Opening lines

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When the subject of flirting comes up, most people seem to be obsessed with the issue of 'opening lines' or 'chat-up lines'. Men talk about lines that work and lines that have failed; women laugh about men's use of hackneyed or awkward opening lines, and all of us, whether we admit it or not, would like to find the perfect, original, creative way to strike up a conversation with someone we find attractive.

The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is that your opening line is really not very important, and all this striving for originality and wit is a wasted effort. The fact is that conversational 'openers' are rarely original, witty or elegant, and no-one expects them to be so. The best 'openers' are, quite simply, those which can easily be recognised as 'openers' - as attempts to start a conversation.

The traditional British comment on the weather ("Nice day, isn't it?" or "Doesn't feel much like summer, eh?", etc.) will do just fine, as everyone knows that it is a conversation-starter. The fact that these comments are phrased as questions, or with a rising 'interrogative' intonation, does not mean that the speaker is unsure about the quality of the weather and requires confirmation: it means that the speaker is inviting a response in order to start a conversation.

In Britain, it is universally understood that such weather-comments have nothing to do with the weather, and they are universally accepted as conversation-starters. Saying "Lovely day, isn't it?" (or a rainy-day equivalent) is the British way of saying "I'd like to talk to you; will you talk to me?"

A friendly response , including positive body language, means "Yes, I'll talk to you"; a monosyllabic response (accompanied by body-language signalling lack of interest) means "No, I don't want to talk to you", and no verbal response at all, with body language signalling annoyance or dislike, means "Shut up and go away".

If you are indoors - say at a party or in a bar - and nowhere near a window, some equally innocuous general comment on your surroundings ("Bit crowded, isn't it?", "Not very lively here tonight, eh?") or on the food, drink, music, etc., will serve much the same purpose as the conventional weather-comment. The words are really quite unimportant, and there is no point in striving to be witty or amusing: just make a vague, impersonal comment, either phrased as a question or with a rising intonation as though you were asking a question.

This formula - the impersonal interrogative comment - has evolved as the standard method of initiating conversation with strangers because it is extremely effective. The non-personal nature of the comment makes it unthreatening and non-intrusive; the interrogative (questioning) tone or 'isn't it?' ending invites a response, but is not as demanding as a direct or open question.

There is a big difference between an interrogative comment such as "Terrible weather, eh?" and a direct, open question such as "What do you think of this weather?". The direct question demands and requires a reply, the interrogative comment allows the other person to respond minimally, or not respond at all, if he or she does not wish to talk to you.

In some social contexts - such as those involving sports, hobbies, learning, business or other specific activities - the assumption of shared interests makes initiating conversation much easier, as your opening line can refer to some aspect of the activity in question. In some such contexts, there may even be a ritual procedure to follow for initiating conversation with a stranger. At the races, for example, anyone can ask anyone "What's your tip for the next?"

or "What do you fancy in the 3.30?", a ritual opening which effectively eliminates all the usual awkwardness of approaching a stranger.

Unless the context you are in provides such a convenient ritual, use the IIC (Impersonal Interrogative Comment) formula. This formula can be adapted to almost any situation or occasion. Just make a general, impersonal comment on some aspect of the event, activity, circumstances or surroundings, with a rising intonation or 'isn't it?' type of ending. Your target will recognise this as a conversation-starter, and his or her response will tell you immediately whether or not it is welcomed.

There are of course degrees of positive and negative response to an IIC. The elements you need to listen for are length, personalising and questioning. As a general rule, the longer the response, the better. If your target responds to your comment with a reply of the same length or longer, this is a good sign. A personalised response, i.e. one including the word 'I' (as in, for example, "Yes, I love this weather") is even more positive. A personalised response ending in a question or interrogative (rising) intonation (as in "I thought it was supposed to clear up by this afternoon?") is even better, and a personalised response involving a personalised question, i.e. a response including the words 'I' and 'you', is the most positive of all.

So, if you say "Nice day, isn't it?" and your target replies "Yes, I was getting so tired of all that rain, weren't you?", you are definitely in with a chance. Note that there is nothing original, witty or clever about the above exchange. You may even be inclined to dismiss it as polite, boring and insignificant. In fact, a great deal of vital social information has been exchanged. The opener has been recognised as a friendly invitation to a conversation, the invitation has been accepted, the target has revealed something about him/herself, expressed interest in you, and even suggested that you might have something in common!

The biggest mistake most people make with opening lines is to try to start a flirtation, rather than simply trying to start a conversation. If you think about your opening line as initiating a conversation, rather than starting a flirtation, use the IIC formula and pay close attention to the verbal and non-verbal response, you cannot go wrong. Even if your target does not find you attractive and declines your invitation to talk, you will avoid causing offence and you will avoid the humiliation of a direct rejection.

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