We’ve all had them — those “I can’t believe he did that!” moments on the first few dates. I once went out to dinner with a guy who not only kept his cell phone on the table, he actually took a call from his mom during our meal. Another man invited me out for coffee and asked me to pitch in for my share — all of $3 — when it was time to pay up.
Of course, being the open-minded woman I am, I wrote them off. But can you really read that much into early dating behavior? Just about, says Karen Sherman, Ph.D., a psychologist specializing in relationships in New York and author of Marriage Magic! Find It, Keep It, and Make It Last. “Everything you want to know about someone is there for you right at the beginning,” she notes. And you’re more apt to pick it up in a first meeting than a second or third when “emotions get involved, and clear thinking diminishes,” she adds.
Fortunately, early dates are great for spotting a person’s true character, too. We polled experts and frequent daters alike to help you detect early tip-offs he’s got serious boyfriend potential. Here, we explain what to look for.
Sign #1: He’s kind to the wait staff/bartender/valet
Does he thank the parking attendant as he hands over his keys? Does he make polite small talk with not only the waiter but the busboys, too? Consider these behaviors to be your good-guy alert. “A man who can treat people well no matter what their income level or ‘station’ in life will treat you in a more considerate way, no matter what your profession,” says Dianne Daniels, an image consultant in Norwich, CT. The guy who considers himself above the taxi driver or doorman, on the other hand, may soon act like he’s better than you (or your profession or your family). Plus, you’ll always feel mortified about his hideous manners. And if your date is gracious about a mishap (from his burned steak to that nick on his car), give him extra points: he’s likely to stay calm under all kinds of relationship pressure.
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Sign #2: He has Jon Stewart’s conversational skills
Meaning that, instead of blathering on about himself, he asks smart questions that don’t come off as probing. And if (like a certain late-night host) he happens to be cute, smart and quick with a self-deprecating one-liner, marry the guy! But seriously: any guy who asks you questions rather than reciting his own resume is “someone who is capable of caring about someone else,” says Sherman. On the other hand, she adds, “If you can’t get a word in edge-wise, either the guy is narcissistic or very insecure.”
Having gone out with both types, Kelly Jeffrey, 29, of Fountain Hills, AZ, now knows to tune her radar to what she calls The Ratio: how much he talks about you versus himself. “If he’s an active listener and follows up on questions he asks you, you know he’s genuinely interested and not just going through the motions,” she says. “Besides, communication skills become oh-so-handy later on!”
Sign #3: His phone is turned off
Unless he’s an on-call surgeon or volunteer fireman, that smartphone should be nowhere in sight. “If he takes casual calls during your date, it means that he has other priorities and you may always come in second,” warns Daniels. Ask yourself this: Do you want to get involved with someone who can’t go two hours without talking to his parents? Or his buddies? Or his ex?
For sure, lots of us take calls 24/7. But that’s why a man’s refusal to text or take calls during your date is so telling. “It implies you are more important than a random call, and he wants to be fully present for your night out,” says Daniels. Bottom line: He’s not the kind of guy who’s always hoping for better plans to come along.
Sign #4: He mentions his mom (in passing)
“In passing” is the operative phrase here. Why? You want to know he has a strong relationship with the woman who gave him life (if he gets along well with her, he’s more likely to respect women in general, Sherman notes), but isn’t overly close to her.
So unless you see yourself asking for a table for three — you know, because she’s always invited along — keep your antennae tuned for the man who considers his mother to be his #1 lady. (Bad signs: He brags that she used to be a beauty queen. Or mentions that they love taking cruises together.) And do we need to remind you of the big-picture danger of dating a man who is utterly dependent on his mom? “You may one day have an intrusive mother-in-law,” says Sherman. “If he’s joined to the hip, he’s less likely to defend you or come to your rescue.”
Sign #5: He doesn’t brag about his income/possessions
He doesn’t mention that his watch is a Rolex, or that he made a killing in the real-estate market before the bubble burst. (Or how much his Tesla set him back.) “Guys who talk about how much things cost, especially to a virtual stranger, are basically insecure,” says Terri Sloane, a matchmaker and relationship coach in New York City. “They use money as a hook to catch women.” But you’re not landed quite that easily, right? Remember, Sloane adds, that just because a guy spends a lot of money on himself, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll lavish it on his girlfriend. In fact, people who have to tell you the price of everything are often hesistant to share the wealth, so to speak. Ask 35-year-old Christie Rivers of San Francisco to name her #1 dating red flag and she doesn’t hesitate to mention bragging about expensive purchases or experiences, such as traveling: “On more than a few occasions, guys have name-dropped all the exotic and expensive places they’ve vacationed. They’re basically shallow and insecure. What a turn-off!’”
Sign #6: He gazes directly into your eyes
You want to date a man who is far more fascinated by looking at your face than your décolletage, the mirror behind your head, or the 16-ounce porterhouse on his plate. “A man who focuses on your eyes when you’re talking may be looking for a deeper connection,” says Daniels. “By paying particular attention to your face and therefore giving himself the ability to pick up your verbal and nonverbal cues, he’s telling you that understanding you is important to him.”
Worst of all is a man who can’t help but check out every model type who trots past the two of you on your date. It may be normal guy behavior, but he should be able keep it in check on your first few outings together. “If his eye wanders on an early date, imagine how his eyes will wander once he gets to know you better,” says Sloane. “Buyer beware!”
A writer and editor in New York, Lisa Lombardi has written for Marie Claire, Maxim, Glamour and Cosmopolitan.