You met in a cafe, you've hung out for a few hours, and you seem to be hitting it off. And now at last, you're alone together. Is it time to lean in for the kiss? Or is this about to turn seriously awkward? How do you know when someone wants to kiss you? Here's our guide to how to get to First Base.
Illustration: Jim Cooke
Figuring out when, and if, your date wants that first kiss depends on correctly deciphering a whole suite of nonverbal cues. Read them right, and romance may bloom. But it's not a simple matter of following a step-by-step algorithm.
According to Jeffrey Hall, an associate professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas and an expert on human flirting, our signals are complex, and often difficult to read. "We're pretty good at telling when someone's not interested, but not particularly good at telling when someone is," he says. The problem, he believes, is our complex social brain. Each of us worries what the other person will think of us, which drives us to make our own social signals subtler and harder to read. Add the complication that different people may use different methods to show interest — one person, for example, preferring intense intellectual conversations, while another opens up emotionally — — and you have a recipe for confusion.
Nevertheless, all humans seem to share some basic signals that can help you figure out whether you're on the right track.
Use your eyes and ears.
In some birds, the courtship displays of one partner are answered by a matching display from the other. In humans, good feelings toward a companion are shown through what psychologists call immediacy behaviours. In general, people relax around the people they like. They lean closer as they converse, they smile more often, and they laugh more together. "It's not that I'm making a joke and you're laughing at it," says Hall. It's that both people laugh together about something.
If your date seems to enjoy your company, and sounds relaxed and happy, it's a good sign that that person likes you, is listening to you, and is interested in what you're saying. Rock on.
Do you feel 'in sync'?
People can be very different: some are introverted, others brash, some are goofballs, while others are reserved. But when two people are moving toward becoming more intimate, they will mirror each other's behaviours, matching gestures, rate of speech, and tone of voice.
The phenomenon is natural and completely unconscious, and Hall says that people as a rule aren't very good at faking it. In fact, the specific behaviours themselves don't seem to be as important as the fact that they reflect one another. So, he says, "if someone is matching you note for note, it's a very very good sign."
Are you getting closer?
Has your date moved closer to you, perhaps touching your hand or your arm? Is your date gazing into your eyes? People also use the personal space around their bodies to signal interest. A person interested in a more intimate relationship will stand closer and maintain eye contact longer than someone who thinks of you as a friend. But beware! People's tolerance for touch and eye contact vary a lot, much of it a result of upbringing. A person raised in a "high touch" or "high eye contact" society will consider a light touch and a long gaze far less 'sexy' than someone raised in a "low touch, low eye contact" society like the United States.
Don't get distracted.
Your date stands face to face with you, holding your hands and gazing into your eyes. As you've talked, the pitch of both your voices has dropped. At this point, your date might be sending you some clearer signals. According to Hall, face to face eye contact, lowered tones of voice, and shifting position so the planes of your bodies match are all hints that a person is open to intimacy.
Unfortunately, you could be too preoccupied to really notice. "This is a point when you're really concerned about what you're doing, how you smell, and what you last ate," says Hall. That insecurity is completely normal.
Don't be afraid to ask
If you think the signs are right, lean in a little. But don't go 100% of the way. Hall says that trying for the first kiss is a perfect example of mirroring behaviour. "You want to meet in the middle," he says. "If one person's doing all the leaning, that's not good." If you're not pretty sure, there's also nothing wrong with asking.
In fact, if you're not sure whether someone wants to be kissed, asking verbally "Can I kiss you?" is always a great idea — and it doesn't have to be weird or a mood-killer. Sometimes, asking before moving into someone's personal space doesn't just show consideration and good boundaries — it can also be sexy, because verbalising is always sexy.
Be prepared to be wrong.
If your date mirrors your movements, head tilting, lips parting, it could be time for that kiss. Keep it gentle. First kisses are usually tentative and exploratory. Save the stuff with the tongue for later.
But if you lean in and your date pulls away, STOP. Maybe you've misread the signals. Remember that people are complex, and hard to read accurately all the time. You might also be distracted by what's going on inside your own head. Says Hall, "Overwhelmingly, the best advice is you can never be successful unless you try… and you may have to fail a little bit before you succeed."