That sinking feeling: What does a single in Seattle have to do for a date?

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A feature story on the city's top 10 singles hits the streets and within days, Seattle Magazine suddenly receives nearly two dozen e-mails — all from women wanting to meet the eligible men.

The author of "Mr. Right, Right Now" appears at Third Place Books and 65 single women show up, furiously taking notes as E. Jean Carroll offers tips on how to attract a husband.

Discover U prints a small announcement about its coming Emerald City Bachelor contest, and immediately the phone begins to ring. All the calls are from women interested in signing up — despite the fact the bachelors haven't even been selected.

Welcome to the dating doldrums, the Seattle slump, No Man's Land, U.S.A. Whatever you want to call it, our fair city has gained a reputation among its single women as a certifiable Date-Free Zone.

Outsiders, such as the folks at Sperling's BestPlaces who recently ranked Seattle the No. 5 Best Place to Date, may think the preponderance of coffee shops and uncoupled residents indicates something's brewing in our fair city. But singleton Katie Kurtz knows better.

"The Seattle dating scene sucks," said this 31-year-old Seattle native. "I'm professional, creative, college-educated, smart, funny, hip, HWP, whatever, but it's just miserable trying to get a date here. I swear, there is something in the water."

Here come the brides

Is it the men? The women? The water? Or do we have someone else to thank for all those lonely Saturday nights, namely founding father Asa Mercer?

After all, he's the one responsible for bringing two boatloads of brides to the city back in the 1860s, putting Seattle on the map as a hotbed of lonely loggers. Nearly 150 years and one exceedingly cheesy television series later, the lonely loggers seem to have disappeared into the woods, leaving an abundance of single women to ponder a rather unsettling question.

Does Seattle now have too many brides?

Not according to census figures.

Single guys (defined as never married, widowed, divorced or separated) outnumbered single gals in the 2000 census in every age group — 20-24, 25-29, 30-34, 35-44 — until you hit the magic number of 45. After that, the women begin to creep up on the men, first by a 1,000, and after 20 or so years, by a few thousand.

Of course, there are a few things the census numbers don't reflect.

"Some of those people could be living together," said Seattle city demographer Diana Cornelius, a 47-year-old Montana native who, as luck would have it, happens to be single. "They could be in a committed relationship."

But whether that committed relationship is with a woman or with a man, the numbers don't say.

"I once read a quote: 'All the good guys already have boyfriends,' " said M. Susan Wilson, managing editor of Seattle Magazine, which covers the city's singles in an annual issue. (Wilson, 35, is also unattached.) "That's sort of true here in Seattle. I'd venture to guess that we're shadowing San Francisco somewhat, that there's a higher gay male population in this town than you might find in, say, Philadelphia."

But take a look around. With all those doofy baseball hats and ill-fitting jeans, it's obvious not all Seattle men are gay. Why don't our beloved geeky straight arrows step up to the plate and ask a girl out, for Pete's sake?

Passific Northwest

According to Kurtz, it's the p-word.

"In Seattle, you'll get things like, 'I'm going to this club on Friday night. Are you going? Maybe I'll see you there,' instead of a direct 'Would you like to go out with me?' " she said. "Dating is hinted at, skirted around. It's super passive here."

Kristin Six, 34, who's lived in Seattle for 12 years, has had similar experiences.

"I don't know that I've ever been asked out in any sort of straightforward way," she said. "The last relationships I had were with people I met at work. I've never really met someone out and about and had them ask me out. They might ask for my number, but there's generally no follow-up."

The no-date date, the flubbed follow-up — is that the norm?

"I do hear over and over again that the dating climate in the Northwest is very passive," said Julie Thompson, founder and owner of NW Date Night, a speed-dating service. (Thompson, 35, is currently in a committed relationship.) "When guys ask gals out, the women aren't sure if it's a date or if the men are just looking to hang out. On the East Coast when a guy asks you out, you know it's a date."

According to Thompson, though, doubtful dating is just part of a larger Northwest issue.

"There seems to be an ambivalence here," she said. "We're friendly, but we don't invite people in; we're very cliquish. People will go out and everybody in a room will just stand around and look at everybody else. No one will initiate a conversation."

Theories explaining this phenomenon are as prevalent as personal ads in the Seattle Weekly. It's our infamous Nordic reserve; it's a symptom of our antisocial weather; the long demanding days at Microsoft and Amazon and Boeing have simply sucked the life out of even our most ebullient singles.

But can hard work, a Norwegian grandpa and a little rain truly be responsible for turning a seemingly vibrant grown-up city into the urban equivalent of a seventh-grade dance? Or is something else going on?

Fear factor

"It's fear of rejection that keeps people from talking to each other," said Katherin Scott, a 48-year-old dating and relationship coach (recently engaged). "And I've heard a lot of people say it's worse here in Seattle. I've asked men that I've dated, 'Would you come up and talk to me in Starbucks?' and the men would say, 'Oh no, you look like someone I might want to date.' The last thing in the world people in Seattle would do is talk to someone they want to date."

Which can make for some lonely nights for singles.

It's enough to drive a frustrated single to distraction — and when it comes to distraction, we've got the motherlode.

"A lot of the pursuits Seattle's famous for are individual pursuits," said Bill Hooe, 39, a Michigan transplant who's been in the Seattle dating scene for about four years. "Hiking, biking, skiing, snowboarding — all of the 'ings.' If you're out kayaking, you're not out having drinks with somebody. That's a huge part of the aloofness."

True, if she's on top of Si and he's tromping around the Hoh, it's going to take some doing to get the two of them together. But sometimes there are even more daunting obstacles.

"I've been at social events where the women come in a group of friends," said Jeff Lehman, a 47-year-old Florida native who recently left the dating scene for "someone special." "They hang in a pack, their elbows all touching."

Does a group of close-knit female friends, all talking and laughing, produce insecurity in the average male?

"I call it the circle of death," he said.

But anybody can ask for a date. What happens when the woman does the asking?

"I ask men out routinely," said Kathy Lindenmayer, a 31-year-old singleton who moved to Seattle from South Carolina eight years ago.

And do they respond positively?

"No," said Lindenmayer. "They get frightened."

Single file

The women think the men are too passive, the men think the women are too intimidating. And both parties are too busy climbing Mount Rainier to so much as say hello. What's a HWP SF ISO a LTR to do?

In Seattle, take your pick. Aside from a slew of online dating options, there's speed dating, pub socials, wine tastings, singles hikes, salsa dancing, lock-and-key parties, book clubs, singles cruises, matchmakers, and yes, even those old favorites bowling, bingo and church.

While some find organized singles events a bit too contrived ("That kind of stuff makes my skin crawl," said Katie Kurtz), many more find it an effective way to crash through Seattle's insular tendencies and actually meet someone interesting. (Hey, even "Here Come the Brides" had Lottie to introduce Candy and Biddie to single guys in town.)

According to organizers, there's almost always an equal ratio of men and women who participate in events, although, not surprisingly, the men are notoriously slow to sign up.

"The women sign up a month ahead and the men sign up three hours before or just show up," said Andrea Martin of Space City Mixer, a social-events clearinghouse. (There are exceptions to this rule. According to Discover U director Erin Brandon, a recent class titled "How to Date a 10," attracted 18 pre-registered students, 16 of whom were men.)

But the bottom line is this. The men are out there. The women are out there. And the potential for friendship — or something more — is everywhere, perhaps even sitting next to you on the bus as you read this. So seize the moment, Seattle singles. Smile at the new IT guy, make eye contact with the cute bookstore clerk. And maybe learn how to salsa dance.

Outside of that, you're on your own.

Diane Mapes: dimapes@ nwlink.com