The golden rules for first dates

Saskia taking a photo

Part eight in the Time to Shine Online Dating series.

Saskia taking a photoThe time has come. No, we can’t put it off any more. You are rocking an amazing profile, you have fabulous profile photos, which show you at your best, and you are crafting great emails, which all mean that sooner or later you are going to get asked out on dates (or do the asking). Hurrah.

I have been on many first dates and want to share some of the things I learned over the years, which helped make dating an enjoyable experience, sometimes against all odds! With that in mind, here are my top tips for getting the most out of your first dates.

Before the first date


I often get asked how long you should email someone before deciding whether to go on a date with them or not.

From experience, I know that it’s important not to waste too long emailing someone (and talking to them on the phone) without meeting them, because you can get an idea of someone in your head from emails and calls which doesn’t actually resonate with how and who they are in real life.

If you wait too long, this can be really awkward to deal with if you have established a connection with their ‘virtual’ persona. This is a rocky road to potential hurt and disappointment, which can be avoided by meeting sooner rather than later.

This can work both ways i.e. you may dismiss someone without meeting them because they seem a bit off in their emails but actually there could be sizzling chemistry between you.

So, while it’s important to use email to find out what you have in common and what kind of person they are, nothing can replace the face to face meeting for really knowing what could be between you. Saying that though, learn to rely on your gut instinct – it’s usually right.

I found that emailing anything between four and eight times before agreeing or deciding to go on a date with someone was plenty.

Deciding where to go

I think it’s very important at this stage to emphasise that a first date, whilst it can be the start of a big, amazing adventure, is better viewed as a quick and easy way to get the measure of someone.

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Look back to part 1 of this series – of the four outcomes of dating, only one outcome of a date is positive for both parties. This means that the likelihood of it not working out is, unfortunately, statistically more likely.

This is fine, as long as you prepare yourself for it. I quickly realised that all I needed to decide whether I wanted to see someone again was a quick drink after work. This way, if it was not working out, I wouldn’t have to waste much time or money on something that was clearly going nowhere.

There is little worse that sitting down to dinner with someone who you knew within the first 10 minutes you wouldn’t want to see again. This is at best awkward, at worst excrutiating.

Going to a pub, bar or café somewhere central for both of you, for just an hour or so, should give you enough time to decide if you want to see them again. If it turns out you are getting on like a house on fire, then you don’t have to end the date quite so quickly.

Get mentally prepared

Saskia taking photosI think we all know, deep down, that the most attractive people in life are those who are the most confident, not those who are the slimmest, prettiest etc. So, before your first date, it’s essential to supersize your self-love.

That said, confidence comes from feeling good about yourself, so it’s worth making an effort with make-up and clothes. After all, if it turns out he is the one, you want to make sure you’re looking great.

During the first date

Once you’re on the date, it’s only polite to offer to pay your way, although definitely let him go to the bar first. But what happens if you realise quite soon into the date that there’s no chemistry and you would rather be at home with the dog watching Come Dine With Me?

This has happened to me a handful of times, but less often as I got better at sussing out compatibility from the initial emails. Everyone is different, so you’ll need to figure out your own way through these situations, but here are a few of my own tips.

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What if you’re not having fun?

If you’re not enjoying the date and are starting to think it’s time to bail, just check in with yourself and make sure that you have given the date enough of a chance.

If you’re feeling the fear (let’s face it, you are likely to be way out of your comfort zone at this point), then rushing home for your favourite show does seem very attractive, but not necessarily the right thing. So just make sure it’s lack of chemistry rather than fear that is making you want to end the date early.

When I was 99% sure that I wanted the date to end and didn’t want to see him again, I usually stayed for the obligatory one or two drinks before making my excuses and leaving. Depending on his personality I might be upfront with him about why I was leaving so early – you should play it by ear.

When a guy ended a date earlier than expected, I felt downhearted about it, but was thankful not to waste too much precious time on someone when it wasn’t going anywhere.

Saskia looking boredI realised that, in both situations, having a bad date felt horrible for an hour or two afterwards and that was OK. I allowed myself to feel bad. After that, I forced myself to let it go and move on. There are so many reasons why two people aren’t right together, there’s no need to over analyse it.

Being able to pick yourself up, shake yourself down and try again will ensure a much more enjoyable dating experience. Don’t blame yourself for bad dates, don’t hold grudges, just accept that things have worked out for the best in the long term and you are now free to move on and meet someone more suitable.

What about if you are having fun?

Hurrah, the holy grail of dating. You are both enjoying each other’s company. How do you ensure you keep the fun going until you secure yourself a second date?

1. Flirt

This should go without saying but if you’re having a good time and your date seems to be too, then make sure you’re flirting so that you’re letting him know you’re interested.

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2. Ask lots of questions

The best way to make a date run smoothly is to ask loads of questions. This will also help you decide whether you want to keep seeing him or not depending on what you find out. Avoid serious questions though, this isn’t an interview, it’s a fun night out.

3. Avoid moaning or talking about depressing topics

This may seem like a no brainer but you’d be surprised at how many people are keen to share details of their latest ailments or gripe on about how much they dislike their ex-partner. This does not make for a good evening out with someone you’ve just met. Keep the mood light-hearted.

4. Be yourself

It was Oscar Wilde who said, ‘be yourself, everyone else is already taken’. Never a truer word spoken, when it comes to dating. By showcasing the real you, you’re more likely to attract someone who is a good fit for you. Everyone exaggerates to some extent on first dates to showcase the best version of themselves – just make sure it is a version of you and not someone else.

5. Leave them wanting more

Don’t give away everything about yourself, leave a little mystery, so that you know they will want to see you again to find out more. End the date on a high note, make lots of eye contact and smile loads, letting them know that you would like to see them again.

Date safely

If you haven’t tried online dating for a while or are new to it all, then it can be hard to make sound judgements about someone based on online interaction only. Here are my top tips to dating safely:

  • Tell a friend what you’re planning to do and leave them your date’s name and contact number
  • Google them!
  • Choose a place to meet where you feel comfortable
  • Know your route home
  • Always trust your gut 
  • Don’t be alone with them too soon.

Happy dating, we’d love to hear how you’re getting on.

woman using a tablet for online dating

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About Saskia Nelson

Saskia Nelson is London’s one and only dating photographer. She supports men and women to find love at all stages of their lives by working with them to create some gorgeous images for their online dating profile and by running a blog, which provides practical online dating guidance. She learned a lot about online dating from her own personal experiences, in her long and bumpy, but ultimately successful, online search for love. Happily, she is now settled with her long-term partner (spotted on Guardian Soulmates) and has two stepchildren (who are awesome). She is passionate about helping London’s single people to shine online.