Sara* and I met outside the bar and immediately hit it off, chatting like old friends for 10 minutes before we even made it inside. I’d been excited for this date since we matched; my roommates had already taken to declaring, “that’s your wife, dude” whenever I mentioned her.
Our conversation flowed as smoothly as an Aaron Sorkin movie and as sweetly as “Love Actually.” We talked for hours without breaking. I’d laugh and touch her arm. She’d smile and her eyes would flash with interest. We went from the bar to a falafel shop then to the waterfront, where we kept talking.
Should I kiss her now? I wondered. On paper, the moment felt perfect and picturesque; in real life, something felt off. The question began to distract me: Should I wait until the end of the date or should I try now?
I missed my shot. Time passed, and Sara suggested we head back toward our respective apartments. Suddenly we were on her doorstep. I strained to read the tea leaves of the situation like a man reading braille through mittens. I decided to go for it and moved in for a goodnight kiss.
Miscalculation. She pulled away after a couple seconds, said goodnight, and went inside. On the walk home, I replayed every moment of the date in my head, wondering where I went wrong and what signals I missed.
“On date one, I’m very incognito about my feelings. Always,” says Lindsey Metselaar, host of dating podcast We Met At Acme. She believes other women are similarly opaque. “I would go as far as to say a woman could still not be into you even if she kisses you at the end of the date.”
That certainly tracks with my experience. But then what should I — and men in general — be looking for on a date? How do women signal attraction?
“There are really a hundred things, little and big, that can convey interest,” says Connell Barrett, a dating coach and founder of Dating Transformation. He suggests keeping an eye on whether a woman is attentive and present in the moment rather than checking her phone and making sure you’re not the only one asking questions. It shouldn’t feel like you are a journalist interviewing her.
Metselaar recommends looking out for genuine amusement. “I want to say laughing at your jokes, but only if you’re laughing together and they’re funny, not if it’s being forced. You can tell the difference.”
Intrigued, I started asking friends and strangers alike: Women, how do you signal? Men, how can you tell?
Unless you’re Ryan Gosling, not every woman who makes eye contact wants to sleep with you.
“It’s all in the eye contact,” says Brett, 26. “If you think you are wanting to go in for the kiss, for example, and as you start to move in that direction and the eye contact isn’t there, that’s a big, red, blinking stop sign.”
“Lots of eye contact and laughing,” says Paulina, 27.
“Eye contact,” Sierra, 29, echoes. “A lot of it.”
But unless you’re Ryan Gosling, not every woman who makes eye contact wants to sleep with you. I began requesting more nuanced examples.
Kitty, 27, says it’s about investing in you as a person by showing “interest in learning more about your hobbies and the things you like.”
Sarah, 22, emphasizes that all women are different, so these signs will vary wildly between partners. “You don’t know what kind of a person you’re dealing with,” she says. “I am a naturally flirty person. There have been a lot of times when guys have mistaken my friendliness for flirting.”
That’s an important point and one that many men have trouble with. Did she touch my knee because she’s interested? Did she laugh at my joke because she’s attracted to me? Should I make a move?
Maggie Dancel, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist who specializes in sex and intimacy, recommends talking outright about your attraction to each other throughout the night rather than waiting until the last second. “It’s so hard for people to see in the moment and when you’ve had a cocktail or you’re really attracted to someone,” she said. “A lot of those nonverbal cues get misread.”
“If you’re not sure, there’s nothing wrong with waiting [to make a move],” says psychiatrist Jordana Jacobs, Ph.D. “There are so many ways to communicate that [she’s] interested, but the only way to know for sure is to talk about it. It’s open to interpretation otherwise.”
Rather than internally agonizing, Jacobs had a radically simpler solution for men: Express yourself. Be vulnerable.
“Own that vulnerability and say, ‘I’ve been wanting to kiss you, but I’ve been getting some mixed messages over here. I’m not sure what’s going on for you; let’s talk about it.’ If a man said that to me, I’d think it was pretty hot. And it’d make me want to kiss him.”
Barrett, who advises his clients to be authentic and unguarded, stresses the same point. “Let her know your interest, and then she will give her feedback and make it clearer how she feels.”
Keeping those lines of communication open is especially important as your dates progress into more intimate territory. Look for key physical signs, like if she’s pulling you closer or keeping her distance, Dancel says. Where are her hands? As clothes start to come off, use an increased heart rate, heavy breathing, and flushed complexion as indicators that your partner is enjoying where things are going, but stay mindful and be prepared to stop if she seems uncomfortable or expresses in any way that she would like to press pause for the night.
“At the end of the day, it’s two strangers,” says Dancel. “That’s why I stress so much: communication, communication, communication.”
She’s right. It can be truly nerve-wracking to express your interest in someone, but there’s so much reward in it, too. I love when my date receives a compliment with a blush and a goofy smile. The moment before a first kiss is always enough to give me a heart attack, but what a victory it is when I’ve read the moment right. Everyone is different, and your date probably isn’t going to hire a skywriter to let you know she likes you. The only surefire way to find out is to ask.
*Names have been changed to protect innocent daters everywhere.