First dates are tough. You’re trying to make a good impression on someone, but you’re also trying to work out if the person is worth your time. Dating may not be an exact science, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use a little science to our advantage during that first interaction. Here’s what you need to know.
A perfect first date is different for everyone, but you can guess that anyone will want solid conversation skills and a good first impression. Beyond that, things start to get complicated. Statistics help, but to really craft that perfect first date you need to know exactly how to handle yourself. This is where that science comes in. A lot of the relationship research out there is pretty useless (with riveting studies about how an unpopular name affects your dating success or women find men more attractive when another woman smiles at them), but we went out to find some of the more useful studies to help us craft that perfect first date. Here are the more helpful tips we found.
Keep the Conversation Interesting (and Risky)
Conversation is one of the most important parts of a first date, and it’s often difficult to navigate. Conversation on a first date needs balance between impressing someone and learning about them. It’s not always easy to do.
For anyone out there who likes to prep their speeches, be warned. A study published in Personality and Individual Differences found that rehearsed lines and jokes had a negative effect on the date. Instead, they recommend sticking to topics like generosity, culture or athleticism if you really want to impress. If you’re funny, go for the jokes, but don’t plan out what you’re going to say ahead of time.
You also want to learn about the person you’re on a date with, and boring conversations like “what do you do for work?” or “where did you go to school?” aren’t really going to reveal if you’re much of a romantic match. Instead, behavioural economist Dan Ariely poses asking more questions that are personally revealing. These might include boat rockers like “How many romantic partners have you had?” or “How do you feel about abortion?” It’s a risky move to be sure, but Ariely points out that getting out of your comfort zone often makes for a better first date:
Think about what you can do to make sure that your discussions are not the boring but not risky type. Maybe set the rules of discussion upfront and get your partner to agree that tonight you will only ask questions and talk about things you are truly interested in. Maybe you can agree to ask five difficult questions first, instead of wasting time talking about your favourite colours. Or maybe we can create a list of topics that are not allowed. By forcing people to step out of their comfort zone, risk tipping the relationship equilibria, we might ultimately gain more.
The key here is try to make yourself a good conversationalist while still investigating the person a bit. So, avoid common mistakes such as asking stereotypical questions or dominating the conversation, and up the ante by asking riskier questions. You don’t necessarily have to go all-in with Ariely’s suggested questions — I don’t think I would — but keep them more interesting than the traditional water-cooler talk.
Use the “Right” Amount of Eye Contact
We’ve long been told to maintain eye contact for as long as possible in conversations in order to be persuasive and strong, but a recent study published in Psychological Science turns that idea on its head.
The study shows that when we lock eye contact for too long, the other person might see that as forced dominance, which is (usually) not something you want to exude on a first date, because it’s confrontational. Likewise, it’s not as persuasive as it once was, and the study showed that too much eye contact was actually counterproductive.
In the context of a first date, balancing the right kind of eye contact is crucial. You don’t really want to appear too dominant and controlling, but you still need to maintain the confidence that comes from solid eye contact. So, what’s the right amount of eye contact? A Wall Street Journal article suggests that it’s about 7-10 seconds of eye contact at a time. Hold your gaze, look away briefly at a window, waiter or other table, then return the look. Eye contact is still important, but don’t overdo it. The last thing you want to do is creep out your date with cult-leader eyes.
Watch for Mimicry (But Don’t Go Overboard)
If you’ve ever spent an extended amount of time with someone, you know that you’ll probably pick up a few of their mannerisms, expressions and gestures. That mimicry is an accidental sign of affection in most cases, and science suggests that we’re also attracted to that copycat behaviour.
In a study published in Social Influence, researchers found that men were more likely to enjoy a date when the woman mimicked him. Another study published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society demonstrated that we’re more likely to like people who mimic us, and yet another study from Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that people mimic others they find attractive. The moral of the story here? Mimicry — whether it’s verbal or bodily — is often a sign of attraction.
This means that mimicry is a good thing to look out for when you’re on a date with someone. This might be them subtly crossing their legs after you do or if they put their hand to their chin after you. A New York Times post breaks it down like so:
“When you’re being mimicked in a good way, it communicates a kind of pleasure, a social high you’re getting from the other person, and I suspect it activates the areas of the brain involved in sensing reward,” [neuroscientist Dr. Jean Decety] said.
Of course, it’s a thin line between a charming mimic and purposeful persuasion. Don’t go overboard trying to mimic the other person or watching to see if they mimic you. Doing so will probably make you come across as a creepy mime.
Mind Your Body Language
Body language can reveal all kinds of things about another person and how you present yourself is equally as important. Whether you realise it or not, we read a lot into a person’s body language, so you want to make sure you’re not sending out the wrong signals.
Psychology Today breaks down the obvious signs you might accidentally give and offers this advice:
Don’t assume an unattractive pose. That means that men should not pretend to a macho style where they strut about and assume a truculence as a way of looking strong. Women should not seem aloof. It comes across as snobbery. Neither should either men or women pretend sophistication. I think even those who have been around the world a few times and know a great deal about a great number of things should not present themselves that way if possible. It is intimidating rather than appealing.
In the context of a first date, it’s also important to keep your body language relaxed and comforting. In a report published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, it’s suggested that you keep your movements subdued at first. Remember that the person across from you is essentially a stranger, so use small gestures, slower movements and don’t crowd. Once you’re comfortable together (and you’re no longer seen as a threat) you can make faster, more animated gestures. Basically, show interest in what your date’s saying and doing, but don’t go all Kramer on them.
Be Direct with Plans
It’s often easy to beat around the bush during a first date to try and fish out a response to a question. Whether it’s asking them if they’d like to grab a drink or go on another date, it’s best to just be direct with the question.
In a study published in Personality and Individual Differences, researchers found people were more responsive to direct questions. This means people tend to prefer a more direct, “Can I take you out again next Tuesday?” to tentative plans, jokes or subtle lines. In fact, subtleness was often rated the least effective way to show someone you like them, debunking that high school ideal of “playing hard to get”.
That first date is already filled with a lot of ambiguity, so don’t pile more by trying to drop a bunch of subtle hints when a simple question will suffice. If you want a second date, ask for one. If you’re going to grab a drink afterwards, invite your new friend along. It seems overtly simple, but it’s better than bringing along an Enigma machine and hoping for the best.
Beyond all this, it’s a good idea to keep in mind the basics. Don’t get drunk. Wear something nice, and just give a damn about that first impression. Most importantly, remember not to take any of the above tips too seriously. Sure, they’re evidence-based on psychological studies, but you’ll end up looking desperate if you show up with a set of index cards.