Recently I watched a man crash and burn when approaching a pretty woman at Starbucks.
As she busily typed into her phone while waiting in line, he strode right up into her personal space. "What kind of phone is that?"
The woman looked a bit bewildered. "I don't know -- Verizon something."
Inching closer to her, he gave her a cocky smile. "What if I could get you a free phone?"
People watching literally groaned aloud.
Granted, this was a hypothetical Starbucks, a hypothetical phone, and a hypothetical pickup -- I was with a group of girlfriends and 150 strangers who paid to come take part in a town hall-style conversation about love and dating (naturally, as someone who writes about relationships, when an event called the Great Love Debate makes a tour stop in my town, I'm going to that), and the two volunteers were improvising the situation onstage. But the reaction was real enough--pretty much everyone could see that this guy just blew it. He sounded like he was either trying to sell her something (creepy) or buy her something (creepier), and either way, she immediately shut down.
Instead of trying to impress her, why didn't he just talk to her? You know... like a human?
At the Great Love Debate, people had shown up eager to find out how to do exactly that. More than anything, it seems, we want to communicate -- to connect. But often we wind up doing exactly the opposite -- like the poor phone guy.
There's a strange phenomenon that can occur when talking to someone we might be romantically interested in, versus conversing with almost anyone else -- friends, coworkers, clerks, servers: Alien life-forms take over our mouths. We clam up. Or we say inane things. Maybe we become inadvertently overbearing or aggressive, when that's not our usual MO at all.
I used to become "Babble Girl." The more I liked or was attracted to someone, the chattier I got, the more manic, a spate of verbal incontinence that must have seemed like someone popped my conversational cork. (Ask my husband about our first and second dates.) I knew while it was happening that it could be overwhelming, off-putting... but I couldn't stop (and fortunately my husband waited out the word deluge until I could be normal again).
The problem was, I wanted to sparkle. I wanted to impress. I wanted him to like me. I was so worried about how he would perceive me, it was hard to get out of my own way and let him see who I really was.
When we're focused on ourselves rather than on connecting with someone else, communication stops. We're not conversing so much as performing -- presenting a cultivated image, worrying about how we come across.
So how do you learn how to have a simple, genuine connection with someone?
At the tail end of the Great Love Debate, almost as an afterthought, therapist and dating expert John Howard dropped the gem of the evening: "Lead with your vulnerabilities." Rather than trying to impress or present our carefully culled "best self," as several of the dating experts advised that night, try the exact opposite: show your quirks, your soft places, your truest, most open self.
It stunned the audience into silence, and then an ovation. Howard's simple advice goes against so much of what we're told in dating -- but after all, how can someone decide whether they like you if you aren't being who you really are?
The next time you find Alien Dating Self slipping over your true identity, instead of working harder to present your game face, try doing less:
• Drop the mask and be honest. If you were nervous about the date, why not say so? Chances are he was too, and letting yourselves admit it can be a great point of connection. We are more alike than we are different.
• It's not a job interview. You don't have to give an exhaustive résumé about your life, or feel like you're competing to be "chosen."
• Listen at least as much as you're talking. Think of conversation as a tree: You may begin on the trunk, but as branches spread off in your give-and-take, let yourself wander out onto them.
• Leave your agenda at the door. This is an exploratory mission -- a chance to connect with a fellow human being. Be willing to let the conversation meander -- sometimes surprise moments of connection stem from the unlikeliest of topics.
• Smile, relax -- and be yourself. When you're with the right person, that's exactly who they're looking for anyway.