Many people think they know what they are looking for in a first date, and sometimes they are right. Sure, attractiveness is important, especially at the beginning of a relationship. That is why both parties arrive on a first date looking their best. Yet a first date involves both looking and listening.
Research by Marisa T. Cohen (2016) of 390 predominantly heterosexual survey respondents shed light on the perception of behavior on a first date.[i] The results provide an interesting snapshot of what many couples are thinking as they size each other up on their first outing.
Cohen's findings indicated that women were more likely than men to use early behavior and verbal communication to gauge the level of perceived attraction from their date. Men, on the other hand, did not view these behaviors as indicating that their date was less attracted to them.
Women (more than men) preferred lively conversation, which Cohen suggests might indicate a preference for a man who can “take charge” of a date. Yet in terms of predicting whether there will be a second date, research reveals that conversation topics are important as well.
Cohen's research found that on a first date, conversation topics are one of the ways individuals gauge a date's level of interest from their date. In her study, men believed their dates found them attractive when they directed the conversation to the topic of sex, while women inferred attraction when their partner mentioned future plans.
Yet both sexes agreed on the most successful conversation topic: The woman.
When It Comes to Conversation, a First Date Is All About Her
Cohen's research showed that successful dates occurred when the woman was able to talk about herself. Both sexes reported establishing a connection when the woman had the floor, and a man could create a shared experience by commenting on what his date says.
Prior research discovered the same thing. McFarland et al. (2013) studied romantic bonding through exploring interaction ritual theory within the context of heterosexual speed dating,[ii] revealing some interesting conclusions: Overall, interpersonal chemistry was highest when the women were the subjects of conversation and the men demonstrated understanding of the women. The bonding occurred through reciprocal role coordination, in which the female was the focal point.
Avoid the Rearview Mirror
We likely do not need a study to tell us that a first date is not the venue to glorify or vilify past paramours. And yet it happens, frequently. Sometimes a prospective partner is on the rebound, sulking or stewing over a recent failed relationship that he or she cannot refrain from discussing. Other first daters intentionally discuss past flames, either in terms of quantity or quality, in an effort to boost their own standing and desirability. Research indicates that, whatever the motivation, discussing past relationships is not a winning strategy.
Cohen's study found that women viewed a partner discussing past relationships with them as a sign of disinterest — which corroborates the finding that women prefer date conversation to be focused on themselves.
Yet you do not have to pepper a partner with questions to demonstrate interest or get them to open up further. To the contrary, the best rapport is built by joining their narrative.
A First Date Is Not a Job Interview
Some individuals, particularly those who feel socially awkward, prepare for a first date by creating a mental (and sometimes even a printed) list of questions and conversation topics. Topics are fine, but specific questions, although necessary at times to break the ice or keep a conversation going, can detract from the experience of bonding.
McFarland et al. found a negative link between questions and bonding. In their study, women used questions as an attempt to revive lagging conversation, and men used questions when they had nothing better to add to the conversation. Successful dates, by contrast, consisted of high-energy shared narratives, with few questions.
The Excitement of High-Energy Communication
High-energy communication is linked to excitement. McFarland et al. found that mutual excitement was linked with interpersonal chemistry, yet was expressed differently by men and women. Women raise and vary their vocal pitch, while men increase the volume and laugh.
Regarding conversation flow, one unexpected finding was women's enhanced feeling of bonding with men who interrupted them. Upon further examination, however, the researchers determined that these interruptions were not to change the subject, but for the purpose of supporting what the women were saying and demonstrating understanding. Such interruptions included expressing agreement, relaying similar experiences, or extending an idea the woman was voicing.
The Final Word: Chemistry Through Conversation
Successful relationships cannot continue to be solely focused on the woman. To the contrary, healthy relationships involve mutual admiration, respect, and attention. After the first date, however, listening remains as important if not more important than looking. As a courtship continues, chemistry through conversation continues to surpass the value of appearances alone, and sparks mutual attraction through shared experience.
Wendy Patrick, JD, Ph.D., is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert. She is the author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House). She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention, safe cyber security, and threat assessment, and is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own.
Find her at wendypatrickphd.com or @WendyPatrickPhD
[i] Marisa T. Cohen, “It’s not you, it’s me…no, actually it’s you: Perceptions of what makes a first date successful or not,” Sexuality & Culture: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 20, no. 1 (2016): 173-191.
[ii] Daniel A. McFarland, Dan Jurafsky, and Craig Rawlings, ”Making the Connection: Social Bonding in Courtship Situations,” American Journal of Sociology 118, no. 6 (2013): 1596-1649.