The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What to say — and what not to say — on a first date, according to science

What’s the worst pick-up line you’ve ever heard? And is there even one that works? (Video: Zoeann Murphy and Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

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 uninterested 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 55-page study from researchers at Stanford University and the University of California at Santa Barbara that looks at what people say on successful dates and not-so-successful dates.

To carry out their study, the researchers ran free speed-dating events for heterosexual grad students in which they recorded what everyone said. After the date, the grad students reported how well they "clicked" with their partners for roughly 1,000 four-minute conversations. The researchers found that physical and character traits, like men's height and shared hobbies, actually had a larger influence on whether couples said they clicked than what they said to each other.

But with each additional minute the couple spent together, things like height and shared hobbies became less important and the flow of their conversation became more important.

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” (also not what it sounds like – asked questions to show they were paying attention).
  • demonstrated their appreciation by saying positive or flattering things.
  • 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.” (In fact, the researchers suggest that it may be a bad sign for a man's date if the woman is asking a lot of questions about the man. “We found that questions were used by women to keep a lagging conversation going,” they wrote.)

The researchers looked not just at what people said but also how they said it. They found that men and women in the study actually altered the pitch of their voice when on a good first date -- basically, taking on a more "masculine" or "feminine" voice when speaking to someone they were interested in.

Rosie Cima of the blog Priceonomics, who recently wrote about this 2013 study, graphed the statistically significant correlations between these behaviors and daters saying they "clicked":

The chart below gives a little more detail on what women did and didn't do when they felt like they were "clicking." Women who felt connected to their dates talked more about themselves. They also spoke at a higher pitch -- basically, adopting a more feminine voice -- and varied their pitch and volume, practices that reflect their excitement and interest in the conversation.

Overall, the men's behavior varied a lot less than the women's did, as you can see from the chart below. Men who felt a connection were more likely to laugh and vary their volume (again, showing interest and excitement). They were less likely to vary their pitch, which the researchers say reflects an attempt to put on a more masculine voice.

So what does all this mean?

As Cima of Priceonomics 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 at a statistically significant level. (Tip to men: Try these things.)

There were two things that 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.

The study gives a few reasons for this. First, and perhaps unsurprisingly for people in the dating world, the women were a lot pickier, reporting a sense of connection far less often than men did. As the researchers note, that may give heterosexual women the upper hand, at least when it comes to first dates.

However, the researchers say the situation could be a little more complex. Maybe men and women are just being polite and acting out certain dating "rituals" -- essentially, performing the role of "man or woman on a date." This may sound strange, but some of their findings bear this out -- for example, how men who felt a spark lowered their voices to make themselves sound more masculine.

These ideas stem from the theories of Erving Goffman, a 20th-century sociologist who was famous (for a sociologist, at least) for describing human interactions as a kind of performance. There's the front stage -- how we present ourselves to the world, which we adapt for different situations -- and then the back stage of what we really think during these interactions.

“Certain gender ideals are staged in speed-dating events," the researchers say. "In the case of speed dating, we believe the staging hyperritualizes gender ideals – even for our highly educated graduate student sample.”

In other words, when it comes to first dates, people tend to put on a show.

Now, will you ever watch this scene the same way again?

You might also like:

The fascinating connection between how much married people make and how likely they are to cheat

Everything you ever wanted to know about love, in 25 maps and charts

Why millennials have sex with fewer partners than their parents did