Earlier this week I was having a conversation with a friend about how dinner dates are probably one of the worst ways of getting to know someone. It’s basic stuff, but well worth repeating, because, well, people seem to keep on having these dinner dates. Much of what I write here concerns the loftier aspects of the self and deep connection and all that good stuff. At the same time, remember that this real-world stuff about where the pogo stick hits the asphalt matters, too.
So let me make it clear: if a couple got together after a first date that involved dinner, it happened in spite of the date, not because of it. You heard it here first. Here are some reasons why.
1) The seating arrangement promotes discomfort.
Think about it: at what other time in your life are you face-to-face with a stranger and answering hard questions? I can think of two: a job interview, and a criminal interrogation. Neither rates as a pleasant encounter.
So if you find yourself in a dinner situation and would like to make the encounter more pleasant, sit side-by-side or at right angles. The latter usually works best, especially because it makes it possible to touch one another. Which brings us to…
2) There’s usually an ocean of table between the two of you precluding the possibility of casual touch.
I remember reading a neuroscientist once say that touch is at least ten times as potent as any other sense at establishing intimacy between two people. When you’re sitting across the table from someone, it’s very difficult to casually punctuate your witty remarks with a light tap on the wrist, a brush on the shoulder, or other contact that’s even bolder. If touch is indeed ten times as potent as any other sensory modality at establishing intimacy, then that means you’re losing out on 90% of the possible progress of this date if you can’t touch one another.
Once again, sitting side-by-side or at right angles bridges the chasm while solving the problem stated in the previous item.
3) You’re trying to talk, but you’ve got food in your mouth.
The point of the dinner date is not the food, but rather to get to know one another. And yet, there’s the food, smack-dab in your piehole, from which you are trying to hold forth on your yoga retreat to Bali, the benefits of goji berries, or why Manolo Blahnik is god.
When you try to eat and talk at the same time, you’ll end up doing both in a half-assed way. Either say politely that you prefer not to talk while you’re eating the main meal (awkward at best), or avoid the situation entirely by having only coffee or tea with this stranger. Add to that the Emily Post moment of wondering whether it’s more impolite not to answer a question or to do it with your mouth full, and you’ve created a needlessly complicated situation for yourself.
Speaking of needless complications…
4) It’s never quite clear what to do with that bill thing.
Well, as a guy, it’s reasonably clear for me what to do. If you issued the invitation, you always pay, unless your date vehemently refuses to be treated. If it’s a mutual thing, you offer to pay for both of you, and accept if she insists to pay her way. If she invited, you offer to pay your way, and accept if she insists on paying for both.
Now that may sound easy. But it’s not always clear who invited whom, and how mutual it is. Does the situation change if the bill is huge? If it’s minuscule? What’s the rubric for a woman?
Again, for a first date, the purpose of the encounter is to get to know someone better to figure out if you want to spend more time together. You’re better off getting rid of any distractions to that task, including the knock-kneed dance around paying the bill. Which brings us to…
5) You’re kind of stuck with your date until you get the bill.
Let’s face it: you’re not going to be enamored of most people you go on a first date with. In fact, some of them may irritate and annoy you to high heaven (or low hell). Within the first five minutes, he’s waxing poetic about drag racing, and you’re thinking about your exit strategy for racing out of this drag.
But guess what: once you’ve put your order in, you’re slave to the slow plod of the dinner machine. Sure, you could drop a couple of bills on the table and gracelessly excuse yourself, but that’s kind of extreme and, well, graceless.
On something like a coffee encounter, on the other hand, if the date’s going poorly you can get up and split at any point in the date with minimal social awkwardness.
So if you’ve been having not as much success on your first dates as you’d like, perhaps it’s because you’ve been leaning too much on this formula for failure called the dinner date. Either do something more interactive with less focus on one another, or just make it a casual coffee date.