Social Minefield: How To Have A Great First Date

First dates are notoriously nerve-wracking. You're hanging out one-on-one with someone you may not know very well, and you're both trying to impress each other. Luckily, we have tips for making the experience a lot less hellish.

As with so many social minefields, most of a first date's biggest challenges are mental. And so our advice begins with mindset:

Decide if you even want to date.

I talked to Jaclyn Friedman, author of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape and a much-discussed post on sluthood, who offers this very good advice:

[D]on't push yourself if you're not ready, even if you or people around you think you "should" be. There is no obligation to date, or to be in a relationship, now or ever. If you only want-to-want-it, but don't actually want it? Just don't. It'll be better for you and all the people you won't be dating.

The truth is, lots of people dread first dates, even with people they're excited about. If you're just nervous, suck it up (and read on for more tips). But if you find that you actually do not want to go out with people in a dating-type way, you do not have to do it. As Lena Chen of The Ch!cktionary points out, "all of us get sold the exact same idea: there's one special person out there who we should be waiting, looking, and striving for." But we're all different, and just as monogamy isn't for everybody, neither is dating. You don't have to be into either one to lead a happy and fulfilled life.

Chill.

Here's the part where I give a little pep talk: in some ways, first dates are easy. If someone asked you out, they're probably somewhat interested in you. If you asked someone out and they said yes, they're at least not repulsed (and if you're one of those people who says yes to people who repulse you out of pity or agreeability or shyness, just stop — the universe will thank you for it). So you're already dealing with someone who you know feels at least okay about you, which puts the whole interaction way ahead of many a party, job interview, or trip to the dentist. Also, there's kind of a social script for first dates — you go someplace together for a not-too-long amount of time, each person talks about him- or herself a little, you make some jokes, you don't get too personal, and you decide whether to go out again. Yes, there are dates that break this mold (there's always the story of that couple whose first date lasted a week), but you can, if you choose, structure your dating life so that most of your first dates take place within certain pretty circumscribed parameters. And if you're the kind of person who's calmed by consistency, this is a good thing.

Friedman offers some specific advice on pre-date chilling:

[G]iving yourself a little pleasure in advance can help you feel confident and relaxed heading into a date, whether it's the There's-Something-About-Mary-style pre-date wank (wash your hands, please!), or something else, like chocolate or wine or a massage. Or all of the above! Self-love is a nice reminder that you're not desperate.

Adjusting your expectations can also be helpful. Blogger and writer Tasha Fierce, whose piece "No Fat Chicks: Navigating the Dating World as a Fat Girl" is an awesome, thought-provoking read, told me,

As someone who was in a relationship for almost 10 years before having to get back into dating, I'd say, don't be surprised if few people meet your expectations. Being alone or in a relationship for a while, you kind of build up a feeling that you want something great, that you want x x and x qualities in your next relationship, and the harsh reality is that you don't come across what you think you deserve very often and certainly not right away.

Adds Friedman,

If you can manage to set aside your hopes and fears and expectations — if you can forget about "Can I picture us together?" and "Am I what is ze is looking for?" and "Is this going to work or am I going to die alone without even any cats because I'm allergic?," and just focus on experiencing this new person in front of you, you'll have a lot more fun.

Oh, and if you're stressed about what to wear, Sadie has the answers.

Pick the right place.

Opinions really vary on what's an appropriate venue for a first date. Millionaire Matchmaker Patti Stanger insists on dinner — but then again, she also insists on hair straightening, archaic gender roles, and a whole bunch of things that aren't necessarily that helpful. And let's face it, dinner can be a lot of pressure — you're locked in to a certain place for a certain amount of time, and there can be something kind of awkward about sitting across from somebody you don't really know while you're waiting for food to come. Says Friedman,

Beverages after work are my go-to first date. That way, if it goes badly, you can be out in 30 minutes, and if it goes well, you can decide to get dinner afterward.

Having a "go-to first date" of some kind can be a good idea, whether it's after-work cocktails or afternoon coffee. I'm not saying you have to have all your first dates at the same bar, but it can be anxiety-reducing to find a few places and times that make you comfortable — and that feel neither too romance-y or too sterile. Plus, that way when you ask someone out you'll already have a place in mind, and you can avoid the awkward dance of indecision that sometimes follows that initial "yes."

But again, everybody's different. Said Chen when I emailed her, "I like museums, parks, and places where you can walk and move around. Confined spaces with strangers are not my thing." The trick is knowing what your thing is, and picking the place that maximizes those qualities, so you won't be nervous about your surroundings when you're getting to know someone.

A word on safety.

Chen says, "In college when I was e-dating, I would send my bestie Jason emails with subject lines like, 'If I die, this is who murdered me.'" In all seriousness, though, if you're going on a first date with someone you don't know very well, whether you met the person online or off, it's a good idea to let a friend know where you'll be and who you'll be with. It's also a good idea to meet in public and, as Friedman says, "don't get too drunk to take care of yourself if things get scary." She adds,

If you decide at any point you want to go somewhere more private with this relative stranger, I strongly recommend setting up a safecall. Also, and this is just me, but I always insist on going to my date's place, and not bringing hir home. That way, I can leave whenever I want (much easier than kicking someone out), and ze still doesn't know where I live.

Keep it light(ish).

You don't have to spend your whole first date talking about the weather. Nor should you sugarcoat your opinions or personality, because that shit's just going to come out eventually. But remember that you don't owe the other person any private information about yourself at this stage. Says Fierce,

Since first dates are a way to test the waters, I'd avoid getting too personal. You want to see if you have chemistry; if you like them enough to put up with any shortcomings not immediately apparent. If you're not hitting it off there's no point in disclosing information a practical stranger doesn't really need to know. Unless you're planning on having sex, then disclosure of certain details can be a must.

When I talked to people in recovery from eating disorders and other mental illnesses, most said they wouldn't disclose their psychiatric histories on a first date. Says Fierce, "Unless your mental health issues are debilitating to your dating life, I wouldn't advocate bringing it up until you can gauge pretty well how they're going to react." She adds,

Physical health issues, if it's going to immediately affect your ability to continue dating someone, then I'd say bring it up. [...] If someone makes a disclosure of the above to you, I'd say treat them how you'd like to be treated, period. If you feel like what they've told you is a dealbreaker, tell them THEN and not after you're both more attached. I would hope disabilities wouldn't be a dealbreaker for you, but if it is, best to be honest about it.

So what should you talk about? Stuff you like! Stuff your date likes! Topics that interest you! Friedman points out that you don't need to stick to some list of predetermined, inoffensive subjects as long as you approach the conversation with good humor and an open mind:

I would say that tone is more important than topic. If you're genuine, confident and curious, you should be able to expect the same from your date, even if things get a little personal or political. If you're going in with litmus tests and axes to grind, it probably won't go as well.

This goes for lots of social interactions: ask a lot of questions, and make them less about "testing" people than about genuinely finding out what they have to say.

Who pays?

One convention states that whoever asked should pay. This is a good standard — and to my mind, going dutch is also fine. In general, I think it's a good rule of thumb to at least offer to split, even if you're the askee. And if the other person really insists on paying — whether s/he asked or not — go ahead and let them. This doesn't obligate you to do anything further, and if your date thinks it does, that's a pretty good argument for never seeing them again.

On goodbyes.

If the first date went well and you'd like to go out again, say so. You don't have to wait for the other person. Just be like, "This was fun! Let's hang out again." You have no control over what they'll say, but at least you don't have to sit around later wondering if they actually knew you were still interested. If you're not feeling a second date, a simple "thanks so much, it was great to meet you" is polite without leading someone on. As for the physical part of the goodbye, go with your instincts. A hug, a kiss, or none of the above are all fine, depending on how much physical chemistry you're feeling. And if you're feeling a lot of chemistry...

Addressing the sex question.

The question of whether it's "okay" to have sex on the first date is one that really needs to die. Writes Chen of having sex with her now-boyfriend on the first date,

I broke what some consider to be the cardinal first-date rule, but in doing so, I wound up with a guy who appreciated my willingness to own up to my sexual urges rather than play the coy Good Girl. And though I've also gone out with men who have bedded me and burned my number in the aftermath, I can assure you that I'm no worse off for not having been called back.

On the flip side, there are lots of people who aren't comfortable fucking on the first date — or who sometimes are and sometimes aren't, depending on the situation. The only advice anyone can really give here is to be safe and do what feels right. As Chen also points out, a lot of "rules" like the first-date sex thing are based on the idea that if you do a certain set of things in a certain way, you'll get everything you want in love. This is the premise of most dating books, and it's not just inaccurate, it's pretty judgmental — if you're not happily coupled up (with your one true soulmate, of course), you must be doing something wrong. Fortunately or unfortunately, the universe just isn't that orderly, and there's no advice anyone can give you that will make all the people you like also like you (not to mention treat you well and want the same kind of relationship you want). But hopefully the tips above will make your first dates more fun and less stressful — and as Friedman says, "a date is an experience in and of itself." You might as well enjoy it.


Need help with a sticky social situation? Email us! We'll sweep your social minefield!

For all Social Minefield columns, go here.

On Clutch Magazine – No Fat Chicks: Navigating The Dating World As A Fat Girl [Red Vinyl Shoes]
Do All Of Us Need "The One"? [The Ch!cktionary]
A Sexpert's Advice: Don't Listen To The Advice [Sex. Really.]
First Date Etiquette: Going Dutch, Hitting The Sack, And Breaking All The Rules [Sex. Really.]
Books [Jaclyn Friedman]
Jaclyn Friedman [Twitter]
The Ch!cktionary [Official Site]
Red Vinyl Shoes [Official Site]

Earlier: The Delicate Balance Of Dating And Mental Illness
My Sluthood, Myself.

Image via Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock.com