The #1 Conversation Topic for a Great First Date

Many people think they know what they are looking for in a first date.  Sometimes they are correct.  Sure, attractiveness is important, especially at the beginning of a relationship.  That is why both parties arrive on a first date looking their absolute best.  Yet a first date involves both looking and listening.

Research by Marisa T. Cohen (2016) of 390 predominantly heterosexual participants who filled out a survey shed light on the perception of behavior on a first date.[i]  The results provide an interesting snapshot of what many couples are thinking as they size each other up on their first outing exploring potential partnerhood.

Cohen´s findings indicated that women were more likely than men to use early behavior and verbal communication to gauge the level of perceived attraction from their date.   Men, on the other hand, did not view any behaviors as indicating their date less attracted to them.

Women (more than men) preferred lively conversation, which Cohen suggests might indicate a preference for a man who can “take charge” of the date. Yet in terms of predicting whether there will be a second date, research reveals that conversation topics are important as well. 

On a First Date, Conversation Topics are as Important as Optics

Cohen´s research discovered that on a first date, conversation topics are one of the ways partners gauge the level of interest from their date.  In her study, men believed their dates found them attractive when they directed the conversation to the topic of sex, while women inferred attraction when their partner mentioned future plans.

Yet both sexes agreed on the most successful conversation topic: the woman.

When it Comes to Conversation, a First Date is All About Her

Cohen´s research showed that successful dates occurred when the woman talked about herself.  Both sexes reported establishing a connection when the woman had the floor.  Men can create a shared experience by commenting on what his date says. 

Prior research discovered the same thing.  McFarland et al. (2013) studied romantic bonding through exploring interaction ritual theory within the context of heterosexual speed dating,[ii] revealing some interesting conclusions.  Overall, interpersonal chemistry was highest where the women were the subjects of conversation, and the men demonstrated understanding of the women.  The bonding occurred through reciprocal role coordination, where the female was the focal point.

Avoid the Rearview Mirror: Ghosts of Relationships Past

We likely do not need a study to tell us that a first date is not a venue to glorify or vilify past paramours.  Yet it happens.  Frequently.  Sometimes a prospective partner is on the rebound, sulking or stewing over a recent failed relationship that he or she cannot refrain from discussing.  Other first daters intentionally discuss past flames, either in terms of quantity or quality, in an effort to boost their own standing and desirability.  Research indicates that whatever the motivation, discussing past relationships is not a winning strategy.

Cohen´s study found that women viewed their partner´s discussing past relationships with them as a sign of disinterest—which also corroborates the finding that women prefer date conversation to be focused on themselves.

Yet you do not have to pepper your partner with questions to demonstrate interest, or get her to open up further.  To the contrary, the best rapport is built by joining her narrative.

A First Date is Not a Job Interview: Avoid “Twenty Questions”

Some individuals, particularly those who feel socially inept or awkward, prepare for a first date by creating a mental (sometimes hard copy) list of questions and conversation topics.  Topics are fine, but questions, although necessary at times to break the ice or keep a conversation going, can detract from the experience of bonding.

McFarland et al. found a negative link between questions and bonding.  In their study, women used questions as an attempt to revive lagging conversation, and men used questions when they had nothing better to add to the conversation.  Successful dates, by contrast, consisted of high-energy shared narratives, with few questions. 

The Excitement of High Energy Communication

High-energy communication is linked to excitement.  McFarland et al. found that mutual excitement was linked with interpersonal chemistry, yet expressed differently by men and women.  Women raise and vary their vocal pitch, while men increase the volume and laugh

Regarding conversation flow, one unexpected finding was women´s enhanced feeling of bonding with men who interrupted them.  Upon further examination, however, the researchers determined that these interruptions were not to change the subject, but for the purpose of supporting what the women were saying, and demonstrating understanding.  The interruptions included expressing agreement, relaying similar experiences, or extending an idea the woman was voicing.

The Final Word: Chemistry Through Conversation Develops Mutual Respect

Successful relationships do not continue to be solely focused on the woman.  To the contrary, healthy relationships involve mutual admiration, respect, and attention.  After the first date, however, listening remains as important if not more important than looking.  As courtship continues, chemistry through conversation continues to surpass the value of appearances alone, and sparks mutual attraction through shared experience.

About the author:

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert.  She is the author of author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House) (revision). 

She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention, safe cyber security, and threat assessment, and is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own. 

Find her at or @WendyPatrickPhD


[i] Marisa T. Cohen,  “It’s not you, it’s me…no, actually it’s you: Perceptions of what makes a first date successful or not,” Sexuality & Culture: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 20, no. 1 (2016): 173-191. 

[ii] Daniel A. McFarland, Dan Jurafsky, and Craig Rawlings, ”Making the Connection: Social Bonding in Courtship Situations,” American Journal of Sociology 118, no. 6 (2013): 1596-1649.


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