Online Dating Basics: Let’s (not) grab a coffee

"I hope I never see you again."

The classic first date may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and it doesn’t always create a successful encounter. Here’s why:

1. Starbucks has no atmosphere. The tables are too small, often occupied, and tucked away in weird arrangements because the bulk of the café floor is taken up by pop-up “standees” of cds, specialty teas, and cream, sugar and lid stations. The frantic climate created by long lines of java seekers is not one in which you want to be searching for a face you’ve never seen before in real life, either. While these places (and others like them) are popular choices for a first meeting simply because everyone knows where they are, it’s also jarring to enter a busy coffee shop with nothing but caffeine on your brain and encounter a person who stares at you intently upon arrival, with “Are you my date?” written all over them.

2. Not everyone drinks coffee. Or tea. Or hot chocolate. In fact, my own mother will not drink any beverage that is heated to a temperature above that of the average outdoor pool. That’s not to say she (or someone like her) couldn’t order a nice Orangina or something, but who decided that coffee was the ultimate no-pressure, easy escape beverage?

Why does the consumption of liquids at any temperature mean it’s a date?

Unless you’re going to use your tongue to tie a knot in your stir stick and impress your companion, you really could be anywhere.

3. Sit-down meetings feel like interviews. Particularly sit-down meetings with people you’ve never met before. You’re going to be more self-conscious about things like posture, whether your shirt is tucked in properly, whether your gut is hanging over your skinny jeans, what your hair is doing and – if you dare to order a snack – whether there’s something stuck in your teeth. You’re more likely to fidget, and you’re under a great deal more obligation to make and maintain eye contact. All of these factors add to your stress about the situation, and make you behave less like yourself. How is the conversation supposed to flow when you don’t even have anywhere else to look, except at the person sitting opposite you? (That’s if you’re lucky enough to get a table, of course.)

4. It requires no imagination. Seriously, from an evolutionary standpoint: as far as dating style goes, “Let’s meet for coffee” was probably the first great advancement that came along after grabbing your potential partner from behind and dragging her (or him) to your cave. Is that really all you can come up with?

5. There’s still only one exit. Just because coffee dates are traditionally short encounters – especially when there are no free refills on offer – it doesn’t mean beating a hasty retreat if you discover that you really don’t like your companion will be any easier. You’re going to have to meet your “cousin” somewhere in a half an hour no matter what – so why not do so after a walk by the busy waterfront, or a free mushroom identification lecture instead? And if things go well, and you decide to extend the date to another venue, well, you haven’t had coffee yet.

Ask Anne M.: Can style (or substance) opposites attract?

Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, until recently the First Lady of France, shows her rarely-seen frumpy side


I recently went on a date with a very attractive and nice woman. However, her style was a bit off and her shoes were very out-of-date as well as downright ugly (like… really bad).

I’m a very design-oriented, “artsy” and liberal guy, and her lack of aesthetic sense really turned me off. Even I was surprised at my reaction.

Am I being petty or too picky? Can an artsy person get along with an earthy person? Could a liberal be attracted to, and get along with, a conservative?


You raise a couple of significant issues, Picky Picky. First impressions, and the value we place on them consciously and unconsciously, have been the focus of decades of study by sociologists, psychologists, and marketing departments. I think it’s fair to say that anyone would be taken aback by someone whose appearance varied noticeably from our expectations of it. Such expectations are based on the subtle messaging about ourselves that clothing sends out to the world. If I’m told I hold the same values and goals in life as another person – at least “on paper” – and we’re of approximately the same generation, with similar interests, I’d kind of expect them to dress somewhat like me. Or at least provide a nice complement to my style.

You also describe her as attractive, however, which I assume means that underneath her dated duds she had an appealing figure at the very least. What you’re really gauging is the value of the person vs. the shell, and there is a difference. One study determined that when appraising new people, clothing has the most impact on social impressions, while person (including both face and body) dictates views of one’s athletic ability (and by extension, health). Interestingly, neither “costume” nor “person” exerts any notable influence over perceptions of intellect.

What you need to figure out is whether you seek certain attributes in potential partners because they will contribute to your long-term happiness, or because they have become preferences that are fixed for other reasons. But if you’re not sure, you might want to broaden your parameters a little, just as an experiment. Fashion choices, hairstyles, even taste in music are all easily updated. It’s whether you choose to view that as an opportunity (“Hey! Let’s go shopping together sometime!”) or a sign that something more significant is at play.

There are many reasons a person may appear to have given up on fashion, including practical, ethical, and financial ones. It’s entirely possible that your date is completely comfortable in her own skin, and uses her personality to put her best foot forward in the world rather than cool shoes. Or maybe she’s so much cooler and fashion-forward than you are that you failed to recognize her resurrection of the 90′s floral print Elaine dresses and penny loafers for the maverick move it was.

As mismatched couples go, style may well be more of an issue to grapple with than substance. Research into whether opposites truly do attract suggests that yes, it is very likely our mates will be drawn from a pool of people with whom we share certain attitudes – on everything from movies to politics to religion to a shared love of downhill skiing. But it is ultimately how well personalities complement each other that determines happiness. This means that yes, Picky Picky, a liberal and a conservative could technically fall in love and live happily ever after.

Mary Matalin, Republican, and James Carville, Democrat, married since 1993

Looking up your Internet date: a handy infographic

Looking Up Your Internet Date
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Click here to see a slightly larger version.

A little courtesy goes a long way

If your grandmother is (or was) anything like mine, you’d have a hard time getting her to understand how to open an email attachment. So the idea of turning to her for online dating tips might seem preposterous. But if you apply one of her most basic pieces of advice – “Mind your manners” – to just about any online situation, you’re going to get better results. And if you get the chance to test your virtual success by meeting one of your matches in the real world, I hope you’ll bear at least the standard Emily Post wisdom in mind.

But before you even get to that stage, you’ve got to line up dates. And despite your best efforts, they may not always go so well. Here’s an example:

Let’s-Call-Her-Alice had been dating women she’d met on popular free sites like OkCupid and POF for a few months when she went out for a meal (hint: not a good first date) with Let’s-Call-Her-Jamie. As is often the case, they spent the first several minutes discussing their respective internet dating misadventures – and their relief that at the very least, both of them seemed to be reasonably well-groomed adults who resembled their pictures quite closely. Then Alice raised the obvious question: why were they both still single?

Jamie started crying. Not just a little teardrop in the corner of the eye, or a quaver in the voice. Full on crying. Alice thought it was a joke at first. Then, when she realized she’d triggered something major, she offered a hanky. Just like Grandma (or Grandpa, if he was the right kind of manly) would have done. Then, twenty minutes later – with Jamie still carrying on, seemingly inconsolable – she left.

That night, she went home to close her two online dating accounts, determined never again to waste her time and money on a real life encounter with a freak she’d met on the Internet. Then she looked in her inbox, and realized that she still had another date scheduled. For the following afternoon.

Jamie started crying. Not just a little teardrop in the corner of the eye, or a quaver in the voice. Full on crying.

Desperate though she was to cancel, she realized that it would be the height of rudeness to do so on such short notice. And besides, her prospective date had a very cute picture. So she put her game face and date makeup on, and braced herself for another grim reminder that the only thing worse than a lifetime of loneliness was an hour of craziness. If only she’d met crying Jamie a day earlier, she could have begged off. But less than 12 hours is unacceptable except in cases of emergency, and Alice is a person of conscience.

And had she canceled, Alice would never have met Let’s-Call-Her-Tracy. And when they did meet, even though she had a really really really great horror story to tell – she sat on it.

(Because  talking about bad dates – even though it’s something to which all online romance seekers can relate – is bad etiquette if you’re hoping to have a good date, in my professional opinion. At least, right out of the gate it is.)

Plus, Tracy was even cuter than her picture. And she laughed a whole lot harder at that story when she finally heard it – at their engagement party.

A little courtesy goes a long way, lovers – and in all kinds of ways you could never predict. Be nice to each other every chance you get.