"Are you participating in something here, or just hanging out?" was my opening line (no line at all, really). And so began the interaction. I failed (but succeeded, read on for that part), but my failure got me thinking about the value of practice, of repetition.
The "tourist" gambit
Ok, it's really no gambit at all. Though I was telling her the truth when I said I was visiting. It's really just an excuse to ask questions about the city. During a recent vacation in San Francisco, I stopped in a store selling carefully curated, high end audio gear and accessories, with a community radio station studio in the front. I've been in stores like this before. They carry a lot of cool stuff that will probably have zero impact on my life if I buy it. Still, it's fun to look around. Relaxing in an office chair was Giana. The interaction, in part, went about like this. It's long, but an easy read.
(For fun, I'm going to annotate this so you can see what I'm doing. It's not rocket science, but details matter. Note that words cannot capture all the nonverbal communication going on here, and that's 50-90% of the interaction!)
AP: Hi, how's it going? Are you participating in something here, like DJing, or just hanging out?"
G: Just hanging out.
AP: You're not going to DJ, then?
G: No, my friend is DJing, though.
AP: Well, if you were the DJ, what would you play? [Making the conversation about her, not me.]
G: Nothing but Britney Spears.
AP: Uh, well, you like Britney Spears that much?
G: Yes. There's Britney up here [raises hand], then all this dirt, then me way down here.
AP: Well, you're secure in your tastes. [Disagreeing but paying a compliment, even if sarcastic. She can tell I don't actually like Britney Spears.] I'm Aaron.
G: Giana. [Handshake] So, what are you doing here?
AP: I'm visiting from the Midwest.
G: Oh, you're not wearing a cowboy hat, I thought you all did.
AP: Uh, no, you're thinking of the south. We're a bit more enlightened where I'm from. We just passed gay marriage. In fact, everyone is required to gay marry now. I married a dude, and it's the best. We don't have sex, but he makes a great style advisor. So, what cool San Francisco activity can you recommend to a tourist? [Indicating lack of homophobia, and making fun of myself.]
G: Brunch at the Red Door. It's a brunch place staffed by gay guys in thongs. [Smart, she ties the topics together.] The food is really good.
AP: So, a bunch of gay dudes serve brunch in thongs. I could work with that.
[Various additional chit chat...and eventually:]
AP: Tell you what, Giana, why don't you join me for brunch tomorrow at the Red Door? [I've let her establish where she likes to eat, and then invite her there.]
G: Oh, I would, but I have a boyfriend. [Classic excuse. Seemed true, but sometimes women conjure one out of thin air to let you down easy.]
AP: Is he a good guy, this boyfriend, are you really into him?
G: Yes. [She smiles. From her body language, it appears there was a real boyfriend, but who knows?]
AP: Well, if you're sure...I wish you the best. It was a pleasure meeting you. [Handshake, exit.]
I left the store feeling jazzed, and pretty good about myself. While I believe strongly in the maxim "don't admire your work," that is, keep moving, don't stop too long to be impressed with yourself, I was happy to have such a natural, unforced interaction. Again, words on the screen don't address all the nonverbal communication which passed between us, which was substantial (as in most face-to-face interactions).
Success through failure
Wait, what? Refined Self readers around the globe are shouting at their monitors: "But AP, you didn't get the date. You failed!" No I didn't. I did everything right.
- I approached her chill, relaxed.
- Introduced myself, made eye contact, shook hands.
- Asked her about herself.
- Joked with her.
- Asked her out directly, clearly, after about five minutes of conversation.
- Pushed back a little when she claimed she had a boyfriend, but not in an obnoxious way.
- Realized the date wasn't going to happen, and said my goodbye and moved on.
In other words, I did everything I was supposed to do. I left the interaction feeling I did my best, that there was nothing left to say, that I'd "made my case," and that was it. Now, it's always easy to second-guess oneself "Oh, what if I'd said this or that clever thing. Then she would have gone for me!" That is impossible to know. Unless you're some kind of savant or mind reader, you can't know the exact thing that will shift a stranger's mind in your favor. With that in mind, there are definitely things that will improve your chances (see above). But pickup, or social dynamics if you like, is not a physics equation, it's an unpredictable interaction between two humans.
The 10,000 Hour Rule
Author Malcom Gladwell writes about the 10,000 rule, the idea that this is the amount of practice required to become truly great at something. Evidence for this theory is mixed. And getting in 10,000 hours of pickup would require making it your life's work. You'd be better off getting a communications degree, becoming a good salesperson, public speaker, or counselor, and applying your interpersonal skills to pickup.
But the concept is sound—"practice makes perfect." Or better, anyway.
Ask women out, early and often
This is essentially what I'm advising. If you want to get better at asking women out, ask more women out. Whether you get a phone number or not, a date or not, whether you have a one-month whirlwind romance or marry and raise chess prodigies, take mental notes on each interaction. When possible, ask a friend to observe you and critique your efforts. You gradually refine your approach until it's as natural, unforced, and light as possible. (And more effective.)
Last but not least, integrity
Finally, when you interact with women as I showed above—with a relaxed sense of lightness, ease, like talking to a friend, you maintain your integrity. No lying, no manipulation, no deceit. Just be a decent human being, and sometimes you'll get that first date. And when you don't, you can walk away feeling good about yourself, ready for the next attempt, which may be in five minutes or five weeks.