are scientists. They didn't form their theories by taking notes during "Love Connection." White is a clinical psychologist; Demarais works in applied psychology. No, they used big psychology books and their experience in corporate settings to compile their standards of interpersonal attraction.
The First Impressions experience they've come up with may seem a tad unsettling to anyone who has A.) seen a psychologist or B.) ever been on a first date.
Yet, five or six people a weekend make use of the year-old service. Most clients are 30- to 40-year-old professionals who have been out of the dating scene a while - divorcees, widows and widowers. Slightly more men than women sign up, Demarais says.
And then there's me, a lonely twentysomething who enjoys potentially humiliating encounters with the opposite sex.
"We really put a mirror up to these people and say, this is how you come across, this is how you are perceived by others,"
Clients' performances are judged against a set of behavioral characteristics: self-presentation, self-disclosure, sincerity, humor, nonverbal style and so forth.
"Whether you're on a simulated date or a real date, that person's evaluating you," Demarais says. "Someone's clicking off in their head: interesting, intelligent, engaging."
First Impressions tries to make this neurotic cocktail as pleasant as possible. Dates take place in the afternoon, at the charming Paninoteca Cafe in Little Italy. There, the client meets either "Susan Green" or "Nick Brown." All of the consultants - there are 10 - use one of these pseudonyms and corresponding alter-egos.
The consultants all have either a Ph.D and/or graduate training in psychology. Four, including Demarais and White, are female, four are straight males and two are gay males.
Before you go on the date, you must sign an agreement: I understand that the date is purely a simulation and that there will be no physical contact between myself and the dating consultant. I agree not to pursue the consultant for future social or romantic encounters."
You also get the lowdown on what your generic date likes: travel, music and outdoor activities.
And, how you met: through a singles service.
And don't forget: ...please assume that you are attracted to Nick...
...assume that you are attracted...
Well, assuming I was attracted was no problem as I entered Paninoteca and introduced myself to "Nick Brown." (Real name: Eyal Pavell. Real occupation: psychological diagnostician at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. Age: 33.)
"Here's some Tabasco sauce, so you can tell everyone I was a really hot date," I said, handing him a mini-bottle I had lifted from my hotel brunch. "I always have a tendency to steal things. I figured this was a productive use of my psychoses."
Good. Start with the kleptomaniac line. Drives men crazy.
He was slender and darkly handsome, dressed in a beige-and-cream sweater and slacks ensemble. Surely the simulated-date experience is slanted somewhat depending on whether the participants look like Ralph Fiennes or, say, Ralph Nader. We were in Fiennes territory.
Nick ordered a cappuccino. I ordered wine.
Sitting across from me, Nick appeared comfortable, leaning back in his chair, sipping his trendy little drink.
I thought about my body language and figured he must be observing it. I resisted my normal urge to fold my arms in front of me, and instead casually slung my arm around the chair beside me.
"ABBA Gold" was playing in the background.
Knowing me, knowing you, there is nothing we can't do
Small talk. Where are you from, yada yada. It didn't take long for us to make a connection, though.
"Do you get to see the freaky cartoon shows, you know, like Dr. Katz?" he asked.
Score! Ten consultants to choose from, and I got the one who watches "Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist!"
I immediately burst forth with my devotion to Dr. Katz's sponging cartoon son, Ben.
"If Ben were alive, I would be so happy. I love him. I love him so much. I have pictures. I have a calendar, and I tore all the pictures out and put them all over my apartment."
Good. Continue with the "perverse attraction to animated characters" line. Drives men crazy.
Nick seemed unfazed, though Demarais says consultants don't expect total psycho-dates.
"The clientele is professional, the self-motivated type, real interested in learning more about themselves as opposed to people that are more disturbed or in other ways unusual," Demarais says.
Client Heidi Peterson is a 37-year-old engineer living in New York City who has been divorced for four years after a 10-year marriage. "I have a pretty active social life," she says. "I meet a lot of men through friends. It sounded interesting to see what kind of impression I made on people. It's not like I reached the point where I was desperate to get married."
Honey, I'm still free, take a chance on me
I felt I was dominating the conversation. We talked about my job, my history, and my personal life, though that took only about 20 seconds.
Still, our "date" wasn't going badly. Granted, sparks weren't flying from his cappuccino or anything, but I felt relatively comfortable.
Spurred by the Swedish quartet in the background, we started )) talking about the movie "Muriel's Wedding," in which the ABBA-worshiping homely heroine and her best friend dress in unflattering, tight-fitting shiny outfits and lip-sync to "Waterloo" in a liberating expression of individuality and bad taste.
"What's your ABBA dream sequence? Surely you have one," I asked. "Don't you just wanna dress up like a rock star and sing for a bunch of people?"
He appeared a little taken aback.
"Um...no. Don't wanna do that. Don't wanna go bungee jumping," he said.
Maybe that was a little personal, so he shifted to the less threatening topic of "Teletubbies."
"It's psychedelic," he said. "It hypnotizes little Japanese kids that watch it."
Sisters, small apartments and pseudonyms rounded out our conversation.
I didn't realize the hour was over. Nick apparently had been paying a little more attention.
"This will be the end of the simulation," he said, rather abruptly. "The end."
"But the ABBA record's not over!" I whined seductively.
There was something in the air that night, the stars were bright, Fernando
He left me with a sheet to evaluate myself while he prepared his material in the nearby First Impressions office.
I skimmed the questions.
3. Overall, how do you think you came across during the date?
I think I talked too much about myself
4. What did you say or do that makes you feel that way?
I talked too much about myself
After answering a few more similar questions, I paid for our drinks and headed to the office.
This time, there would be no frantic play-by-play call to a girlfriend rehashing and analyzing every look, every innuendo, every bit of conversation.
In the loft-ish, gray and blue office on Broadway, the shrink formerly known as Nick sat behind a desk.
He looked down at what were a stack of checklists and comments and began evaluating me: I paid attention. I created a welcoming environment. I made good eye contact. I was a good conversationalist.
I knew all this, but it was nice to hear from a man I'm not related to and who's not gay.
It wasn't all stroking though. He had slight, gently delivered criticisms.
"There was a feeling that sometimes you're overly self-critical. It can be bad if it's done a lot and the other person feels they have to function as the one who says, 'You're OK, you're not that bad,'" he said.
My attire (black blazer, white blouse, black miniskirt, leopard-print tights, black leather boots) might put off more conservative people.
"It does make a statement," he said.
"And that statement is?" I asked.
"Kind of downtown, artsy. It's a strong image, which is clearly you. You call yourself a Generation-Xer."
Do not, I thought. And what about endearing quirks? The things that might repel 90 percent of the people, but click beautifully with a few?
Next, he went over first-date faux pas that I managed to avoid.
I didn't appear needy. I didn't talk about marriage. I didn't talk too much.
Wait...Didn't talk too much? That was a revelation!
"And when I did speak, you never cut me off," he began.
I cut him off: "I thought I did."
But I wasn't entirely faux pas-free.
I apparently put him on the spot when I asked him what his ABBA dream sequence was. Too personal.
And then came the stretches - the comments that were almost surreal in their obviousness. He said I spoke at a good volume. He said I was very present, very "there." I worried that they may get clients who hadn't mastered the art of thereness.
OK, enough about my sexy ability to be where I was while I was there. I wanted some real answers.
"Would Nick Brown have wanted to go out with me again if I was not leaving town?" I asked.
He looked shocked.
"Uh...yeah," he said surprisingly convincingly. "I think Nick Brown felt very comfortable. Yeah. Yeah. Definitely."
OK. My work here was done.
I walked out feeling affirmed, but also elevated to a whole new plane of confusion. I had almost wanted to hear a bunch of criticism that may explain why I never get second dates.
If I'm so perfect, what's my problem?
What's anyone's problem?
Dating isn't a science. It's random, raucous and sometimes as painful as watching a double feature of "The Postman." Trying to prepare for it can be as futile as using an SAT study guide written in Yiddish.
However, if a date with a shrink sounds like the way to make you a master of your dating domain, go forth and spend.
Interpersonal placebo or not, if First Impressions can offer its clients confidence and heightened self-awareness, it may be worth it.
At any rate, First Impressions gives you an extended period with an attractive member of the opposite sex who happens to be completely focused on you.
I can think of worse ways to spend three hours and $200.
Check your style
First Impressions in New York City sets clients up on simulated dates with mental health professionals who evaluate their dating skills. A sampling of their criteria:
* Does not dominate conversation.
* Does not inappropriately dwell on one or few topics.
* Does not interrogate -- as in rapid-fire questioning.
* Does not express boredom by yawning, disengaging.
* Does not fidget or show nervous mannerisms.
* Does not appear concerned with a need to impress.
* Does not disclose more personal information than appropriate.
* Does not denigrate self.
* Does not appear stiff.
First-date faux pas from Bart Ellis, "The Date Doctor," who runs a service similar to First Impressions in Los Angeles:
* Mentally "walking the guy down the aisle."
* Looking for a "father figure" to take care of you.
* Being too flirtatious.
* Using sex or the promise of sex to control the relationship.
* Having sex on the first date.
* Expecting your date to have sex with you on the first date.
* Staring at your date's body parts.
* Ignoring your date while checking out other women.
* Looking for a "mother figure," someone to take care of you.
* Treating your date like a "buddy."
L The Date Doctor is on the Net: http: //www.thedatedoctor.com
Pub Date: 5/13/98