Conversational U-Turns

When date-night chit chat veers into dangerous territory, here are strategies to get your rapport back on track—ASAP.

By Stephanie Davis

irst (and second and third) date conversations can be tough. When you’re just getting to know someone, chances are good that either you or the bundle of nerves sitting on the other side of the bread basket will say something uncomfortable. But what if you had a spin-savvy communication coach overseeing your dating life—could you become a star-caliber pro at maneuvering the small-talk minefield? We asked experts how to deflect, smooth over and otherwise spin tricky conversational terrain. Use their advice the next time a touchy topic comes up on an early date.

Potential disaster #1: Exes
“I was on a second date when the girl mentioned that she had cheated on her ex-boyfriend and asked me about my last relationship,” says Matt Horton of Sylva, NC. Awkward, yes,
“You don’t have to answer every question your date asks.”
but not uncommon. Most people bring up their exes at some point, either from nerves, triggered emotions, or absentmindedness. Your impulse is to respond in kind, but just talking about an ex — in any tone — makes it seem like you’re still hung up.

Smooth-talking solution: “We often think that we’re obligated to answer a question just because it’s been asked, but we’re not,” says Laurie Puhn, J.D., author of Instant Persuasion: How to Change Your Words to Change Your Life. “Reply with, ‘It was fine. But I’m having such a good time with you, I’d rather focus on the present.’”

If it’s you who slips up: If you find yourself going on about your last relationship, cut your diatribe off cold by saying something like “Well, it’s all in the past and I’m really looking forward to what’s in store for my future.” Then change the topic. Fast.

Potential disaster #2: Income
“During dinner, my date brought up the fact that he vacations on an island his family owns,” says Courtney McHale of Boston, MA. “He made several more references to money, and later, he asked me how well my recruiting job paid. I felt like I was being judged.”

Smooth-talking solution: Most people don’t like sharing what they make, but they answer anyway, as with ex questions, because they feel on the spot. Instead, smile and say, “Not as much as I’d like, but enough to pay the bills,” suggests T.J. Walker, president of Media Training Worldwide, a media coaching group that trains celebrities and business executives. “Smiling makes anything easier to accept.”

If it’s you who slips up: If you hear yourself succumbing to curiosity and asking “How much do you make?” or “What’s your rent?” realize you have the power to fix your faux pas. Quickly follow up with, “Gosh, I can’t believe I asked that. How rude. Of course you don’t have to answer!” Your admission will get both you and your date off the hook—and establish for good that money chat is off-limits.

Potential disaster #3: Politics
“Ten minutes after meeting my blind date at a bar, he went off on a tirade about my political party,” says Tiffany Kunkle of Atlanta, GA. “He asked me which candidate I voted for, but I
Just because your date over-reveals doesn’t mean you have to!
didn’t want to get in an argument.” Politics and other hot-button topics (think religion, gay marriage rights, dogs vs. cats) can undermine flirtation — the real reason you’re there — and land you in a conversation that’s tough to cut off.

Smooth-talking solution: Remember that there’s always a middle ground between pretending to agree and honesty that results in a fight. “Make an innocuous comment like ‘Wow, the president has a tough job. I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes,’” says Walker. (Generic version for other topics: “There are so many sides, I’m glad I’m not in charge of making everyone happy!”) “You’re not divulging anything personal, it’s an easily agreed-upon comment, and it stops the conversation from escalating.”

If it’s you who slips up: If the mood starts going south, it’s easy to reverse things. Puhn recommends laughing and saying, “As you can tell, I really love talking politics, but I’ve had a rough day and I’d like to talk about something a little less controversial.”

Potential disaster #4: Awkward confessions
“During an evening that was going well, my date admitted to me that she was having surgery,’” says Mark Gantt of Los Angeles. “It turns out she was getting liposuction and breast implants. After that, she was totally insecure, talking about how fat she was.” Since most early dates are a bit bumbling, uncomfortable disclosures (like tales of getting fired, seeing a shrink, or abusing drugs), can be a regular road hazard, if only because they make the speakers beat themselves up for bringing the topics up.

Smooth-talking solution: Don’t feel like you have to match your date’s level of intimacy. “The best thing to do is to be sympathetic and say ‘I hope it goes well,’ or ‘Well, at least you’ve moved on and learned from it,’” says Walker. “The second best thing to do is to excuse yourself and go to the bathroom—it works.” By the time you come back, you’ll be primed to pick a new topic.

If it’s you who slips up: If you’ve just admitted to having a sixth toe or stalking an ex, tell your date you were just kidding (even if you weren’t) just to lighten the mood. If that doesn’t work, there’s always the trip-to-the-bathroom move…

Stephanie Davis is on staff at GQ.
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