Can true love be only 480 seconds away?

Eight minutes. That's about the time it takes for the sun's light to reach Earth. It's also roughly the time it takes to wolf down a McDonald's cheeseburger. Or bake a batch of chocolate-chip cookies. Or meet your soul mate.

Yep, short-on-time singles say that's how long it takes to size up a potential love interest in today's lightning-speed world. After all, why waste an entire evening on someone they deemed incompatible in the first few minutes?

It's no wonder so many singles are embracing the newest trend in relationships: speed dating. Supporters say it offers a chance to meet lots of new people in less-charged circumstances.

But others lament what it says about the rushed nature of American lives, that people can't savor getting to know one another. To say nothing of a superficial society able to dismiss someone in the time it takes to boil an egg.

The evening begins with an equal number of men and women pairing off to chat for exactly eight minutes. The bell rings, the chairs rotate, and it's on to the next prospect.

At the end of the evening, tallies are made and phone numbers given out - but only if both sides agree.

SpeedDating is the creation of Aish HaTorah, an international Jewish educational resource center. Its intent is to preserve the Jewish heritage by encouraging marriage within the faith.

It was launched last year in Los Angeles and has swept into Jewish communities across the US, Australia, Britain, Canada, South Africa, even the Ukraine. Now the secular community has grabbed hold of the idea.

Safer way to meet

"It's got all the safety of the personals with more of the interaction," says Eden Cloud, SinglesScene coordinator at the Philadelphia Weekly who runs a secular version of SpeedDating, called Nanodates. "Everyone can be interesting for eight minutes. I can talk about baseball for eight minutes and I don't know the first thing about it."

Nanodates began in Philadelphia earlier this month and is already booked (with long wait lists) through September.

Ms. Cloud says it's too early for any of her speed daters to be walking down the aisle. But she recently ran into a participant who, smiling from ear to ear, said she had already been on several dates with her match.

"It's all about first impressions. And eight minutes is enough time to decide if you want to see someone again," Cloud says.

Some may disagree. Others claim to need even less time.

"I think you can tell in the first five minutes, or at least you can eliminate someone in the first five minutes," says Laura Lieberman, a communications consultant from Philadelphia who participated in a Nanodates session.

"I was a little hesitant at first, thinking, how is this going to be? But it turned out to be a lot of fun," Ms. Lieberman says. "Everybody was in the same boat, everybody was nervous."

Her first question to every man sitting in front of her was: "How was your day?" The rapid-fire conversation moved to jobs, free time, families.

She had one match and is going on a date with him this week. Impressed with her success, her friends are now signing up for future sessions.

"I'm not surprised that it's spreading. It's a brilliant idea," says Rabbi Micha Turtletaub, director of education of Aish HaTorah, Boston, which will begin SpeedDating this fall.

He and other Jewish leaders hope that the secular version's success doesn't overshadow SpeedDating's original purpose - though perhaps the spread was inevitable.

Time's a-wasting

"People feel their time is limited and to do the bar scene or simply wait until they meet someone somewhere feels to them a waste of time," says Mr. Turtletaub.

Not only do people feel they have less time to meet their perfect partner, the anxiety created by those feelings is at an all-time high.

"The collective unconscious fear that we are never going to meet anybody, that everyone is gay or married, makes people nervous, and they withdraw even further," says Judy Kuriansky, a clinical psychologist and author of "Complete Idiot's Guide to Dating."

SpeedDating and similar concepts like Internet dating have their pros and cons, she says. One pro is the ability to meet a wide variety of people in a short time.

"I totally agree that we need to expose ourselves to many different types of people, to see what our instinctive reaction is to them," Dr. Kuriansky says.

"Eight minutes is long enough to see how conversation goes, to see if you are comfortable, to see if he asks about you and shares about himself." But it is not long enough to get a good grasp on someone, she says. Three dates is her benchmark.

But some research shows that it only takes 15 seconds to make a first impression, and that that impression remains important throughout the relationship.

"So eight minutes is already a lot more data than most people start with," Kuriansky says.

Back in Philadelphia, Jerod (not his real name) saw the Nanodates ad and decided to give it a try. He came away with two matches. But he does have some reservations about the time limit.

"My gut feeling is that eight minutes isn't long enough," says Jerod. "We all see ourselves as complex and varied. How can somebody express their personality in eight minutes?"

At a local restaurant, Jerod talked for almost two hours to eight different women about buying a house, his job, his likes and dislikes, his family. But he says he was more interested in finding out about the woman sitting across from him.

"I felt like I was under the gun to find out what made that other person tick, what they were passionate about," he says. "Most of the time I would just ask them: 'What would you be doing if you weren't here?' "

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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