Here’s what to say - and what not to say - on a first date

Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal broke up before they were ever together in "When Harry Met Sally."
Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal broke up before they were ever together in "When Harry Met Sally."

What distinguishes a good first date from a bad one? It’s pretty much all on display in the famous double date scene from “When Harry Met Sally.”

Sally and her terrible date firmly disagree about important topics. Harry and his terrible date are politely disinterested in each other. Then comes the moment where both of their terrible dates click – with each other. “Nobody has ever quoted me back to me before,” Sally’s date says to Harry’s date in admiration.

First dates are a staple of romantic comedy. They are also the focus of a study from researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, Santa Barbara, that looks at what people say on successful dates and not-so-successful dates.

The researchers ran speed dating events for (heterosexual) grad students in which they recorded what everyone said.

The data showed that women felt more connected when men were actively engaged in the conversation and focused on them. Women were more likely to feel connected:

▪ When men “mimicked their laughter” (meaning they laughed right after the woman laughed, not made fun of their laugh).

▪ “Interrupted them” (asked questions to show they were paying attention).

▪ Demonstrated their appreciation by saying positive or flattering things, and used the word “you.”

Men reported feeling less connected when women did what the researchers called “hedging” – saying things like “kind of,” “sort of,” and “maybe.”

In contrast, the men said they felt a spark when women talked about themselves, using words like “I,” “me,” “myself.”

What does all this mean?

As Priceonomics’ Rose Cima points out, one funny thing about this research is there is an obvious mismatch between the behavior of men and women. Women report feeling a connection when men interrupt them to show that they’re paying attention and say nice things that indicate that they appreciate them. However, men who report feeling connected to women don’t actually do these things. (Tip to men: Try these things.)

There were two things men and women had in common, however. First, both men and women are less likely to report a connection when a woman uses uncertain words like “kinda,” “sorta,” and “maybe.” Second, both men and women were more likely to report a connection if the woman talked about herself.

Taken together, these two findings suggest an uneven relationship between men and women: That whether a couple “clicks” is mostly determined by whether the woman is interested in the man, and not vice versa. At least in this study, these behaviors seem to be an accurate sign of a woman’s interest, and men picked up on those signals.