The most classic, useless dating advice of all time—which you’ve undoubtedly heard countless times from your mom, magazines, and self-help books—is to just “be yourself.” The idea here is that if you’re just super authentically you, everything will go right! You’ll find a boyfriend, girlfriend, make-out buddy, lifetime partner… whatever it is you’re looking for.
But this advice doesn’t effing work. When you go on a first date, it’s easy to come across as nervous or brash. If you do nothing more than “be yourself,” odds are good that you’ll end up seeming aloof, awkward, or a bit of a dick. Instead, why not choose to be the best version of you? We all fudge things a little bit on the first date or out at the bar. (I’ve definitely tried to put on fake eyelashes pre-date, only to glue them to my cheek instead). Sometimes we try to present a more polished, outgoing version of ourselves, or act less serious and more low-maintenance than usual. Is that manipulative? Kinda. But you know what? That’s OK.
So how can we be better than ourselves on a date? What are some strategies that can actually put the odds in our favor? With the help of Jess O’Reilly, Ph.D., of the sex and relationship blog Sex with Dr. Jess and Venus Nicolino, Ph.D., a.k.a. Dr. V of WeTV’s Marriage Bootcamp, we’ve rounded up the best realistic, super-useful techniques and strategies that will help you out far more than “be yourself”—no offense to all the well-meaning moms out there.
1. Set your intention before the date.
Rather than considering what you want from the other person, go into the date thinking about what you want for yourself, Dr. V says. “Do you want to get to know someone new? Do you want to have an enjoyable evening out? Is this really just an excuse to try that new sushi place?” she asks. “Setting an intention grounds you, and it gives you something to fall back on if you start feeling anxious in the moment. Just remember to breathe. What really matters here isn’t even the intention or the breathing, it’s that you remembered to do it. You decided to stay present with yourself.”
2. Are you a fan of masturbation? Awesome!
If you’re not someone who falls asleep right after an orgasm, Dr. Jess advises you to mastubate before you go out the door. “Self-pleasure and self-esteem are positively correlated, so reach down there and give yourself a hand (or two),” she says. “When your body performs for you, whether through daily tasks, physical fitness, or sexual pleasure, you tend to feel better about its appearance and function.”
3. If you’re someone who has lots (and lots) of confidence, consider throwing in some self-deprecating humor.
Maybe you’re already a confident person—like your close friends might lovingly refer to you as “a little extra.” How can you tone it down to an attractive and harmonious balance of being confident without appearing overly arrogant? I’ve found that offering a bit of self-deprecating humor helps. As my roommate says, “Make fun of yourself before someone else can.” A little joke can help break the ice and make you not look like a total douche. But be careful not to try out your amateur stand-up act on a date, Dr. V advises.
“Self-deprecating humor is OK in small—and I mean small—doses. As in one or two jokes,” she says. “It’s easy to go from seeming easy to connect with to being easy to pity, and pity is not the vibe you want to infuse in a date.”
4. If you’re on the opposite end of the spectrum and struggle with building confidence, write down compliments you receive (and give yourself five while you’re at it).
“Most of us brush off compliments without a second thought, and in doing so, we overlook valuable opportunities to boost confidence and expand our sense of self,” Dr. Jess says. “The next time someone pays you a compliment, take a moment to absorb it and scribble it down. By writing down what others say they like about you, you’re training yourself to value and remember these positive thoughts. When you write things down, you trigger cells in the brain called the reticular activating system (RAS), which experts say help to filter important information.”
Something that I’ve recommended my friends do before dates (and I’ve been on a lot—over 300, to be precise) is a tactic I’ve used before: I look in the mirror and say five things out loud that I like about myself. Focusing on my positive attributes rather than worrying about my insecurities or perceived imperfections makes me feel instantly better.
Confidence is attractive, so find a way that works for you to shelve your insecurities for the evening, because if you tell a person enough times that you’re “not pretty enough” or “not smart enough,” they’re going to perceive you that way. Dr. Jess offers a confidence-boosting tactic that might work better for you: “Recall a time when you felt powerful. Perhaps it was in a boardroom, in the classroom, or on the dance floor. Visualize that moment to boost your confidence before a big date, presentation, or meeting.”
5. And if you get genuinely, brain-meltingly anxious about dates, remember to use your rational brain first.
It can be helpful to identify the source of your nervousness and look at it from a more distanced perspective. “If your nervousness is intense and connected to a detrimental cognitive distortion—as in, you’re plagued with thoughts like, My date is going to hate me. Every date I go on is a disaster—then it’s time to use rational thought to assess this ‘hot thought,'” says Dr. Jess. “Think about dates that weren’t disasters. Make a mental inventory of the positive experiences and interactions you’ve had on previous dates so that you can formulate a more realistic thought. This can lead to thoughts like, It could go well, so I’m going to keep an open mind and just enjoy the experience.”
6. Present the best version of yourself physically (as well as emotionally).
Yes, you should pick out a goddamn clean shirt instead of something you found crumpled on the floor—even if the crumpled version is more “authentically you.” In person, there’s no Facetune to makes you look 10x hotter than you actually are, so yeah, it’s worthwhile to tidy it up and pick out something nice to wear.
“You don’t want to mislead a date, but you certainly do want to showcase the best version of yourself,” Dr. Jess says. While you shouldn’t go and buy a whole new outfit based on what you think your date might like (that’s getting creepy), it’s OK to consider their style. If you know their Instagram, it’s not a bad idea to check it out ahead of time—this is just a form of knowing your audience. You can see what your date is into, what they like, and what style they might go for. You shouldn’t completely change yourself to be attractive for the other person, but if you notice that they tend to always wear black jeans and you happen to own a pair, there’s nothing wrong with opting for a pair of your black jeans instead of blue.
7. Keep it positive—and yes, keep it light.
Dating is meant to be a fun way to get to know another person. You may have some skeletons in the closet or a personality disorder, but your first encounter isn’t the appropriate time to talk about your dope-addicted brother or your buckets full of daddy issues. Too much information can be perceived as high maintenance and off-putting—if you’re going to work out, there will be time to create trust and open up on a deeper level without fear of being judged or brushed off, but your first happy hour convo ain’t the time or place to get deep. People can be very snooty about small talk—”Oh, it’s so fake, I prefer genuine interaction.” Sure. But if you master small talk, you can subtly assess if you’re interested in someone—without spilling your guts everywhere.
8. Ask a bunch of questions.
If you meet someone you really like who’s outdoorsy, sure, you could pretend that you’re really into spending time in the wilderness—even if the closest you’ve ever gotten to nature is drinking cocktails on the beach. And the truth is, this isn’t always the worst tactic: If you’re open to trying what they’re into, you may open yourself up to experiences you’ll enjoy. This could be the start of you discovering that hey, you actually like kayaking, or whatever.
But there’s an easier path: Just ask your date tons of questions about their interests. People love to talk about themselves, and this way, you don’t have to pretend you know about something you don’t, which can be stressful, frankly.
“If someone you’re super into is into something you don’t give a f*ck about, you can still ask them about it,” Dr. V says. “Why do they like it? What do they get from it? How does it make them feel? Instead of trying to bullsh*t your way through talking about something you know nothing about, you’ve just created an opportunity to really get to know this person better and connect with them. Which is never wrong. And who knows, maybe you never knew just how fascinating 18th century Welsh cheesemaking really is.”
9. Focus on what you like.
Look, maybe she chews with her mouth open or he’s an incessant foot-tapper who openly admits to listening to Nickelback on repeat. If you’re getting instant there’s-no-chemistry-here vibes (or worse, red flags), then don’t go on a second date—or cut your first one short. But if the person just has an annoying habit or three, try to keep an open mind: There could be a really awesome person in there, one whose good qualities might overshadow any annoying behaviors. So ignore the urge to be judgy or bitchy—even if you’ve had three mimosas already at brunch.
10. Do your dating homework.
One-liners are so retro, and only in the bad way. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a pick-up line, you know that you just end up feeling creeped out. Avoid the creepiness factor by asking fun questions instead. Personally, I like to use ice breakers or games to get to know a date. My favorite tried-and-true question is, “Which type of tree would you be and why?” Big takeaway: People usually pick a tree and list desirable qualities and characteristics that they believe they possess and are proud of. Small takeaway: You know what kind of tree you should gift them on their next birthday (and planting a tree is just a nice thing to do).
You can navigate awkward silences by mentioning your favorite “dad joke” and asking theirs, or even asking them what their favorite snack is to eat whilst binge watching Dawson’s Creek on Netflix (Coconut Oreo thins, hands down). If you’re anxious about a date, it’s a good idea to come up with a bunch of good questions ahead of time to give yourself opportunities for discussion if your conversation dies down naturally.
11. Ditch the “wait three days to text” game and let yourself be vulnerable.
“Do you like it when people play games with you? Look, if you want to put less pressure on yourself and your date, forget all the stupid f*cking games,” Dr. V says. “One of the Big Lies of dating is that ‘The One Who Cares Less Is The One Who Wins,’ when in reality, the less you care about a relationship, the less you get from it. Think about it: Has pretending to care less than you really do ever gotten you more? Would you pull that sh*t at work or school? Of course not. So don’t be afraid to text first.”
Dr. V explains that if you try to act differently than the way you really feel, you’re either going to come off as crazy, as a jerk, or as a crazy jerk. “The appropriate amount of interest to show is no more and no less than the amount of interest you feel. The least cool thing you can do is to try and ‘play it cool.’ It’s OK for the person you’ve just gone on a date with to know you like them—being upfront about that is its own kind of sexy confidence. Besides, the sooner they know you like them, the sooner you’ll have an answer to that eternal question of dating, ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ So don’t wait to text back. Real vulnerability takes courage, and courage is pretty damn sexy.”
12. Be persistent (but don’t cross into being pushy).
If you just had an amazing time with someone and don’t want it to end, tell the person how much you enjoyed the date and offer up a nightcap or second date. If the other person politely declines, leave it there for the night—if you try too aggressively to get someone home with you or to go out with you again, it’s a massive turn-off, and you’ll blow any future potential. Instead, just thank them for the evening. Seeing your graceful reaction might even turn things around after the other person has a few days to think.
Kari Langslet is an avid dater, impulsive adventurer, unofficial therapist to friends and family, and animal lover. You’ll usually find her at a dive bar playing Jenga with her dog or headbanging into oblivionat a Brooklyn show. Stalk her on Instagram and Twitter @karilangslet.