A hand in romance: More men sign up to date

Dating agencies see rising male enrolment and the men say dating services help boost their confidence and improve their grooming skills

More men are signing up for dating services, a trend that observers say reflects a growing openness to seeking help in romance.

Although specific figures are hard to come by, 10 of the 13 dating agencies accredited by the Social Development Network report a rise in the number of men participating in the dating events they organised over the past five years.

Some men say the benefits of dating services include gaining a greater confidence in communicating with women and improved grooming and self-image through workshops and coaching sessions provided by the agencies.

For others, group activities intended to encourage pairing up are themselves part of the draw of such services.

While speed-dating events and match-making dinners used to be the mainstay of dating agencies, some of them are branching out to organise activities for a diverse range of interests, such as rock-climbing sessions or leather-crafting workshops, according to industry insiders.

Ms Chen Yingying, director of Fabrique Love, an SDNTrust accredited agency, says: "The ratio of men to women approaching dating agencies 10 years ago was probably 30 per cent men to 70 per cent women. Today, the proportion of men is closer to 40 per cent."

The Social Development Network issues the SDNTrust Accreditation to dating agencies with high standards of professionalism.

Other industry insiders attribute the increased number of men to a culture of outsourcing.

Ms Violet Lim, chief executive officer and co-founder of Lunch Actually Group, another SDNTrust-accredited dating agency, says: "When we first began in 2004, there was a stigma against the dating industry as people were not really sure what to expect from dating agencies."

She says Lunch Actually is seeing more interest in its services not only from individuals, but also from the corporate world.

"While our services are primarily consumed by individuals, sometimes, companies invite us to conduct lunchtime talks or short workshops on topics such as grooming, dating success or gender differences," she says.

"We have also been approached by companies which would like us to offer our services to their single employees as part of their welfare initiatives."

She adds: "People are now used to outsourcing things. For instance, when we are going on a trip, we look for a travel agency; when we are looking for a job, we turn to a recruitment agency."

This was the case for Mr Samuel Ho, 32. In 2016, the IT executive engaged Dating Moments, a dating agency accredited by Social Development Network, for a package of eight dates, where he was matched with women based on mutual interests and expectations.

Ms Jenny Ng, 37, who co-founded Dating Moments with her husband, Mr Edmund Low, 38, says the number of men enrolled at the agency increased from about 850 in 2016 to 1,100 last year.

Mr Ho, who finds it hard to meet women in the male-dominated IT industry he works in, says: "I got the service so that Dating Moments will do the work for me. I am actively looking for a relationship and that same expectation is there for women who sign up with the agency."

Having been single for several years, he turned to Dating Moments in part because he was disappointed when he tried dating apps such as Tinder and OkCupid.

He says he did not get many dates during the few years he tried online dating. He met some women who seemed "out to get a free meal or a movie. After that, you wouldn't be able to contact them".

Although he has not found a life partner yet, he is satisfied with the date coaching services he took up, where he learnt skills such as communicating better with women.

"Before, I might overthink things, such as wondering what my date was thinking or I might not know what to say. It might not even be anything important, it could be about choosing what to eat," he says. "Now, I make sure she is comfortable with her meal and I am fine just being myself."

Dinner dates can be loaded with the pressure to suss out a possible romantic connection. In contrast, Mr Joshua Ng, 25, a clinical research coordinator, finds that singleton events that focus on trying new experiences can work well.

Last year, he took part in events organised by SDNTrust-accredited dating agency GaiGai, such as a latte art workshop and a night visit to a water theme park.

"It's quite a safe way to meet people. At least you have activities as a distraction or an excuse. There's no stress. If the other person is not your type, it's okay to just be friends," he says .

Twice a year, the Social Development Network collaborates with accredited agencies and other partners on the Spark Connection campaign, which offers subsidised dating events and services, such as weekend group trips to Malaysia, sailing activities and workshops on emotional intelligence.

The number of participants for the campaign rose from 2,338 in 2016 to 2,520 last year, according to figures provided by the network.

Some of the men who signed up also find a transformative effect.

Mr Cai Shaoyang, a 35-year-old tutor, enrolled at two dating agencies - Lunch Actually in 2013 and The Finest Man, about a year later.

Through date coaching sessions that taught him how to make a good impression through presentation and body language, he started to sport a more well-groomed appearance. He used to wear jeans and shirts with short sleeves or polo necks, but now wears more long-sleeved shirts and trousers. He has ditched the knapsack he used to carry.

The changes have gone beyond his appearance. Some date coaching sessions involved learning how to make conversations interesting. "The general idea is to be curious about the other person; compliments should be sincere and specific," says Mr Cai.

Armed with such conversational skills, he was even challenged by his dating coach to approach a female stranger at a shopping mall to ask for a date, a prospect he quailed at, however.

He used to be clueless about dating, but is more self-assured now.

"Before, when I asked women out, it was like going into a fire and getting burnt. I didn't have plans on what to do or (how to negotiate) conversations. I felt in hindsight that I could have been more intentional in terms of finding the right person," says Mr Cai, who had his first serious relationship about 10 years ago.

"Thanks to the dating services, I evolved from being an introverted person, who didn't take a lot of initiative, to becoming more confident. I realised I was underplaying my strengths, such as persistence."

In his view, women want to see a guy take the initiative, such as holding the door open for them.

By the time he met his eventual girlfriend through Lunch Actually, he felt ready to give up. He had gone on more than 20 dates since 2013, but had not found a relationship.

Well, his hard work paid off.

When Ms Veronica Toh, 31, met Mr Cai in early 2015, she thought he was "gentlemanly and groomed". If she had met him a few years earlier, she might have had a different impression of him.

By their second date, he told her he hoped they could go steady. Ms Toh, who works in the health industry, said then that it was a little too soon, but agreed six months later.

The couple will be getting married next month.

Dating tips for men

Mr Val Senan, founder of The Finest Man, which offers date coaching services, says "machismo" might prevent some men from admitting they would like to learn how to interact better with women and eventually attract a life partner.

He says he has been getting more inquiries about his dating services since he set up shop about three years ago.

Mr Senan, 33, who is in a relationship, says some challenges that men face when dating include not being able to find the right person to have a relationship with; not being able to be themselves around the women they are attracted to; and the fear of rejection and criticism.

He offers some tips for men facing challenges in dating:

• Stop listening to friends' advice. While they may mean well, they are approaching things from a biased point of view regarding whom they think is suitable for you. You know yourself best.

• Do not go into interviewer mode when on dates. This is possibly due to a fear of awkward silences. Asking too many questions does not give your date a chance to get to know you.

• Do not be a pick-up artist. Some men go online to research how to pick up women. Instead of leaving the impression that you want to find a relationship with someone to settle down with, it might seem that you want to score another notch on your belt.

• Work on your basic grooming because it matters how you package yourself. Dress not to impress, which may feel uncomfortable to you. Be tidy, neat and presentable as a starting point.

• Go to places where you know your ideal partner hangs out. For example, if you are sporty and adventurous, do not go to places such as bars and clubs. You could join groups for hiking or fitness instead. Look at your own interests so you do not waste time meeting the wrong kind of person for you.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 21, 2018, with the headline A hand in romance: More men sign up to date. Subscribe