How to Have a Successful First Date
- Don't underestimate the power of a first impression. Be authentic, but put your best foot forward.
- Keeping an open mind and opting for low-key date ideas can relieve some pressure.
- Taking a positive approach, asking the right questions and staying safe can help you avoid a bad first date.
First dates can be both exhilarating and nerve-wracking, simultaneously holding the potential for a storybook romance or a major letdown. Neither love nor lust offers any guarantees, but keeping specific guidelines in your dating handbook can elevate your chances of making a memorable first impression.
Let's look at how to have a successful first date.
Why are first impressions so important?
People make decisions about others within one to three seconds of meeting them for the first time and it can be difficult to change those perceptions, said Susan Trotter, Ph.D., a relationship coach in Natick, Massachusetts. That initial meeting is crucial in dating since it could make or break a potential relationship.
"As your mother always said, you don't get a second chance at a first impression," said Susan Trombetti, a matchmaker and the CEO of Exclusive Matchmaking in Annapolis, Maryland. "You have one chance to captivate, impress or put yourself out there in a positive light. If you miss that, chances are you won't have a second date."
That's not to say you should put on a show for your date—unless they're into theatrical types. Try to be the best version of yourself.
What are some low-key first-date ideas?
Keeping it low-key can relieve some pressure and help you feel more at ease. Still, it should feel like a special occasion, which is why evening dates—which tend to be a tad more formal—are typically preferable, according to Christiana Maxion, an international dating coach and matchmaker based in Dubai.
Options for low-pressure outings vary according to the time of the date.
Low-key date ideas for the evening include:
- A comedy show
- A concert
- A cooking or mixology class
- Dinner at a semi-casual restaurant
- Seeing a movie
- Watching the sunset
- Wine and pizza
Low-key date ideas for during the day include:
- A café for coffee or dessert (or both)
- A picnic in a park
- A farmer's market or street fair
- A walk
- Apple picking
- Miniature golf
- Wine tasting
What's a good first-date outfit?
Choosing a cute first date outfit depends on a few factors, including where you're going, the time of day, the weather and your personal style, said Aura De Los Santos, a clinical psychologist in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
Ultimately, the best date outfit is one in which you feel confident and comfortable, provided it's appropriate for the occasion.
Generally, sophisticated but relaxed attire—a dress or tailored blazer with nice jeans or pants—is the best bet, Maxion said. However, she added it might not be suitable if you're going hiking.
Similarly, a fitted suit or formal dress is more appropriate if you're going somewhere upscale. To avoid the embarrassment of donning an ill-fitting loaner jacket or, worse, being denied entry, call ahead or check a venue's social media if you're unsure what's acceptable.
As for colors, people tend to find red and black the most attractive in a romantic context, according to a study published in Evolutionary Psychology.
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How can you communicate effectively?
A first date is your chance to "sell" yourself, but the conversation needs to be a two-way street. And listening is just as important as talking.
"The best conversationalists are good listeners," said Laura Doyle, a relationship coach and author in Corona del Mar, California.
One of the best ways to communicate effectively is to be fully present and practice active listening, De Los Santos said. Put your phone away, or flip it over on the table, and focus on your date.
"Active listening is about listening with respect and understanding," Trotter said. "It involves really listening to what someone is telling you, paying attention to verbal and nonverbal cues and then reflecting back what they're saying. Everyone wants to feel heard and seen, and good communication and active listening contribute to that feeling.
"Communication is foundational in a good relationship, so starting with that early will help set a couple up for success."
One way to make this easy is to use the phrase "I hear you." Don't say "I hear you" and add your opinion. Just say "I hear you," Doyle said. This lets your date know what they're saying is important and you're taking it in.
Making eye contact is another way to let your date know you're fully focused on them. But don't overdo it, as your date might interpret it as forced dominance, according to a study published in Psychological Science. If that's something you and your date are into, great. Otherwise, it could seem off-putting or creepy.
About four to five seconds of eye contact at a time is usually appropriate, according to Michigan State University. After that, briefly glance to the side and go back to staring deeply into each other's eyes.
What are some good conversation topics?
Topics such as the weather or last night's football game are fine if you're talking to a coworker or a hookup (or both), but people contain multitudes. If you really want to get to know someone, you need to dig deeper. That doesn't mean you have to go full Anderson Cooper, though. Try mixing light and serious topics to understand your compatibility better.
Experts suggested some lighter conversation topics, including the following:
- Do they have pets?
- How did they choose their career?
- What are their favorite books, movies, music or TV shows?
- What are their hobbies and interests?
- What kinds of food do they like or dislike?
- What would you do with your life if money was no object?
- What's their favorite childhood memory?
- What's your dream vacation and why?
- Where have they traveled and why?
Examples of deeper topics include:
- How do they care for themselves—physically, mentally or both?
- What are their core values?
- What are their long-term goals?
- What gives their life meaning?
It's natural to think about what you might say ahead of time, but ditch the prepared answers or rehearsed jokes because they can negatively affect the date, according to research.
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Who should pay on a first date?
It's always nice to offer to pay—especially if you asked for the date. If your date declines, you can say you'd like to treat them this time but are happy to split the bill on the next one. However, if they still say no, don't push it.
About half of daters adhere to traditional values and expect the man (in a heterosexual pairing) to pay, but many don't mind either way or prefer splitting the bill, according to a survey of 300,000 people by Elite Singles.
"Factors like a person's values and culture can come into play here, but generally, people like it when both parties at least offer," Trotter said.
How long should a first date last?
"That's like asking, 'How tall do you need to be to reach the floor?'" Doyle said.
A first date can last anywhere from one hour to five, Maxion said. It's all about how you're feeling and what you want.
"Generally, though, two hours is ideal," Trotter said. "That provides just enough opportunity to see if there's a connection and some chemistry without overly investing time. If it goes well, it's just enough time to pique interest and excitement and give you more to talk about on the second date."
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How can you set boundaries and stay safe?
You can take several steps to stay safe and establish boundaries in the initial stages of dating, according to Trotter. For example, you might request to meet in a public place and share your location on social media or with a friend. You may want to limit yourself to one or two drinks or avoid kissing or sex.
"The best way to set a boundary is by verbalizing it, and then you have the opportunity to see how the other person responds," she said. "Do they show respect for it? Do they try to convince you to do something you don't feel comfortable doing? Do they ignore your boundaries? A quality person will want you to feel comfortable and will therefore show respect for whatever boundary you set, without question."
De Los Santos recommended respecting your date's boundaries and always asking before doing something that may make them feel uncomfortable.
The bottom line
Be respectful and open-minded, and try to have a good time. Even if you don't find your soulmate, you might make a new friend. At the very least, it can be a learning experience or a new story to tell your friends at brunch.
"People often put a lot of pressure on a first date by getting too far ahead of themselves in their head," Trotter said. "They're asking themselves 'Will this person be my soulmate?' 'Will they get along with my kids, friends, family?' 'What will life be like with them?' And so on.
"The best way to approach a first date is to be present and enjoy it while also thinking of it as an opportunity to gather more information about the person to help you assess quality and potential fit. The only question to ask yourself at the end of the first date is whether or not you might want a second date. That's it."