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Online Dating: Should I Skip the Small Talk?

Instead of messaging on dating apps, some experts have suggested that people should skip the small talk and just go on dates. Although it may feel lame at first, Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt explains that having small talk is actually really important and isn’t something to skip.

By
Rachel Vanderbilt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #24
The Quick And Dirty

Small talk helps you decide whether or not you want to move forward with the relationship. Perhaps more importantly, the person you are getting to know is also assessing their potential compatibility with you. 

Welcome to the new and improved Relationship Doctor podcast! I’m Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt and I’m providing advice backed by relationship science to help make your relationships healthier and happier. In today’s episode we will discuss conversations you should have if you are using a dating app before meeting face-to-face.

My friend Rose is on the dating market right now. She has been using dating apps for a few months and feels like she is having the same conversations about the same old topics over and over again like they are following a set script. Sometimes she has decent banter with someone online, but when it comes time to meet in person, her dates seem to fizzle out. She is discouraged.

This perception that messaging on dating apps is monotonous and boring has led some so-called-experts to suggest that people should skip the small talk and just go on dates. Although it may feel lame at first, having small talk is actually really important and isn’t something to skip.

Research has identified that as we meet new people, we feel the urge to reduce our uncertainty about them. Uncertainty in these moments typically comes from a desire to assess compatibility. If you are meeting someone new, you don’t know anything about them—what do they like? What do they dislike? Are they a cat or a dog person? What are their goals and aspirations? Do they have hobbies and would I enjoy doing those hobbies with them? 

The end-goal of this small talk is to make a decision about whether or not you want to move forward with that relationship. Perhaps more importantly, the person you are getting to know is also assessing their potential compatibility with you. To underscore the importance of having this small talk, I am going to present the experiences of two people using dating apps:

Let’s go back to my friend Rose. Since she’s sick of the small talk, she decides to skip it and sets up her first date with a new match, Jack, at her favorite restaurant. When they sit down to eat, they begin their small talk and she finds out that he listens to all the same music she does, that he has the same favorite vacation spot, that he likes to snowboard, just like she does. Just as it seems like they might be compatible, she learns that Jack is a salesman who is periodically in town on business. He’s not looking for anything serious, just a fun time.

The end-goal of this small talk is to make a decision about whether or not you want to move forward with that relationship. Perhaps more importantly, the person you are getting to know is also assessing their potential compatibility with you. 

Our second example, Justin, has also been using dating apps for a few months. He, too, has gone on several dates, but has felt discouraged with the outcomes. Although n frustrated, he feels it’s important to get to know a match before meeting up with them. He matches with Trish and sends her a witty message. As they start talking they realize they have a similar love of history, they both like to run in the morning, and neither of them drink coffee. s Justin asks Trish what she is looking for, and her response is that  she is interested in  something more casual. Justin explains that he is looking for a more serious relationship, and wishes Trish luck.

Both Rose and Justin found that they were fairly compatible with their matches. They did like some of the same things and were quickly able to find common ground, however, this compatibility is only one part of the importance of that initial small talk. As we saw, Rose has not only wasted her time going on a date with someone who isn’t looking for the same things she is, but she has also emotionally invested in someone who isn’t available. Justin, on the other hand, was able to identify that his match wasn’t interested in the kind of relationship he was looking for before making an emotional connection (and spending time and money on a date). Learning about what the other person is looking for is, perhaps, the most important information we can get when trying to find the right match.

So, now we know that we need to engage in conversation to reduce our uncertainty about the other person and identify what they want from online dating. But what specifically should we talk about?

There is a delicate balance of how much information to exchange and the kind of information to withhold as we start a potential new relationship. Studies have identified that we have layers of information we can share about a particular conversational topic. When we get to know new people, we tend to stay at the superficial level of information about a breadth of different conversational topics. We will talk about a lot of different areas of our lives without going into too much detail about any one thing. As we get to know people over time and start to form more meaningful relationships, we start to move into deeper, more private details about particular topics. 

We know that we need to engage in conversation to reduce our uncertainty about the other person and identify what they want from online dating. But what specifically should we talk about?

Here are some topics I would recommend you talk about before meeting offline:

1. Location: Where are they from? How long have they lived in the area? Does their family live nearby?

Through talking about location, you can get a sense for how permanent their situation is. If they have roots in this location, they may be interested in staying a long time -- a sign that you won’t have to worry about a timeline for when they will move away.

2. Lifestyle: What do they like to do for fun? Are they more of a homebody or are they always looking for an adventure? Do they have regular hobbies that coincide with yours?

Asking questions about what a person likes to do is less about finding common ground (though that can be a happy accident) and more about determining whether the way they live is compatible with the way you live. For instance, if you are a homebody, dating someone who gets restless at home likely won’t make a good match.

3. Future Orientation: What are they looking for out of their dating app experience? Are they interested in seriously dating or are they more interested in casual flings?

Understanding whether your match is interested in the same things you are is important before you meet in person. Getting answers to these questions can prevent uncomfortable in-person situations when you inevitably figure out you and your match want different things.

With the popularization of dating apps, messaging and meeting new people is easier than ever. The downside of this process is that meeting a lot of people feels monotonous and tedious. It can be hard to push through the very scripted early moments of a budding relationship. The payoff can be forming more meaningful relationships with people who are compatible with you and having enough information to determine when someone isn’t a good match for you after all.

Sources +
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Rachel Vanderbilt, PhD

Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt is the host of the Relationship Doctor podcast. She is a relationship scientist whose research examines how we communicate in our romantic relationships. Specifically, she studies how we communicate in our romantic relationships as we age and our relationships mature, particularly during conflicts that are difficult to resolve. She believes that we can all benefit from evidence-based recommendations about how to have healthy and happy relationships.

Do you have a question for the Relationship Doctor podcast? You can leave a voice message for the show by calling (813) 397-8165 or send an email to relationshipdoctor@quickanddirtytips.com. You might hear your question on a future episode.