Love Notes At First Impressions, your date has to tell you why others may not want to give you a second chance. You're paying $200 for the critique.

May 13, 1998|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

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,"

Demarais says.

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...

THE DATE

...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.

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