Advice

The First Date: How To Turn Small Talk Into Real Talk

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Do you go on a lot of boring dates? Dates that never really go anywhere because you never get beyond the chatty “getting-to-know-you” stuff? Is it sometimes hard to tell if you even like the person because you didn’t really talk…about anything?

Well, according to psychologist Dan Ariely, this happens because this is the way you want it.

“We found a general trend supporting the idea that people like to maintain boring equilibrium at all costs,” writes Ariely in a recent AskMen article. “When people are free to choose what type of discussions they want to have, they often gravitate toward an equilibrium that is easy to maintain but one that no one really enjoys or benefits from.”

Ariely is referring to a recent study of online daters in which he observed trends in the subject matter of messages on dating sites (which he generally found to be BOOOORING). He then forced these strangers to ask only certain, provocative questions instead. Predictably, the conversation became more interesting when participants asked “Have you ever broken someone’s heart?” instead of “I noticed that we both like tacos. What do you like about them?”

Ariely goes on to suggest that based on his findings, it’s a good idea to ask provocative questions like “How many romantic partners have you had?” on a first date to avoid boredom.

If you want to come off as obnoxious, nosey and lacking in social skills, you should take his advice.

Asking provocative questions for the sake of being provocative shows that you don’t trust that you (or your date) are actually interesting. You’re asking your date to reveal personal information, just because. While leading with questions like these might work in a context in which both parties have agreed to take part in an experiment, asking a stranger personal questions in real life is called “prying.” Sometimes, a date will be caught off guard by your confidence and forwardness, sure, but unless you’re charming as hell, they’re likely to feel like they’re under the microscope. Which is not really a turn-on.

Still, Ariely’s initial point is well taken: first date conversation that sticks strictly to the basics is boring, and you might be cheating yourself out of an opportunity to really get to know someone because you were afraid to take a risk. But isn’t there some middle ground between being a douche and being a dud?

Sure there is. Here are a few tips:

1. Sum up what they’ve just said, then ask an informed question

“Wow, okay. So you studied journalism in college, but now you’re in music management? Do you feel like the part of you that loves stories is fulfilled?”
This approach shows that you’re listening and you’re interested in your date. Specifically. It gives your date a chance to elaborate on their story instead having a fill-in-the-box type conversation.

2. Find ways to ask “Why?” instead of “What?”

In no way am I suggesting that you “Why?” your date to exhaustion like some overgrown three-year-old with a liquor ID. But the motivations behind the choices a person makes tell a more interesting story than the facts alone. For example, “What brought you to the city?” is more likely to yield a thoughtful response than “Did you come here for college?”
Of course, their answer might simply be “I came here for college.” Don’t get stuck. You can easily ask “How did you choose (whatever school they went to)?” Then, if they fire back, “It was the least expensive,” you can ask for the check and know that you at least tried.

3. Point out inconsistencies

Throwing a kink on the works often creates sparks. Ariely is correct in his assessment that the desire to make a date go as smoothly as possible will often make for a smooth but ordinary date. But pointing out something that you find surprising about your date, will get you both just a little outside of you comfort zones.
Observations like, “That’s strange. You don’t seem like an only child,” will get your date talking about how they’re seen in the world, what they think they’re like and how they got to be that way.

4. Do something interesting on your date

Sitting across a table from each other at restaurant or bar limits your naturally occurring conversation topics to the food, the drinks, the atmosphere and each other. And unless you’re prone to dancing on tables, it’s pretty much guaranteed that conversation is all you’ll have to keep yourselves entertained. Why not start with an interesting activity like strolling through a sculpture garden or or even taking a historical walking tour? Yeah, it’s a little geeky, but it will provide you an easy path to meaningful conversation that’s more than just the two of you talking about yourselves.

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