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Valentine's Day Matchmaking - 2002-02-13

Today is Valentine's Day, the traditional time to celebrate romance. But many Americans live alone. Statistics show that more than half of the nation's adults are single.

The Internet advertises a large number of dating services for single adults, and one such service located in the Washington, D.C., area is known as Brief Encounters. Fifty-five-year old Renee Fisher, the company's co-founder, says that, when it comes to love, many Americans need help.

"They are too busy," he says. "We have guys who are in their forties who will say, 'I'm not married because I was too busy in my career.' There's nothing wrong with them. They've been, they say, 'too busy.'"

At a typical session of Brief Encounters, 12 single men and 12 single women each pay a $40-fee for a 2 1/2 hour session of conversation at an area restaurant. Brief Encounters holds the meetings two times a week. Renee Fisher explains the set-up at the sessions is important. "We have separate tables," she says. "We place one man and one woman at each table. Each person has a number. And then each couple has six minutes to talk to each other. At the end of six minutes we ring a bell. The men rotate one table. People have tally sheets: after they've rotated, people mark 'yes' or 'no' for the person they've just spoken to 'yes' if they want further contact, 'no' if they don't. We're looking for matches: mutual 'yeses.'

At a recent Brief Encounters meeting, Ms. Fisher laid down the ground rules for the 24 adults, who ranged in age from their mid-thirties to mid-forties: "At the end of five minutes, you are going to hear this [bell sound]. That is your signal to thank your partner and stop talking," she said. "Okay, begin. Have fun."

Why is the conversation limited to six minutes? Renee Fisher explains, "Six minutes isn't a long time, but you know what? When you realize that a person is giving you their undivided attention, that's amazing. How many times in life do you have six minutes of somebody's undivided attention? It's certainly enough time to get to know whether you want more contact with that person."

Ms. Fisher says the couples can talk about anything, jobs, hobbies, even their religious practices, but they can't ask for a last name or phone number.

One of the singles at the Brief Encounter session is a man named Paul. He says, "It's a great experience: getting to meet 12 different women and having conversations with that many. You can go to a party and you don't normally meet and talk to half of the people at the party." Paul says one conversation he had was about what makes a relation work. With a women named Janet they talked about jobs.

Another women, named Kim, says she's attended Brief Encounters a number of times. "I work a lot and I travel a lot," she explains. "This is why I do this. It's an efficient way to date."

Officials with Brief Encounters take credit for one marriage, two engagements, and about 45 serious relationships in the last year. Other matchmaking services in the United States range from groups for divorced singles to organizations that are exclusively for singles of certain religious faiths.

Many singles also place advertisements for partners in local newspapers. The section in the newspaper is called "The Personals." The Internet company "" handles the personals for The Washington Post and other papers. According to company spokeswoman Joni Sussman, the service is also available in other parts of the world.

"We've worked with newspapers in Canada, the UK, and Mexico," says Ms. Sussman. "We're currently running personals at the South China Morning Post, in Hong Kong. So, yes, this is an international service. Personals go back to the mail-order bride service of over 100 years ago, when people put advertisements into the paper to try to meet other people. Technology has provided new opportunities for us to provide personal programs of various kinds."

Ms. Sussman says customers can send a voice as well as written message. "People are allowed to place ads in the newspapers and they then can record a voice greeting telling about themselves corresponding to their print ad," she went on to say. "Callers respond to each other's ads and call each other back and forth. One of the nice things about this is it's anonymous so they can really learn more about each other before actually connecting."

An array of matchmaking services for the lonely hearts of America, and overseas. Happy Valentines Day!