The Case for the 20-Minute First Date

You know if a first date is going to Nowheresville the minute you walk in the door. But when you've already committed to a dinner, it's impossible to turn around and run like hell out. So you suck it up, have a horrible time, and leave feeling discouraged and exhausted, which makes you reluctant to want to meet anyone new ever again.

Rather than drop out of the dating game, what you need to do is learn to play smarter. Renowned biological anthropologist and Match.com's scientific adviser Helen Fisher, Ph.D., says the trick is to keep your first dates, especially if you met online, to 20 minutes. (If it's a setup, like your bestie's brother or you already met once at a party, aim for 45 minutes to an hour max.)

“You size up someone physically in less than one second—too tall, too short, too fat, too thin, too old, too young, too stuffy, too scruffy,” says Fisher, author of Why Him? Why Her? In that blink-of-an-eye moment you quickly and subconsciously compute whether what you see adds up to the sum of what you're looking for in a partner, or what Fisher calls your “love map.”

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Four brain systems are linked with a constellation of personality traits, and as the date progresses and you two talk about something inane like what you did last weekend, your brain is asking and quickly answering the following crucial questions.

1. Are your gonads going ga-ga?
Your eyes are the first to judge the goods in front of you. Before you sit down at the table, you've already formed your first impression. Once you've decided that he is, in fact, tall enough, fit enough, and handsome enough, you start to look at other signs of his personality, like how he's dressed, his watch, if he has tattoos.

“We are judgy because the brain is trying to decide whether you're going to have babies with that person. Even if you don't want babies, you're thinking about your family, community, daily lifestyle, economic future, social future, sexual future, and intellectual future,” Fisher says. “This is the most important relationship that you will ever build—you have a right to be picky.” This also explains why both guys and girls get so nervous on that first date. A lot is at stake here and when it's right, it's so right: Fisher says 61 percent of men and 51 percent of women say they have fallen in love at first sight.

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2. Is his voice your siren song?
His first words to you aren't as important as the sound they make. You don't even have to register what he's saying to know whether his voice stirs a reaction in your loins. “Women are very attracted to a low voice because it's linked to testosterone, which for millions of years was a sign that men had very good spacial skills and would have been very good at hunting and finding their way back home,” Fisher says. “A low voice is an indication of certain hormone levels and other abilities too.” Wink, wink.

3. Are his words luring you in?
Once the sound of his sexy voice has you entranced, you start to pay attention to the actual words coming out of his hopefully luscious lips. If he's a rapid talker (not to be confused with a smooth, fast-talker), you will generally regard him as educated. From there, what you're talking about isn't as important as the words you both choose to express your thoughts—certain words say a great deal about who you are biologically, Fisher says.

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The Magic of 20 Minutes
If he passes the above tests, make your tactful exit and plan to see him again. “If you cut it short, it's allowing you to judge him on your basic biological needs and not on the things that aren't immediately important,” Fisher says. In other words, if you're on the fence about this guy, think of reasons to say “yes” rather than “no,” and give it another go. By the second date, you'll have warmed up to each other and will be more forgiving of things that you might have wrongfully over-weighed, such as a stupid comment, on the first date.

One way to put a time cap without coming off as rude: Tell him that you already have dinner plans with a friend or need to be home to walk the dog or have to finish up some office work, but would love to meet him for coffee or a glass of wine before you have to go. “Build it into a natural excuse and stick with it,” Fisher says. But when you meet, if you're hitting it off and want a little more time together, pretend you got a text from your dinner friend who now can’t meet you until later, and say you can stay longer.

And never walk out on someone who might be the love of your life, Fisher adds. “You've got to play this by ear, but all in all, try to end on a high note and have something to look forward to the next time you see each other.”

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