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How to have a great first date

Forget fancy restaurants, scintillating conversation and the right amount of eye contact – simply embrace the awkwardness, says Oliver Burkeman

by Psychologies

First date

3 minute read

There are countless techniques to try to ensure that a first date means clicking with someone special, rather than paralysing anxiety, or wasting three hours. Yet, even the best advice can seem impossible to implement. It might be true that you should adopt certain body language, or make exactly the right amount of eye contact – but, as soon as you deliberately attempt it, you’ll be consumed with self-consciousness, guaranteeing an uncomfortable date. A better plan is to accept the awkwardness and find ways to channel it towards closer connection.

Location, location, location (and time of day) 

You can’t plan in advance what to say or do on a date without falling into the self-consciousness trap, but the same doesn’t apply to where and when you meet. Focus on lowering the stakes: choose somewhere informal, and pick an occasion like drinks after work, or coffee on a weekend afternoon, so you can choose to leave early or stay. Resist any attempts – your own, or the other person’s – to impress with an upmarket venue. One or both of you will just end up fretting that you’re sticking out like a sore thumb.

Choose ‘controlled risk’

When it comes to conversation with a prospective romantic partner, the dilemma is this: boring subjects will leave you both disinterested, but getting too intimate too fast can send the wrong signals. One answer is to create a kind of game: behavioural economist Dan Ariely suggests agreeing to begin with five ‘difficult’ or revealing questions. You’ll leave your comfort zone, which is essential for feeling a spark but, since it’s a game, you’ll retain boundaries. Alternatively, according to another study, talk about travel.

Seek chemistry, not compatibility

Don’t waste a moment wondering if things will work out, if your personalities match or if your backgrounds mesh. According to marriage expert John Gottman, compatibility is irrelevant to relationship success. What matters is being committed to making the relationship work; similarity isn’t required. Instead, trust your instincts – is this a good person?

Pay attention

The one trick to rule them all, according to several studies, is simply to focus completely on the conversation – this doesn’t mean keeping quiet; listening is half your job, but speaking is the other. It’s tempting to try to escape unpleasant sensations, like anxiety, by looking at your phone or mentally checking out – but concentrating fully makes rapport far more likely.

Oliver Burkeman is author of ‘The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’ (Canongate, £8.99)

Image: Getty