imagesRestaurant settings can set up a nerve-racking experience for first dates, whether it’s for lunch, a snack, coffee, dinner, or dessert. Especially for people who struggle with social anxiety, eating, or merely sitting face-to-face while meeting someone for the first time sets the environment for significant vulnerability. Add to this the issues of who orders, who pays, do I have food in my teeth, etc…a lot of potential awkwardness, unless you’re skilled and seasoned at dating.

Sitting at a table is basically the setup for a meeting or an interview. This nearly automatically signals a person to be on their best behavior, which is already a first-date issue without it being amplified by this setup. The anxiety is also magnified if you grew up in a home where meals were filled with manner criticism: “Chew with your mouth closed”, “Get your elbows off the table”, etc. Then there’s the problem of  how much eye contact is enough or too much? For the dating expert, these may not be issues, but for the novice or the socially anxious, sitting in a restaurant with a first date presents many possible difficulties to overcome.

Restaurants also build an immediate problem into a first date: you’re stuck there until you’re done (unless you’re a person who’d leave in the middle of a date), and if you are afraid of silences, you’re possibly both stuck with the anxiety-provoking task of keeping the conversation flowing until you’ve finished your meal and taken care of the bill. Walking into a trapped situation like this can change the focus to avoiding anxiety rather than enjoying time with your date.

Another issue with being at a table is that you’re both left to your conversation skills as the main event, and while it’s nice if you have good conversation skills, it’s not so easy for everyone. There’s little outside material to expand upon when at a restaurant. Do you talk about the menu, or the food, or the people from the other table? Maybe if you’re lucky there will be some pictures on the wall that can start an intriguing conversation. But generally, when at a table, the focus is purely on each other, and if you’re not a good conversationalist, a setup for pure interpersonal interaction with little outside stimulation is not ideal for a relaxed date.

I would suggest completely getting rid of the table and chair setting, and only bringing food into the picture if it can be eaten on the move (like an ice cream cone). In reality, simply being able to enjoy space and time together can be as relevant, if not more relevant than the quality of pure conversation on a date. Sharing activities that interest both of you can give a better sense of how you relate and fit together, personality-wise, and experiencing activities together can also generate conversation that is less edited, as well as provide a break from personal conversation when needed. Having an active experience can open meaningful dynamics and emotions beyond only the level of a conversation. Basically, there is more to lean on than only the face-to-face conversation.

So next time you’re thinking of going on a date, try a walk in the park — and sitting on a bench to chat for part of it is good, especially since you can get up and walk when you’re both ready, miniature golf, an amusement park, hiking, an arcade, or any other setting that allows you to take the focus off of the face-to-face conversation for part of the time, and just experience each other through shared activity, space, and time. It will most likely reduce the anxiety level, and allow you to be introduced to other emotional parts of your date.

Keep away from spectator sports and activities on the first date. A baseball game is similar to the restaurant, except you’re locking yourselves into 3 hours of it. Unless you both love sports and talking about it while you’re watching it, it’s a tough place to connect. Same with movies, plays, concerts, symphonies, etc. You’re sitting in chairs next to each other, but are focused on something else completely (except for the internal monologue wondering if you should hold hands), in a room where speaking isn’t really possible or appropriate.

Keep in mind, most “remember our first date?” stories don’t continue on to say, “remember how the waiter brought us our food while we talked about your family and job?” If you want to make a good first date story, leave the barrier of the table and chairs behind and share experiences together. The enjoyment that comes out of the togetherness will create more relationship potential than the conversation at the table that made it alive through the nervousness.