Some of these may be slightly more involved than the surreptitious tooth-lipstick check, but we promise they're worth the effort.
By Amy Shearn
1. Setting Your Internal GPS
You have to know where you want to go (and who can help you get there) in order to point your life in the right direction. Are you searching for someone to travel around the world with you? Then perhaps the home-owning workaholic with the needy wolfhound will never be more than a fun distraction until your next flight. Are you just looking for a fun distraction until your next flight? Terrific. But be clear with Mr. Wolfhound about this from the outset, so as not to break any hearts (including your own).
2. Knowing When To Close The Tab
The problem with anxious Internetstalking before meeting IRL is that you tend to find whatever it was you were looking for: the accomplished ex-girlfriend, the misspelled "its," the disparaging tweet about your favorite "Orange Is the New Black" episode. Then again, you'd feel really silly if you went on a date with a registered sex offender because you hadn't done your due diligence. So by all means, do a background check -- you'd do as much if you were looking for a petsitter. Read the first story. Check the first picture. And then, unless you're good at not saying "Oh I know you were class president, I read it in your high-school-paper archives," stop there. A creepy stalker vibe can be a real conversation killer.
3. Selecting A Restaurant Like A Superhero
If I could have one superpower, it would be the power of Dinner Deciding. I would be that person with the ability to size up the company, mood, tastes, weather and general vibe of an occasion, and then leap in a single bound to the most perfectly perfect restaurant. If you have this superpower, please invite me out to dinner. If not, spend some time before your next date thinking about the ideal thread-the-needle spot: a place where you know the menu but won't run into all your friends, a place that has charm but isn't too cutesy, a place close enough to home that you can get there with cute shoes and makeup intact but not so close that an invitation feels implied…and extra superhero points if you know of some secret, off-the-menu trick or just-right, drinks-and-dessert joint around the corner.
4. Punching Up Your Elevator Speech
At some point, you're going to need to explain how you coordinate the regional office's bulk orders of hotel carpeting in a way that makes sense and sounds interesting -- i.e., without all the vague blandness that once made a friend confess she'd thought you were sharing your CIA cover -- particularly if the other person is in a totally different line of work. After all, if you're not interested in yourself and what you do, how do you expect anyone else to be? For your next trick, refrain from the boring, old volley of questions ("And what do you do? And how do you like that?") and master…
5. Using This Conversation Conversion Chart
You know how sometimes you realize you're out of conversational eggs, so to speak, and so you have to find a replacement, like the way you'd use applesauce in a cake? Next time, refer to the handy conversion chart below!
Instead of "Do you have siblings?" try "What was you favorite childhood vacation?" Instead of "What's your favorite restaurant around here?" try "What's the best meal you've eaten in the last six months?"
Instead of "What do you do?" try "What's the weirdest thing I would find in your office?" Instead of "Seen any good movies?" try "What's your secret favorite movie? Not the one that makes you seem all smart, but the one you'd watch 1,000 more times?"
6. Reading The New Body Language
To be polite (and to ignore your BFF's constant "So?!" texts), you've turned your phone off, which you had to Google how to even do. Good for you. And yet, there's no need to freak out if your date is still fumbling with his phone. He might be nervous, or he might be waiting for a family member's post-op, all-clear text. You really never know. If the mood is right you might jokingly point it out -- "Are you live-tweeting your hummus review?" -- but don't get all up in his face about his smartphone addiction… not at least until the second date.
7. Recovering From A Gaffe With Confidence, Grace And Jazz Hands
You're going to torque your shoe heel into a street grate or overturn a wine glass or accidentally bite his ear when he goes in for a goodbye kiss (cheek or mouth? Where is he going?!). It's a rare and special art, however, to know how to lightly poke fun at yourself enough to put the other person at ease without going so far that you make them feel an uncomfortable degree of responsibility to reassure you. Trust me. This balance is my life. The key is to remember that he'd rather focus on your best qualities than judge you at your most awkward -- give him a chance to do that.
8. Gracefully Declining The Next-Day Mini-Golf Session
We've written it many times, you've heard it from many sources and here I am, about to say it again, but we can't help it; it might just be one of the most powerful lessons you ever learn in your whole life, and no it's not how to right-click with a touchpad although that is surprisingly helpful. It is: YOU CAN SAY NO. Maybe this date was a disaster. Oh well! With any luck it was at least a disaster in a funny way that will make a good story some day. If, at the end of the night, wistful-for-ex, loud-chewing, Bluetooth-wearing, nightmare-date Guy is ready for more, don't shuffle your feet and claim to be busy every day for the rest of your life. Try a smile, and something polite but firm like, "I don't think we're compatible," or "I'm not sure this is what I'm looking for," or, "I'm not interested in something steady right now." And then do what any sane, mature adult does: Block him on Facebook.
9. Shortening The Horizon
A surefire way to make sharing a basket of fries into an intense existential drama is to be thinking the whole time, "Do I want to marry this person?" Take it easy, Sister. Try first: "Do I want to see the dessert menu?" Baby steps. What's the best horizon for you to consider? Twenty more minutes? Another meal? A day trip? Seeing each other in sweatpants? People reveal themselves bit by bit, which doesn't mean you have to stick around to see more, just that the real question is whether you want to. And if the answer is maybe, then ask yourself one of the only easy questions in the universe: Do you, in fact, in your heart of hearts, want any more ketchup to go with those fries?
Earlier on HuffPost:
What 'Crazy' Am I Holding Back?
In the getting-to-know-you phase, when we're presenting the very best, borderline-Stepford-wife version of ourselves, there are certain things we hold back. They're <i>our</i> things -- anything from resisting the urge to adjust his collar, because the little way it flips up at the back taunts your inner desire for orderliness, to the fact that your guilty pleasure is reading bodice-ripping romance novels -- the campier, the better -- and you dream of writing your own someday. Not talking about that part of you is like trying to hold a beach ball under water -- it's manageable for a while, sure; but eventually, it bursts to the surface. And occasionally, it pops you in the face. Your partner doesn't have to love it (or even get it, really), but if you're interested in this thing going farther, he deserves the chance to know that it's part of who you are. After all, if he's worthy of your time, he's worthy of your crazy.
How Old Is Too Old To Have a Baby?
No matter whether you're in a serious relationship or seriously dating around, almost every woman has done the baby math: If I got married two years from now, and waited a year to get past the honeymoon phase, what are my chances of getting pregnant? Or, "If I met someone great on my next date …" The questions (and calculations) go on and on, all tinged with a lingering concern that our time may be running out. If you do want a child at some point, you can't help but put thought into this question; but when you do, make sure you're armed with the latest information. <a href="http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/07/how-long-can-you-wait-to-have-a-baby/309374/?single_page=true" target="_blank">Recent reports </a>show that your chances of fertility after age 35 might not drop as dramatically as initially thought. (Though it's worth noting that the chance of a miscarriage increases significantly: 15 percent of women ages 20 to 34 experience one, and that figure climbs to 27 percent for women 35 to 39 years old, and hovers at 26 percent for those 40 to 44, according to the <i>National Vital Statistics</i> report in <i>The Atlantic</i>.) At a time when everyone has an opinion about when you should -- or shouldn't -- have kids, it's important to know the facts. And know that the only opinions that matter are yours and your partner's.
Do I Not Want What I Thought I Wanted?
On the days when you leave work fuming, you and your boyfriend love talking about moving to the Midwest and starting an organic garden, leaving all of the city's traffic jams and your office's insufferable meetings-upon-meetings behind. Except now that your partner's looking at real estate listings and it's dawned on you that your days of eating egg sandwiches at the corner deli are numbered, you're starting to realize how much you hate weeding. And how much you love being an hour's drive from the ocean. Letting go of your own dream can be crushing; letting go of a shared dream can be downright devastating, especially if you see that your partner is still gung ho on it. This is not going to be a fun conversation, but it's possible he would be open to a compromise. Maybe you can move to the suburbs, where you can have a garden and remain just a few hours from the beach. Maybe you agree to move West for a few years, and set up a vacation budget for the occasional long weekend near the shoreline. There are a million maybes that may just work. And there are a few that might not work at all. It could dawn on you that your cold feet have nothing to do with the dream -- and everything to do with the person who comes along with it. Instead of moving together, one of you may be moving out, or moving forward, solo.
Is This The Person I Want By My Side As We Fight To Stave Off The Zombie Apocalypse?
Okay, so hopefully you won't ever battle for your life <i>World War Z</i>-style, but (and this is a corollary to the above question) when things seem like they can't get any worse -- and then your car breaks down in the middle of a rainstorm while you're blocking an intersection -- who would you want to be there with you? Not a perfect clone of Brad Pitt, per se, but someone who's ready and willing to see you at your screaming, ugly-crying worst -- and vice versa. Now is the time to climb a ladder of why's, as in: Why do I feel like I can't trust him or her to be there for me? Maybe your climb stops there, with "because it's date No. 3 and the most you can trust someone to do at that point is watch your purse while you're in the bathroom at Starbucks." Or maybe it leads to something like: "Because he's always texting his co-workers," which leads to: So <i>why</i> does that worry me? "Because my ex always chatted with his co-worker Lisa, and now they're dating -- <i>oh</i>." You may find it's not so much about the other person as it is the ghosts of unreliable exes past. So maybe you start with small acts of trust -- like asking your partner to pick up a prescription because you can't get off work before the pharmacy closes -- that can make you feel as if you can count on him to help tackle anything (the rise of the undead included).
Is This All That's Out There?
As quickly as this question comes to mind, we're likely to bat it away, because after a few too many nice-but-not-right dates, it's easy for another, more insidious fear to slither in along with it: the one about being unlovable, unmatchable, destined to be the quirky sidekick in somebody else's romcom. The key to getting out of the rut -- bear with our mushiness here, please -- can be focusing on <i>you</i>. Not in a tour-the-world "Eat, Pray, Love" sort of way, but in a figure-out-what-you-love-to-do-and-do-it way. <a href="http://www.oprah.com/relationships/How-Not-To-Get-A-Man">Martha Beck compares each of us to a bell curve</a>: "The skinnier, upper end represents your greatest gifts, the areas where you are most talented and extraordinary. The few people who share your most exceptional characteristics are your tribe, the population that is most likely to contain your heart's partner." The more you tap into those traits, the more likely you are to meet someone who restores your faith in what's out there. After all, before Zooey Deschanel's "adorkable" qualities made her the "New Girl," she was the eccentric sidekick to Jennifer Aniston in "The Good Girl."
Is This the Real Thing?
In a way, this is one of the happier questions to be faced with -- after all, it only comes up when there's someone with true potential around. It's also one of the cloudier, since it requires you to define what you mean by "real." It can also be Whitmanesque, containing multitudes of other, smaller questions, like "Are we going to get married someday?", "Is this really going to last?" and "Am I settling just to settle down?" The "real thing" can feel vague and unquantifiable at first, but when you whittle away to what you're really asking -- or maybe by going through some of the previous questions -- this one often answers itself.