Before leaving a networking event, Jeff Tockman's former girlfriend circled back to say goodbye and handed him her business card. When, in a flirty way, she urged him to call her, Tockman decided to ask her out.
Meeting potential partners has never been easy, and even as busy professionals are turning to online dating sites, another option is gaining ground: networking for business and love at the same time.
Although 1 in 10 Americans now use online dating platforms, the vast majority of relationships still begin offline, according to Pew Research Center, which studied 2,252 adults age 18 and older in spring 2013. Of the Americans who have been with their spouse or partner for five years or less, 88 percent say that they met their partner offline, and 5 percent who are currently married or in a long-term relationship met their partner online.
"Online dating has become a more culturally acceptable way of trying to meet someone, but not every one likes it," says Aaron Smith, a researcher for Pew Research Center. "There are a lot of approaches, and different ones work for different people."
For Tockman, 44, who runs business and social-networking events in Boca Raton, Fla., combining the two activities makes sense. "If you are both interested in advancing your business, it's an opportunity to meet someone who you might have something in common with," he says. "I tell them to come with business cards and focus on asking and listening."
Most professionals network to build business and want to meet people, which can make a reluctant dater feel more comfortable about mingling. Fort Lauderdale, Fla., publicist Kerry Phillips, a widow for four years, wants to date again. She says going to a networking cocktail party to drum up business feels less stressful than going to a singles event: "I'm not going in thinking I'm there to find a date or a life partner. The pressure is not there. I'm going in to build business, and if I hit it off with someone, that's a bonus."
Employers often encourage — and even pay for — their professionals to join networking groups, professional organizations and nonprofit boards. As workloads grow, time-pressed singles increasingly view relationship-building for business and social purposes as good time management. Sitting on a committee or organizing an event provides the opportunity to go beyond superficial conversations with someone you want to get to know better — and allow love to bloom.
Robert Goltz, president and CEO of the Miramar Pembroke Pines Regional Chamber of Commerce in Pembroke Pines, Fla., says that while networking, people looking to combine business and love should ask more personal questions when they meet someone of interest. It could be something like, "What do you enjoy doing outside of work?" More organizations now offer young-professional groups where people in their 20s and 30s can meet potential mates and build connections. Carlos Fernandez, a 30-year-old accountant, met his girlfriend at a young professionals group for a charity: "We both had ties to the cause and were passionate about the community service aspect, so we bonded over that."
Flirting while networking must be done cautiously, warns Dan Silverman, founder of MatchmakingMiami.com. "Start the flirtation and see whether you get feedback. If you do and it's positive, then take it forward. If you're not getting feedback, then shift gears and keep it business."