Speed Dating? Watch Your Mouth

PHOTO: Speed dating

Do you know how long it takes for a guy and a gal to "click" in the first stage of building a bond that may lead to a lasting relationship? Seconds, according to numerous studies.

But new research suggests that connection can be strengthened -- or blown away -- within four or five minutes, because what people say, and how they say it, may be nearly as important as how they look.

"We've all met somebody we thought looked amazing, and then they open their mouth and you realize, wow, that was different than I thought," sociologist Dan McFarland of Stanford University, coauthor of a study published in the American Journal of Sociology, said in a telephone interview.

McFarland teamed up with Dan Jurafsky, professor of linguistics at Stanford, to study "speed dating," the current rage among many singles, and more specifically, the role of communications during that brief encounter.

First impressions are important, and McFarland concedes that appearance is the leading factor in that first click. Women like taller men, males prefer slimmer women, and so forth. But just simply asking a question during a four minute "date" can change that.

"We found that questions were used by women to keep a lagging conversation going, and they were used by men who had nothing to say," the study notes. (Come here often?)

Speed dating has been around for more than a decade now, and it is especially popular on some web sites. The basic idea is to let singles meet lots of potential mates and pick which ones they would like to get to know.

"It's nice to shop," McFarland said. "I never knew this thing existed" back in the days when he was still on the prowl.

The researchers recruited graduate students at Stanford, one of the nation's premier universities, for their experiment, so we aren't talking about losers here, and some findings may not apply to everybody. The participants participated in nearly 1,000 "speed dates," so there were lots of opportunities to click, and they were wired for sound.

Transcripts were completed of the entire conversations between all males and females, providing a warehouse full of chitchat as they tried to decide whether they liked or couldn't stand the person in front of them.

"Scorecards," post-test surveys, and follow-up interviews helped the researchers draw broad conclusions, including:

"Women are significantly less likely to select a partner than are men." In short, they were pickier.

Both genders express excitement when they connect, but often by different means. "Men vary their loudness, increase laughter and become monotone. Women raise and vary their pitch and vary their loudness."

"Both genders experience a sense of connection when they mutually render the female a point of focus and men act in a supporting role."

Women don't like questions. They "feel disconnected when they have to ask men questions, or when men ask them questions."

And the words each participant used, like how many times the pronouns "I" or "you" came up, appeared to be an effort to shift the focus of the conversation back and forth, but both genders thought the session was most successful if it focused on the female.

That may be partly due to how the experiment was set up. In this case, as in most speed dating experiments, the male moves from female to female, trying to click. That's usually the way it works in a bar. That puts the woman in charge.

All she has to do is sit there and judge her date. The study concedes the result might be different if the woman takes the offensive and the male awaits each supplicant.

Researchers at Northwestern University reversed the roles and found when the females went from male to male, thus putting the guys in a position of power, there was no gender difference in pickiness.

"The mere act of physically approaching a potential partner, versus being approached, seemed to increase desire for that partner," psychologist Eli Finkel said in releasing that study in 2009.

The ideal result of speed dating, of course, is to have both participants decide they would like to take the next step.

Then an email address or phone number could lead to a real date.

But it doesn't happen all that often.

McFarland said only about 20 percent of the Stanford dates resulted in a "match," but of those only about 9 percent actually contacted each other. And a month later, only nine "pairs" were actually dating. That's after nearly 1,000 speed dates.

So the odds may not be all that great, at least among sophisticated, well educated, and probably wealthy and beautiful grad students. McFarland had this bit of advice:

"Females are more selective than males, and if you really want to hit it off with a female, you make her engaged, you support what she says."

And remember, in the long run, "it's more than just what you look like."

So watch your language.

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