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How to Survive a First Date

Follow these 3 tips and you might even enjoy yourself.

Even for the most socially comfortable people, first dates can be nerve-racking. It’s hard to be relaxed and natural when you know that your date is evaluating your every move for what it might reveal about your potential as a romantic partner. There is a lot of pressure to show your best self, and this self-conscious atmosphere is not very conducive to getting to know someone—or enjoying yourself. But there are ways to make a first date less painful:

1. Relabel the butterflies.

People often assume that physical symptoms like a pounding heartbeat or butterflies in their stomach mean that they are nervous, but who is to say these aren’t just signs of excitement? Interpreting physiological arousal in a positive light can help you feel more confident and engaged, and less distracted by anxiety.

In one study, participants who were told that arousal could improve their performance on a GRE test actually performed better on the test than those who were left to assume, as we tend to do, that arousal would interfere with performance. You can apply this same reframing to the nerves you might feel before or during a date: Just remember that there is nothing objectively bad about these feelings, and that they might actually help you be at your best.

What if your date picks up on your nerves? That’s not as dire as you might fear, either. Research shows that people who appear embarrassed are more likeable—they are viewed by peers as more cooperative, unselfish, and trustworthy. So don’t worry if you get caught blushing, stumble over your words, or accidentally knock your fork off the table. Your date will probably find it endearing.

2. Do something scary.

If you’re afraid for your life, the last thing you'll be worrying about is whether your hair looks okay. You don't want to put your life in danger on a date, but doing an adventurous, challenging, and slightly scary activity together can distract you both from your nerves and help you focus more fully on each other.

It can also help ignite the sparks of attraction. In one classic study, male participants who had to walk across a rickety old suspension bridge before meeting with a female experimenter to take a survey were more likely to call her after the experiment than participants who crossed a more stable bridge, indicating that they may have misattributed the arousal they felt from traversing the scary bridge to the attractiveness of the female experimenter—and assumed they must be romantically interested in her.

It’s no accident that Bachelor/Bachelorette TV reality-show contestants are often sent on sky-diving or bungee-jumping dates. On a mostly staged, these experiences can create some very real feelings of fear, excitement, and attraction—and give contestants a better chance of making it to the final rounds. Bungee jumping into a rocky ravine may not be an ideal first date in real life, but there are plenty of other exhilarating activities that are less dangerous, like rock-climbing, surfing, or watching a scary movie together.

If you're concerned that an intense activity could produce an artificial feeling of attraction that won't last, you could also look at it as a way to break down the usual barriers, like the awkwardness of a typical dinner date, and allow genuine sparks to emerge that might otherwise not have.

3. Ask unexpected and unplanned questions.

If you want to get to know someone, asking a lot of questions is an obvious solution, but it also matters what you ask and why. Rather than sticking to the standard first date checklist, which can make a date feel like a job interview, ask about things that you're genuinely curious about, regardless of whether they seem relevant to determining your compatibility with your date.

This is supported by research conducted in 2011 by online dating service OkCupid, which found that the questions that best predict romantic compatibility don’t fit the typical mold. Analyzing data from 34,260 real-world couples, the service found that users who responded the same way to the following three questions were more likely to form a committed relationship than those who didn’t:

  1. Do you like horror movies?
  2. Have you ever traveled around another country alone?
  3. Wouldn't it be fun to chuck it all and go live on a sailboat?

These questions were even more predictive of compatibility than the questions that users rated as most important, like whether or not God is important in your life, and whether you're disgusted by smoking.

The idea is that you don’t have to ask someone outright if they are open-minded or spiritual, or if they possess any other quality you might admire. If you let the conversation flow naturally, and are unafraid to ask random questions when they come up, you may learn much more about your date.

First dates are inevitably a little stressful, but they don't have to be miserable. Accepting—and even openly acknowledging—the inherent awkwardness can help reduce the tension and get past the elephant in the room. Sometimes, however, no matter how excited you are or how fun the planned activity is, first dates just don't work out. The best way to survive them, in that case, is to end them as early as possible.

Copyright Juliana Breines, Ph.D.