Monday, December 29, 2008

Opening gambits

Because everybody’s most nervous at the beginning — once you get past “hi” — an opening line can give you some confidence. There is a universal opening line that’s guaranteed not to fail: Tell your date she or he looks fabulous (beautiful, handsome, delicious, ravishing, divine . . . you choose the adjective). The more specific, the better — but stay away from body parts between the neck and the ankles. Such a compliment as an opening line immediately puts both of you at ease: Your date knows the preparation wasn’t in vain, and you fly past the first hurdle with several inches to spare. Plus, there’s a bonus: Your date will probably return the compliment, and you’ll both feel your confidence surge.
Of course, a great opening line is only the beginning of an entire date full of conversation. After all, you can’t keep telling your date that he or she looks fabulous (stop after 20 or 30 reps). Eventually, you’ll have to actually talk to one another. That doesn’t mean you have to initiate a discussion of nuclear physics or the meaning of life as we know it. Start small with small talk, discussed in the cleverly named “Small talk” section later in this chapter. The last thing you want to do in the first five minutes is let your date see you cower. Gobs of nerves are contagious, and so is serenity. This isn’t the final round of the National Cool Talk Competition. Relax. Take deep breaths and say what’s on your mind, unless it’s one of the following:
  • How are you? The question is trite (“Fine, thank you. How are you?”) or too personal, depending on the response, especially on a date when a truthful response probably sounds like, “I’m feeling a bit nervous, slightly sweaty, a tiny bit nauseous, excited, filled with anticipation, and hoping we end up really liking one another.” Yikes! Even a clever response (like “I’ve never been better” or “I worked out today, and I’m on an endorphin high” or “I’m looking forward to our wonderful evening tonight” or “I’m starved and raring to go”) is kinda cute but a waste of time.
  • Why are you late? If there was a ten-car pileup, it will be the first thing mentioned. If your date overslept, he or she may or may not tell you. I know you were kept waiting, worrying, and wondering if you’d written down the wrong date, and I know that’s not okay, but the first five minutes of a date is a tough time to begin sounding like an angry parent. Make a decision. If your date’s too late for you to forgive and forget, cancel the date and explain why. If the tardiness is slightly irksome but you’re willing to overlook it, let it go. I mean really let it go. Don’t bring it up. Not now, anyway. (When you make the next date, explain that you’re a bit compulsive about being on time.)
  • How do I look? When you’re nervous, it’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing on yourself and your insecurities. Don’t go there. The quickest way to ease date-stress is to get out of your head and into the moment. Assume you look fab and try to relax yourself and your date. No fishing for compliments.
  • Mind if I smoke? Believe it — most people do mind. Unless you met in a cigar bar, this question is far too risky to even attempt. I know, you smokers out there are thinking that one puny puff would sure take the edge off the first moments of a date. You may want to light up so much your fingers are twitching. But there are two reasons to give your addiction a rest right now: First, smoking is like taking out a billboard ad announcing you’re nervous. Guys on their way to the guillotine were offered a final cigarette! Do you want your date to feel as though you’ve been sentenced to death? Second, cigarette smoking inspires passionate feelings on both sides of the issue (I know lots of folks who wouldn’t go out even once with a smoker). The first five minutes of a date are time for vanilla ice cream, Wonder Bread, and sensible shoes. In short, don’t even go close to controversy.
No matter what your question is, make sure you don’t make the same mistake one famous interviewer often makes: You get so involved in the elaborate question that you pay no attention to the answer. Also, make sure your date can’t answer your questions by a simple yes or no; otherwise, you’ll feel like you’re in a batting cage with an automatic pitching machine. In times of stress, we tend to regress to childhood behaviors that might have calmed us or felt safe. Many women slip and fall into a sort of “mothering mode” when they feel anxiety tighten their chests. Questions like “Do you need a sweater?” “Do you have the directions?” and “Are you sure we have enough time to make it?” just make your date feel like an inadequate little boy. Even if he freezes his buns off or doesn’t have the directions or botches the reservation, keep quiet and let him work his way out of the mess he made. Remember: You’re not his mom; you’re his date. Okay, so you know what not to ask. But what are some good opening gambits?
These are:
  • What did you do today? (The focus on the other person shows interest, and presumably everyone did something.)
  • What book (movie, TV show, and so on) is your favorite?
  • Are you a cat person or a dog person?
The point here is that you’re gathering the building blocks of a conversational bridge, a way of getting from no knowledge to important stuff. You can’t go from “Hi, my name is Fred” to “What do you want in life?” Talking about weather, books, friends you have in common, and so on is a way to lay the foundation across the chasm that separates strangers so that they can meet in the middle or comfortably go back and forth.

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