Do dress up, don’t get drunk: how to have a great virtual date

As if first dates aren’t awkward enough, along comes video dating to add an extra layer of tech frustration and misinterpreted body language to the mix. During lockdown, video calls – either within a dating app, or on platforms such as Zoom – took off. But as restrictions lift, many dating experts predict the format is here to stay – or at least that it has become a helpful additional step. Dating apps rolled out video call functions last year, and Hinge found that 65% of people who had been on a virtual date planned to continue post-pandemic. Of Tinder’s younger users (Generation Z daters, in their late teens and early 20s), half have used video dating. So you may as well perfect your on-screen hairstyle, decide what to wear on your upper half and embrace it. Here are some tips on how to succeed.

Get to know the technology
You want to appear to be a functioning, capable person, so make sure you know how your chosen virtual dating platform works – you could practise with a friend first. Think about flattering lighting and angles. If you are looking down at the camera, you will be all chins and nostrils; face on is better, or looking slightly up, so prop your phone or laptop up on something so it’s at the right height. Zoom has an appearance-enhancing filter option, but is this cheating? “Do what you want, but it’s the same with your pictures online,” says the dating and relationships coach Kate Mansfield. “If you’re going to make yourself look better than in normal life, be prepared for the person to be slightly disappointed when they meet you. It’s better the other way around.”

Look at your environment
If you have been using video calls while working from home, consider moving away from your workspace for a date. “Get the ambience as relaxed as possible,” says the psychologist and relationship coach Jo Hemmings. “Tidy up the space behind you. You are gauging somebody on the environment they live in – and we look at people’s bookcases, you notice all sorts of things.” It shouldn’t feel like a job interview – sit in a more relaxed position, even if you are in your workspace. Is doing it from your bedroom too suggestive? If this is the look you’re aiming for, go for it; if not, Hemmings advises against it..

Avoid interruptions
You wouldn’t take your flatmates, parents or pets to a first date, so try to reduce any chance they will gatecrash your video call. If they do, laugh it off, says the dating coach James Preece. “Life does get in the way. It’s funny, something to break the ice.” It may mean revealing something earlier than you would like – perhaps you have children – but be honest, he says. “Let them know that your baby is sleeping and might wake up. If you haven’t told them you have kids, they will think: what are you keeping from me? If you have nosy flatmates, say, ‘My flatmates are probably listening in, but I’m wearing headphones so they can’t hear you.’ It’s about making them feel comfortable.”

Set a time limit
Video calls are more draining than meeting in person so it’s a good idea to set a time limit. Hemmings suggests an hour at most, “and then return to it another day”. Preece thinks half an hour is enough for a first video date. “The whole point is to get you excited to meet someone in real life. It’s not a date replacement.”

Maintain (some) eye contact
It’s the fastest way to a connection in an unnatural situation, so make sure you look at the camera rather than the screen. Obviously if you’re both doing this, then you won’t be looking at each other’s faces, but will switch naturally between the two. It’s preferable anyway – Hemmings points out that prolonged eye contact in person is sexy but on a screen, “It looks slightly sinister.”

Dress up
It is a first date, after all, but keep it appropriate. “I wouldn’t go for a ball gown and full makeup for a Zoom call,” says Hemmings. “Wear something you feel comfortable and relaxed in, but which know you look good in. Don’t just look like you are slobbing around in your jim-jams because you want to present yourself in a good way.”

Be safe
Video dating is “probably a lot safer than meeting in person” says psychologist and dating coach Madeleine Mason Roantree. However, you should be aware of the risks. Don’t give out any information that could identify your address. Be wary, says Roantree, of “someone recording the video date, asking you very personal questions or requesting you to be sexual in any way. Do not do anything you are not comfortable with.” Zoom will notify you if the call is being recorded, but not if someone is taking screenshots – and they may be recording with another device or application.

Line the dates up – if you like
One benefit of video dating is that it’s easier, logistics-wise, to have several dates in one evening, as long as you have the stamina. “Just make sure you know why you are doing it,” says Roantree. “Is it to get attention? Is it to be efficient with time in your search for love? If it’s the latter, think about whether you will be fatigued after two video dates, so that a third or fourth date is not showing you at your best. How many times can you talk enthusiastically about yourself?”

Keep the conversation flowing
Both Preece and Roantree are fans of the “36 questions to fall in love”, which can act as prompts to an interesting chat. Preece advises against talking about anything too negative. The pandemic will inevitably be mentioned, “but talk about your experiences in a good way. Don’t say: ‘I really hate it.’ Say: ‘It has been a really good opportunity to reflect on what I want.’ Don’t talk about politics because even if you both agree on the same thing, it’s still putting something else down.”

Mansfield advises a mix of “lighthearted topics with some deeper conversation – just be wary of it not being too weighted one way or another.” Ask “riskier questions that most people tend to shy away from about what the other person is looking for – try to find out if you share the same values. I would suggest that people have a list of non-negotiables, perhaps that they want to find out before the end of the first video date.” It can save time and feelings if you find out you’re not really after the same things, without being dazzled by in-person chemistry.

Acknowledge awkwardness
Video calls can feel weird, but “the more you do it, the easier it becomes,” says Hemmings. “Don’t expect your first one to run smoothly.” Bring humour in, advises Mansfield, or be “a little bit vulnerable in terms of saying you feel nervous or shy – saying those things out loud can defuse the situation and help everyone relax.” It is normal to be self-conscious on a first date, and video can make it worse as you can see yourself on screen. “Focus on the other person,” says Preece. “If you’re conscious of them, there’s no time to be self-conscious. Spend 60% of the time asking questions and listening. People like people who like them.”

Use activities sparingly
There has been a trend for doing things together, whether eating dinner at the same time, taking a class or making cocktails. “They are OK for a second date,” says Preece. “The problem with having something too intense and fun is that you are not having good conversation, and that’s the important thing on a first date.” If you would normally have a drink during a date, that’s fine, says Preece. But on a 30-minute date, one drink is probably enough. “Don’t do what one of my clients did and have a five-and-a-half-hour Zoom date and three bottles of wine,” he says.

Plan to meet in person
Most dating experts agree that a video date is only a bridge between messaging and meeting up, and can be useful to weed out time-wasters or those to whom you are not attracted. “Chemistry is almost impossible by video,” says Hemmings. “But I think you can get to know somebody – you can ask questions about their background or what they are interested in.” Don’t do too many video dates or you will run the risk of either friend-zoning your potential partner, or building up a fantasy they won’t live up to in person. “Have one or two video dates and if you’re excited, get on with meeting them,” says Preece. “Make plans there and then. There’s nothing worse than saying, ‘I’ll get back to you when I check my diary’, because you’re at home and your diary is there in front of you. The worst thing you can do with any form of dating is to lose momentum.”