How Can You Spice Up Small Talk On A First Date?

Imagine you are standing in a queue at your favourite pub. You notice a guy standing close by. He starts a conversation by saying, “I’m Bob.” You offer, “I’m Alice.” Then, the ensuing conversation might take either one of two paths. One entails questions such as, “What are you studying? Where do you come from? Do you like Nottingham? Did you join any societies?” On the other hand, Bob might choose a road less travelled and ask you about how many relationships you have been in, whether you have any STDs, if you ever broke someone’s heart, or what you think of abortion. In the latter case, you might be tempted to classify Bob as somewhat mental. Then again, Bob perhaps acts fully aware of the fact that this line of conversation is in your interest as well as his own. He may know about recent experiments indicating that people are more satisfied if a conversation follows his scheme.

Dan Ariely is a behavioural economist working at Duke University, North Carolina, USA. He made online daters ask the more controversial questions on first dates and found that both questioner and respondent afterwards judged the talk as more interesting than members of a control group who were allowed to ask the conventional questions. The traditional small talk does not aim for a lively discussion, but rather a quiet chat shunning any controversy. It would seem that in attempting to avoid unpleasant situations in our everyday lives, we rob ourselves and our neighbours of an interesting and more invigorating experience. On a more abstract level, Ariely argues that in this instance, a better outcome was achieved with regulation – namely by restricting the choice of questions.

Can these findings be transferred to the pub scene described above? Perhaps only in a broad sense. There are several distinctions to be made between the two situations, the pub queue and an online date. For one thing, the former primarily serves to afford access to beverages. The latter is a kind of artificial setup for people to meet and possibly decide to start a relationship. Online daters are more likely to be fed up with the standard small talk, which might explain why only 20% of contact offers are replied to in the first place. Also, studies show that less attractive online daters are more likely to enhance their photos and lie about their physical descriptions age, height, and weight. Men are more likely to distort their personal assets, relationship interests, goals, and personal attributes whereas women are more likely to misrepresent their weight. The concept of trust must play quite an ambiguous role when people are looking for it in others, yet tend to lie about themselves. Online daters might think that a conversation about things you wouldn’t normally tell a stranger builds up that distorted sense of trust.

The exchange of personal stories also draws attention away from the ingrained notion of online dating as a marketplace, where participants assess their own and other’s market worth, shop for perfect parts and maximise their inventory. By addressing basic human interests, fears, and experiences it will become easier to resist the market metaphor. In other words, it creates the illusion of having a genuine intimate conversation in a real-life date. Furthermore, direct and point-blank questions must appear refreshingly different when you are close to being saturated with the everyday ‘blah-blah’.

In a nutshell, people seem to come across as boring for the sake of conversational politeness. We are all just too afraid of being our singular selves and end up hiding our individuality and opinion for the sake of making a good impression. Thus, studies involving online dating can tell us a lot about human interactions and Dan Ariely’s experiment therefore represents a discussion of a genuine problem in society.

Arnd Korn

(Image courtesy of Jon Rawlinson)


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