Watch a well-scripted Hollywood romance in which two sexy superstars fall in love, and you’re bound to feel inadequate when you prepare for a first date. Mere mortals don’t have Academy Award-winning writers to craft clever dialogue that makes us sound urbane, playful, captivating and coy—all at the same time. Onscreen, Julia Roberts and Jude Law seldom struggle with the perfect witticism or awkward pauses that make normal conversation grind to a halt.
All is not lost, however. Dating and relationship gurus agree that the rules for making conversation are relatively basic—nothing you haven’t done successfully under different circumstances.
Unleash Your Best “You”
Rule No. 1: Be honest—and be yourself.
“If you try to be someone else—acting in a way or talking about something that doesn’t come naturally to you—it will probably show,” says Dr. Erika Pluhar, a human-sexuality researcher at Emory University in Atlanta , Georgia , and author of “Sexual Etiquette 101 and More.”
“It may actually break the ice to admit that you are nervous. Chances are, your date is just as nervous, if not more so!”
You can also reduce your stress level by thinking of your date as one of your buddies or girlfriends, according to Dr. Gilda Carle, a psychotherapist in private practice and author of several books, including “Don’t Bet on the Prince!” and “He’s Not All That!”
“If you talk to your date as you would a best friend, this person—and this date—becomes no big deal, and nothing to fret about. When you let go of this self-imposed pressure, your date will be magnetically attracted to you.”
Get the Party Started
It’s always a good idea to come up with a few topics for discussion before you meet your date. Soraya Khalili, a master certified relationship coach at the Relationship Coaching Institute Silicon Valley, in San Jose , California , recommends the “FORM” approach, an acronym for Family, Occupation, Recreation and Money—topics that tend to come up in routine conversation.
But don’t over-rehearse what you’re going to say. You’re not performing in a school play.
“Planning actual questions isn’t necessary and will most likely create awkwardness. If you can come up with broad topics, there are a lot of questions you’ll be able to ask that should get things flowing. You can ask if they have family living nearby, brothers or sisters, what kind of work they do and how long they’ve been doing it.”
While everyone is somewhat nervous on a first date, try to check your self-consciousness at the door.
“Keep your thoughts and focus on getting to know the other person, and on both of you having a good time ,” Khalili says.
Don’t get hung up on how you sound or look, and try not to obsess over what your date thinks about you.
“Remember: You’re out on a date with someone who has already expressed some level of interest in getting to know you,” Khalili says, “so relax as much as you can, be curious and have fun.”
Never undervalue the importance of “small talk,” which is likely to make up the bulk of your conversations in the early stages of dating.
“Some people feel they aren’t getting anywhere on a date if they engage in small talk,” Dr. Pluhar says. “On the contrary, small talk—discussing mundane or everyday topics like the weather, news events or traffic—is a way to establish common ground and familiarity with someone. It is in these early stages of a relationship that trust and rapport are built, even if the topic of discussion is seemingly unimportant.”
”You never have to feel responsible for filling every silence,” Dr. Carle adds. Listen to your date carefully, without interrupting or worrying about what you’re going to say next. Concentrate on speaking slowly, in a relaxed fashion, as we all tend to rush our speech when we’re nervous. Maintain eye contact, and sit up straight, which helps keep your voice at a normal pitch.
There are no “right” or “wrong” topics of discussion, Khalili says, but she recommends sticking to subjects within your comfort zone.
“If your date brings up a topic you’d rather not discuss until you know one another a little better, let them know,” she says.
Certain topics are sure conversation stoppers: religion, abortion, politics and other “hot button” issues. It’s best to avoid them as you first get to know someone—unless you’re willing to terminate a relationship based on what Dr. Pluhar labels “core values.”
“Ultimately, it becomes difficult to form a deep, long-term relationship with someone with whom you have core-values conflicts,” she explains. “Thus, as a relationship develops, people can begin to get a sense of each other’s fundamental beliefs by having deeper and more intimate conversations. In the beginning stages, you often can get clues about what these core values and beliefs are from the initial conversations you have with a person, even if they are not stated explicitly.”
“And When I Was 6…”
Try not to grill your date on too many topics, particularly on a first or second date. If there’s chemistry, there will be plenty of time to fill in the information gaps on future dates.
Your primary goal is to determine whether you have similar interests, lifestyles and values, Khalili says—not to elicit your date’s life story or wax poetic about your own.
As the relationship progresses from recreational to serious dating, you can broach other subjects.
“If you’re dating to find a lifelong mate, you may be ready, at some point, to talk about having children or marriage,” Khalili says—but there needs to be some longevity to the relationship or you’ll scare off even the more secure potential partner!