How does a matchmaker work? A Working podcast transcript with Danielle Selber of Tribe 12.

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What Happens When Online Dating Doesn’t Work?

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July 21 2015 3:48 PM
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How Does a Matchmaker Work?

Read what Slate culture writer Aisha Harris asked a Philadelphia-based matchmaker about finding love connections the old-fashioned way in the age of online dating.

Danielle Selber.
Danielle Selber.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy of Matt Collette.

We’re posting transcripts of Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day, exclusively for Slate Plus members. What follows is the transcript for Season 3, Episode 2, in which Slate culture writer Aisha Harris talks to Danielle Selber, a matchmaker with Tribe 12, a Jewish nonprofit in Philadelphia. In this podcast, Selber talks about the history of matchmaking in Jewish culture, what makes a great first date, and what it takes to find the perfect match in the digital age. To learn more about Working, click here.

We’re a little delayed in posting this episode’s transcript—apologies. This is a lightly edited transcript and may differ slightly from the edited podcast.

Aisha Harris Aisha Harris

Aisha Harris is a Slate culture writer and host of the Slate podcast Represent.

Aisha Harris: Welcome to Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day. I’m Aisha Harris, a culture writer at Slate. This season we’ll spend time with several guests suggested by our listeners. Today’s guest is one of them. She’s someone that you might seek out if OkCupid, eHarmony, and JDate just aren’t working for you. What’s your name, and what do you do?

Danielle Selber: My name is Danielle Selber. I work for a nonprofit in the Jewish community of Philadelphia, and my role there is in-house matchmaker.

Harris: When you think matchmaker—when I think matchmaker—I think of Fiddler on the Roof and Yenta. So, what is that for you? Like, especially in an age of online dating, it’s kind of surprising that they still exist. What are the qualifications that you need to become a matchmaker nowadays?

Selber: I’m definitely, like, a self-taught matchmaker. There definitely are still your traditional matchmakers who would remind you of Yenta, and I think of myself as sort of a modern update on a matchmaker. So, I will meet someone in a coffee shop as opposed to meeting them in an office, or I’ll try to match them up in, like, a more random way with somebody that I met one time at a bar or something, and it’s much less structured and much more organic, which I think people like. I think that they like the sort of romanticism of it, that it can still feel natural.

Harris: Can you tell me a little bit about what led you to becoming a matchmaker in the nonprofit you’re working at now? Where did you go to school? What did you do after school?

Selber: So, I got my master’s in Jewish studies at Gratz College, a tiny little college in Pennsylvania, and that, I guess, qualifies me to work in the Jewish community. As for the matchmaking piece, it’s really self-taught. I’ve read pretty much every book you can imagine and seen every TED Talk about dating and relationships, and I did some studying at Jerusalem at a seminary, which is just, like, an institute for Jewish learning. That’s where I sort of learned the pieces of what I think makes a successful relationship, and I tried to implement that in the day-to-day of this job.

Harris: What does your clientele look like? It’s primarily for the Jewish community, but what are we talking about in terms of profession and age? What do they look like?

Selber: So, the ages are around between 20 and 40, because that’s our demographic for our nonprofit overall, and then within that it really runs the gamut. I find that a lot of people who come to me are busy professionals, someone who’s a lawyer, or they’re a resident, or they’re in the last year of getting their microbiology degree, or something like that. They don’t have time to do the online dating thing because it really is a time suck, and so they come to me to sort of shortcut that in a way, to have someone working on their team while they’re working on what they do.

Harris: If you can break down exactly, like, what the process is like—so, someone sends you an email first, and then they get in touch with you and ask you to set them up?

Selber: So, yeah. Somebody sends me an email because they saw a line in our newsletter saying, “Want to meet with our in-house matchmaker?” They’re usually a perfect stranger, and we meet in a coffee shop just like this one. I sort of try to, like, warm them up and get them comfortable with telling me, a stranger, things that are a little bit more personal to them.

So, I usually start with the same question. I usually ask them to tell me about someone in their life who’s really important to them, someone they feel like is on their team, whether that’s a family member or friend. And I do that to get them comfortable with talking about the types of things that they look for, not in a date but in a person. The things that they really value deep inside.

Then I go on to flip that question on their head. I ask them to tell me about themselves in the voice of that person. So, that’s their opportunity to brag a little bit and their opportunity to kind of tell the flaws that they might not want to tell someone they don’t know.

Harris: So, we’re actually in a coffeehouse right now, not in Philadelphia, where you live, but in Manhattan. It’s a pretty big space with lots of comfy couches and some brick walls and lots of nice mirrors and pretty paint on the wall. Is this the type of coffeehouse you would usually take someone to? Or, is it, like, a more intimate kind of coffeehouse you’re looking for? Or will you go to Starbucks? Like, what does that look like?

Selber: Yeah, this is actually a perfect type of coffeehouse. It’s got a lot of little nooks and crannies and a lot of little corners where we can squeeze into, and the person can not fear that they would be overheard. I love to go somewhere local. Like, in Philly we have all of these great coffee shops that are locally owned and they’ll have local Philly art on the wall, or they’ll have, like, a special cappuccino that everyone knows about. So, I like to go to places that are either fun or comfortable or that people know of. I try to avoid Starbucks. Sometimes it’s inevitable, but we go where we need to go.

Harris: Do you match within your matches, or do you have a sort of Rolodex of names and people that you’ve interacted with and then you try to set them up with other people?

Selber: I think I have a Rolodex. One of my friends tells me that she hears it flipping in my mind when I meet someone new. So, my organization, we run 150 social events a year. I’m at a bunch of those, and so I meet people all the time, which I think is the reason that people want to come to me, because they feel like I know people that they don’t know and they just will never meet. And so, typically I’ll focus on the people who have reached out to me for a matchmaking date, I’ll focus on setting them up, but the sky’s the limit as to who I’m going to set them up with. Anyone is fair game!

Harris: So, we’re here. Can you pretend that I am one of your clients, who I’ve emailed you and I’ve said, “Hey, I have no time, I need to find someone to enjoy my life with when I’m not in the workplace”? Could you play along with me and ask me the questions, and I’ll pretend that I’m single and we can, you know, play this out?

Selber: Sure, fun! So, Aisha, thank you so much for meeting with me. I want you to tell me a little bit about somebody in your life who you feel like is someone who’s really in your corner, like, your person. This could be a family member or a friend. The reason I ask this is because I want to get to know the type of people that you like to surround yourself with outside of the dating realm.

Harris: I would say that my dad is probably the closest person I have in my life. I’m a writer, and he is also a writer, and he’s always been really supportive of me. He encouraged me to write at a very young age. Just last week he sent me this really lovely email where he said he’d been reading my stuff and he’s just really proud of me, and so I think if there’s anyone who I would want to go to and talk to, and if I ever have a question about anything, he’s the first person I would go to.

Selber: That’s so nice. It sounds like a really lovely relationship. It reminds me a little bit about me and my dad, too. Like, I always go to him first with everything. So, say I was going to call your dad up right now. What would he tell me about, like, the “true” Aisha? And this should be sort of your opportunity to brag a little bit—because you’re in your dad’s voice now—and then on the flip side, to sort of tell me what’s your Achilles’ heel? What’s Aisha’s fatal flaw? So, we can start with the good stuff. It’s easier!

Harris: OK. He would say that I’m very smart and I pick up things really quickly, and that I try to find different angles for things that a lot of people might look at in one way, and I try to probe things in a different way. On the less positive side, I can also be very moody, stubborn. I get into funks sometimes and don’t always open up as quickly as I should. So, I think that that would probably be, like, my one Achilles’ heel.

Selber: Great! So, from that I would start asking you a couple more questions. Should I keep going?

Harris: Sure.

Selber: So, you said that that’s kind of like your Achilles’ heel. So, what are you like on a first date? How does that manifest?

Harris: Generally I like to talk about as many different things as possible. Like, to me there’s no topic that’s off-limits. Like, if we want to talk about abortion, let’s talk about abortion. If we want to talk about our favorite foods or our favorite movies—I mean, movies and TV are probably the easiest thing for me to discuss with someone on a first date or really just in any first-time meeting setting, but I like it when the conversation goes beyond just, like, that, and goes into more, like, maybe polarizing topics.

Selber: OK. So, let’s start to talk a little bit about this person that you’re looking for. Tell me, what are the qualities that you tend to look for in a person? I won’t take anything as a dealbreaker unless you tell me to, but what are the typical qualities that you notice that you really are attracted to?

Harris: Definitely someone who’s smart, both book-smart and street-smart. Someone who likes to have fun but can also be serious, and someone’s who’s patient, because I’m not always the most patient person and so if someone else can be patient for me, that’s ideal.

Selber: OK. So, I know you’re not single, Aisha, but what I would usually ask next is, like, the typical job interview question. Where do you see yourself in five years? Where does a relationship fit into that plan?

Harris: Yeah, in five years I see myself in a happy relationship and with a dog or two, either living in New York or in another city. I don’t want to go to the suburbs. So, yeah, happily in a relationship and with a dog.

Selber: So, you mentioned dogs and the suburbs. Would you call those dealbreakers? I just want to know if I was to match you up with someone.

Harris: I don’t want to live in the suburbs, and so that would be a dealbreaker for me. You know what, so is having a dog. Like, if you’re allergic or you prefer cats, I don’t see it working out.

Selber: OK, great. That’s actually really good to know. Sometimes it’s good to have some parameters. Tell me a little bit about the type of person you’re looking for physically. Do you have a type? Do you have a celebrity crush you could tell me about?

Harris: I prefer taller men, which, I mean, I think most people probably would say—most women—taller. My celebrity crush currently is probably someone like Chris Pratt, or on the other end of the spectrum, Michael B. Jordan from The Wire/Friday Night Lights. Those are my two big celebrity crushes.

Selber: OK, good one. I agree! Tell me, where would I find you on a Saturday afternoon? What are you typically doing?

Harris: Saturday afternoon, if it’s nice out like it is now, I would probably be at some sort of outside party drinking or hanging out in the park. So, something outdoorsy. When it’s really nice out, I have to be outside.

Can you just explain to me a little bit more about, like, what the culture of matchmaking is within the larger Jewish culture? What does it mean? There seems to be a legacy.

Selber: Really until this generation or maybe my parents’ generation, being matched was, like, I think pretty much the norm, at least where my family comes from. My mom’s side is from Morocco, and her parents were matched. Her mom was 12 when she was matched with my grandfather, who was 14, and they went on to have 11 children and live a really great and beautiful life. So, I definitely have a bit of a reverence for matching and that good things can come out of it, and that was much more traditional. Like, literally, like, You guys are getting married—have fun!

And then my grandmother, when they moved to Israel in the 1950s, my grandmother was looking for a match for her oldest son, my mom’s brother. … And she was on a bus and started chatting with a young Moroccan girl, asking her questions, saying, “Oh, are you married?” And the girl said, “No.” And so my grandmother actually brought her back to her house, introduced her to my mom’s brother, and they’re now married, living in Israel, with eight kids. So, this has been going on for a really long time in my family and every other one. Even my parents, who met in the 1980s, they were introduced on a blind date by a friend, so they didn’t meet in a traditional context. I don’t think they could have, because they didn’t speak the same language. My mom’s from Israel and she only spoke Hebrew at the time. My dad only spoke English. Six months later they were married! So, I definitely have a lot of interest in this idea of the randomness that can get you to a person who you never would have met otherwise, and I think that’s what matchmaking is.

Harris: How does it break down within the people who you are matching up? Are there some who—is everyone Jewish? Or varying levels of Judaism? Or are there people who are not Jewish who you match up?

Selber: So, my nonprofit focuses on the Jewish community in Philadelphia, young professionals in their 20s and 30s. So, that is for sure the bulk of the people who would find me. Usually those people are more cultural—“secularly Jewish” is what we call it—that would mean that they’re maybe traditional and maybe connected to Judaism in a social or cultural way, but not religious. A religious person would probably go to a more traditional matchmaker, of which there are several, and I do have ones that I really respect and admire, and I would refer someone to them if that was the kind of matchmaker they needed. Because I’m a lot more informal. There’s still matchmakers who work on an hourly basis and will guarantee matches and things like that, but that’s not something I do.

Harris: How do you work in terms of pay? Like, are you—you’re not an hourly basis, I assume? So, how do you—do you bill them?

Selber: Yes. So, since we’re a nonprofit, I, you know, take a salary, but I actually don’t charge for this work at all. We do ask for a suggested donation, something small, but it’s not something that I require at all and I tell people that they can do it now, or later, or never. Because I don’t want it to be a deterrent to them meeting with me. Like, if they’re a cash-strapped student, I don’t want them to not email me and come out with me just because of that.

Harris: You’re pretty young, I’m gathering. You don’t have to say how old you are, but I assume you’re in your early-to-mid-20s?

Selber: I’m 30, happy to say.

Harris: OK, I was wrong about that! I assume the traditional matchmakers are a little bit older, but how many of there like you who are 30 or maybe a little bit younger who are doing this? It seems like an older person’s profession.

Selber: Yeah, I think in a lot of ways I break the matchmaker mold. I don’t actually know of anyone else—and I could be wrong—doing exactly what I do. So, working within an existing organization and doing sort of, like, gratis matchmaking services, and bringing back that one-on-one connection but not having it be a formal relationship or contract.

I do know matchmakers who are around my age. Maybe they’re 35, maybe they’re 40. But I think that what I’m trying to do is take the best elements of traditional matchmaking, the things that we know work—those personal relationships, having a personal connection, not having to fill out a profile—and matching that with this sort of modern life of being busy and not necessarily wanting to go to a matchmaker. I actually don’t agree with this, but I do think that some people see a matchmaker as, like, a Hail Mary, you know, like a desperate last step, and I don’t think that at all, but it is the sort of cliché. So, coming to me I think for most people feels way less of a commitment than going to a traditional matchmaker.

Harris: When people come to you, are you usually, like, the last resort? What else have they tried usually beforehand? Have they done online dating? Have they tried going to mixers? Is that something that they all tend to have in common, is that they’ve all tried these other things and then they come to you?

Selber: I think across the board, yes. Almost everyone has tried online dating at this point. I had one girl come with me on a matchmaking date who had been on 60 JDates—JDate is a Jewish dating site—and she was ready to talk to someone new. So, the online dating thing was not working for her, and that’s why she came to me.

Usually people have tried the singles events. We actually run singles events, which I hope are a little better than your traditional view of a sad mixer in a dark room. We try to really improve upon them and iterate around that concept. But usually the people who are coming to for a matchmaking date aren’t coming to our events, and that’s fine. It’s just that they want a different kind of connection and a different way of getting to the same goal.

Harris: The woman who had been on 60 JDates, was that a successful match or have you heard from her? Like, do people follow up with you after you’ve matched them?

Selber: It’s interesting. I only hear from people when things are going poorly. So, if I matched them up with someone who they really like and—like, this woman went on, I don’t know, four or five dates lately with this one person—I’m not going to hear from her at all until I guess I get a wedding invitation. Whereas if they broke up, she might come back to me and say, “All right, you were on the right track with that. Here’s a couple of things I would change. Can we try this again?” So, I have a lot of people—you know, what they call “ghosting”—ghosting on me until they need something new, which is fine!

Harris: And what’s, like, your least favorite part of your job?

Selber: I love my job so much. … I don’t know if it’s cliché that I really can’t think of anything. I really love doing what I do. I love to meet with people and I love planning the events. I love when there’s a successful match. It’s kind of all good. I think that when you work in love, like, you don’t miss out on much of the excitement. Every day is something new.

Harris: Can you name your happiest success story? Have you gotten a wedding invitation yet?

Selber: Yes. So, I can point to three marriages that I’m, like, directly responsible for, and then there might be about 25 other stories where I’m sort of tertiarily responsible. Like, maybe I took somebody out to buy all new clothes and then fixed up his dating profile, and the next person he met through that he’s married to now. Or, I met a girl in the beginning of a happy hour and introduced her to a table of four guys, and now she’s dating one of them. Things like that. So, I’ve definitely, you know, danced at the wedding of somebody who I’ve been responsible for setting up, and there’s no better feeling in the world.

Harris: What is the dating life of a matchmaker such as yourself like? Not going out on dates with matches, but your own personal dating life?

Selber: So, I’m now married, and I met my current husband through an ex-boyfriend, but it’s not as scandalous as it sounds. They were friends, and he and I actually used to go out on dates with each other’s respective exes. So, we’ve been on double dates together, and then we both broke up the same week and we ended up commiserating over that, and you know, the rest is history.

But before that I actually used to set up my now-husband on dates. So, I was, like, just checking out girls for him, and we have a funny story of—we were at an event together, my now-husband and I, and we were looking at different girls in the room for him. And he saw one girl and he said, “I know that girl. I think she’s an OkCupid match for me, like, 98 percent.” And I’m like, “Oh, go talk to her!” He’s like, “No, I’m too shy, I don’t want to.” And I was like, “Well, I’ll talk to her.”

So I went up to her and we started chatting it up. I introduced them. Clearly not a good fit, but she’s now a really close friend of ours, so we always joke with her that we met her on OkCupid.

Harris: Can you give me a story of someone who told you something, like, very odd, offbeat, or just very specific about themselves while you were on a date with them?

Selber: Yes. So, I was on a coffee date with this one girl—“Anna,” let’s call her—and she was giving me sort of the generic things that she wants in a person. “Oh, he’s smart, oh, he’s funny.” OK, and then when I asked her celebrity crush—which is a pretty typical question—she said, “You know, I haven’t thought about it, but lately I’ve been really into, like, Seth Rogan, his look and his personality.” And I was like, “Oh, OK, that’s not what I would have expected you to say. I also find Seth Rogan very good and handsome.”

But that helped me to sort of narrow down in my mind to a totally different subset of people that I might have been thinking of for her. So, I asked her some more questions, and I realized that this guy that I know who really looks like Seth Rogan and kind of acts like Seth Rogan would be a great match for her. And just because of that little detail that she shared with me, I was able to do that, and I’m not sure I would have arrived at him otherwise. And they’ve been on countless dates, you know, they’re dating, so we’ll see!

Harris: Where do you see yourself in five years? Like, how long do you want to be matchmaking? Or do you want to make this a lifelong career?

Selber: It’s definitely something I’ve thought about, and I know people who have successfully transitioned into a full-time matchmaking gig. I’m terrible with sales, and so I’m not sure that I could ever sustain this as a consulting type of career. Personally, I love the nonprofit I work for, and as long as this keeps working and we keep sort of iterating on it and making it better, I see it expanding into a whole new project for our nonprofit, just keep growing and growing, having more Danielles out there at coffee shops.

Harris: Thanks for listening to this episode of Working. You can find out more Danielle Selber and her organization at Tribe12.org.