Last summer I had a date with a prison guard named Shawn. He had tattoos on his neck: “Alisha” and “Jasmine.” The names of his daughters, it turned out—not ex-lovers sharing everlasting real estate on the banks of his carotid artery.
I have no desire to speak with Shawn again, for reasons unrelated to his all-too-visible life decisions. What disqualified the guy was his earnest, unending, obvious monologue about the importance of family. Blood runs thick, you know. Loyalty, fraternity, on and on for what felt like eternity.
But it was only 5 minutes. Then the bell rang, and Shawn moved on to the next woman.
I went on 100 first dates last year. Fifteen dates one night, 12 another, and more the next. The typical setup: A speed-dating company rents out a room in a bar and sells seats for about 30 bucks a pop. Usually, more women than men show up. The women stay seated while the men rotate through.
For 2 to 6 minutes, we meet, greet, bedazzle, or bore one another, and decide, Yes, I’d like to see more of this one, orNext, please. Please, please. Then we stand, shake hands, switch partners, and repeat. At the end we turn in a sheet indicating which ones we’d like to see again. When two people show mutual interest, they receive contact info. And a beautiful love is born.
That’s the idea, anyway.
My mission was to meet 100 men and assess their first-impression skills. It was efficient and it felt legit: Relationship researchers are now using speed dating in their laboratories o’ love.
Like Paul Eastwick, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Texas A&M, who says speed dating has real-world parallels: “Everyone goes to parties or bars and has brief conversations with people they’ve never met before. The lessons apply to all initial romantic encounters.” Fair enough.
Let’s look at a few of the men I met, and see what I learned about first impressions.
We Don’t Know What We Want
Call him: The Total Package
First noticed: Sharp clothes, great smile
Thought to myself: Stop flirting with her! Look at me!
His name was Jake. Really. Chiseled jaw, broad shoulders, big brown eyes. Swoon. He was smart, driven, and thoughtful. We liked the same music, we’d read the same books. On paper, perfect.
He was also arrogant as hell, and boring. Afterward I did not mark “yes” next to his name.
Ask a woman about the traits she looks for in a boyfriend or husband, and she’ll rattle off a list of requirements strict enough to make you surrender your man-card on the spot. My advice: Just ignore the damn list. It means next to nothing.
In one study of over 10,000 members of the speed-dating service HurryDate, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Arizona State University found that, aside from race, a woman’s list of preferred characteristics didn’t correlate much with the men she actually liked.
We all have misconceptions. A study of 163 college speed daters conducted by Eastwick and Eli Finkel, Ph.D., of Northwestern University, found that men, contrary to their stated assumption, care just as much about a mate’s earning potential as women do.
And women are just as motivated by attractiveness as men are. “People have these elaborate theories about the qualities they’re looking for in a partner, but ultimately they have little real insight into themselves,” Eastwick says.
Your move: Don’t try to be the man she wants you to be
“Being too agreeable and connected actually hurts you,” Eastwick says. “If you agree with everything she says, you come across as submissive or weak. You’re not her best friend yet; you’re still trying to establish yourself as someone unique and interesting.” Throw in some lighthearted teasing or a contrasting viewpoint. We like the give-and-take, and you’ll stand out from the spineless, personalityless crowd.
You Can’t Really Read Her
Call him: Presumptuous Peter
First noticed: Graying hair, refined; coat and tie
Thought to myself: Loosen up—this is pleasure, not business.
Peter looked about 15 years older than I am—fine by me, as long as the gent makes me laugh and treats me as an equal. We chatted amicably, and I asked him what he did for a living.
He paused. “I’d rather save that information for the next date, sweetheart.”
What next date, hotshot? The condescending “sweetheart” was bad enough, but in my mind, playing coy about his employment implied that he thought I was interested in his money. He wasn’t being friendly, so he never had a shot.
The cold truth is that we sometimes make up our minds within 5 minutes of meeting someone. The scarier truth is that the criteria we use to judge strangers are often skewed and irrelevant.
Psychologists classify personalities in five dimensions: agreeableness, extroversion, conscientiousness, openness, and emotional stability. Upon meeting someone, we most often judge their agreeableness, researchers from Columbia University found. But the same research also shows that this is precisely the dimension we’re least accurate in judging.
Your move: Smile. Make good eye contact. Smile some more
Be as friendly as possible. No posing, please. Researchers from Texas State University at San Marcos surveyed speed daters’ “thin-slice judgments,” based on 30 seconds of interaction. Women who had positive first impressions gave five reasons. Three of the five: The man communicated well, had a great smile, and acted friendly. Do you notice a trend?
We Can Be as Shallow as Men
Call him: Ugly Owen
First noticed: Wonky teeth and worse hair—wispy and thinning and wild, like a meth-head clown
Thought to myself: No, thank you.
Owen was from London. He was delightful, a music producer and a fascinating conversationalist. A friend and I agreed: Owen is awesome. Just, not for us. “I almost want to mark ‘yes’ next to his name so that we can hang out and be friends,” my friend said. Talk about the kiss of death.
Beauty rules early on, says Shanghong Luo, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, who conducted a speed-dating study testing the principles of attraction. “In the first 5 minutes, you don’t have that much other information about the person besides what he or she looks like.”
Great news for men like Jake. But what of the others? Eastwick weighs in: “You might not be the most attractive person in the room, but some people in that room are going to think you are.”
Your move: Sell yourself
In that thin-slice judgment study, women listed attractive traits. “Tall” and “handsome” were there—but so were “clean-cut,” “neatly groomed,” and “stylish clothing.” So packaging matters. I might have marked “yes” if Owen had tamed his mane. A close cut is superior to the circus look.
You Can Play the Odds
Call him: Card-carrying Kevin
First noticed: His stack of notebook cards
Thought to myself: I’m curious.
Kevin fanned the cards in his large hands and then asked me to pick one and read it. “If you could have dinner with three people, living or dead, who would they be?” His answers: Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr., and Britney Spears.
This guy was good. By the time the bell rang, I was smitten. Then Kevin sat down with the woman to my left, and out came the cards and canned answers. I pouted as I erased the “yes” by his name. Mine was a typical reaction: According to Luo’s research, people are attracted to those who like them (big surprise), but only if the interest seems unique. Poor Kevin was a perfect example. I loved our connection, but then felt slighted when I saw I wasn’t the only queen in his deck.
Your move: Be an open book
If you’re jonesing for pretty lady number 9, make it clear how you feel, says Luo. Compliment her, but drop in a line about how great it is to meet someone you can connect with. Singling her out as above the rest will make her remember you.
You Can Connect in 5 Minutes
Call him: Barbecue Ben
First noticed: He looks like Michael from Lost.
Thought to myself: Great smile!
Ben did everything right. He said he’d seen me from across the room before the event and was eager to talk to me—a textbook “you’re special” ego boost. Within 30 seconds, we learned that we were both from North Carolina, and a lively conversation about NC barbecue commenced. My energy was higher than it had been with any of the dozen or so guys who came before him. Our back-and-forth made me laugh and eager to hear what he’d say next. When the bell rang, we were shocked—5 minutes was up already?
Ben received a definite “yes.”
Your move: Have a conversation
Eastwick’s research reveals that both men and women say the best dates have a 60-40 split—you talk about the other person 60 percent of the time, and yourself 40 percent. So ask questions, listen, and respond accordingly. You want to focus mostly on her while still communicating information about yourself. Easy enough, right?
One Last Point
Research shows that women are much better at faking interest than men are. I met a few guys who sized me up from word one and checked out immediately. Mistake. Because if I run into one of them, I’ll tell my hot girlfriends that he’s the one from speed dating who couldn’t stop looking at his watch.
In other words, just be polite. Remember: You only have to keep it up for 5 minutes.