DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: It seems many people look for others in bars. However, I just do not understand the logistics on a physical or mechanical level. What I mean by this is that I know that approaching someone from behind is rude, but how do you even approach then? Everyone is facing towards the same wall, and it’s not like customers are allowed behind the bar. So how is it even possible to not approach from behind?
Furthermore, what is the etiquette with the rest of the bar? Is it appropriate to approach someone at a table? Someone standing around? Someone talking to others? I’m not being obtuse here, I really do not know. Because between all of this, I cannot think of any time I have seen an even remotely approachable woman at a bar. Everyone is some combination of:
1. Just facing the bar, sitting between people.
2. Sitting at a table, talking to a group of people.
3. Standing around, talking to a group of people.
So how is a man supposed to approach a woman in a bar, on a mechanical level?
Barfly On The Wall
DEAR BARFLY ON THE WALL: Before we get to the logistical issue, I want to correct a few misunderstandings that you seem to have. First, approaching someone from behind isn’t a great idea, not because it’s rude but because it can be startling. If you’re not expecting someone to come up behind you, it can be incredibly jarring. Women, in particular, can be sensitive to folks they don’t see rolling up on them because that can be goddamn terrifying. That’s not an ideal way to start off talking to a stranger.
(Also, I’m wondering what bars you’ve been to where everyone is facing the same wall. This sounds less like a bar and more like a Cybermen convention…)
Part of the issue is that much is going to depend on the bar. Your local watering hole where folks go to drink in quiet is going to have a very different vibe than a college bar in the entertainment district. As a general rule, if you’re going to a bar to meet people, then one thing you want to do is make sure you’re going to a bar where people actually go to mix and mingle and meet people.
Next, it makes life much easier to watch for folks who want you to come talk to them. There’re a number of indications of interest, the most common and reliable is someone who makes eye contact and smiles. And this doesn’t “meets your eyes and immediately looks away”, but someone who makes lingering eye contact and smiles, or who meets your eyes, looks away and looks back and smiles. If you get that from someone then you owe it to yourself to go talk to them right the hell then.
Similarly, you want to prioritize talking to people who are actually open to talking to folks. One of the ways you can tell is to watch their body language. Where is everybody facing and looking? If you see a group of people in a tight circle, with everyone facing inwards, then they’re not that interested in having people join them. They’re doing their own thing, talking with one another and aren’t looking to add a stranger to the group. However, a more open circle (even a semi-circle) where they’re spaced out and aren’t all facing one another is an indicator that they’re more likely to be receptive to talking to somebody new.
The same goes for if you see folks who are actively looking around. If you see a person or a group of people who have their back to the wall or the bar and are facing out towards the rest of the bar, then they’re actively checking things out and seeing what’s up. They may or may not be interested in talking, but they’re definitely more open to the possibility than someone who’s up at the bar and staring into their drink. It’s much easier to go talk to them and get a conversation started.
Now, talking to someone sitting next to you at the bar is actually very easy. Assuming that you aren’t at a bar where everyone is there to nurse their drink and leave, then all you really need is a plausible conversation starter. You’ve likely either done this yourself before or seen someone else do it and responded to it. If you’ve ever, say, been standing around waiting for your coffee at Starbucks or hanging out in a line waiting to get in somewhere and somebody made a comment and another person responded… well, you’ve seen the plausible conversation starter in action. This can be anything from making a comment about a thing that’s happening in the bar, start a conversation with the bartender (assuming they aren’t too busy to actually talk) or just saying something that invites a response.
There can also be times when you might overhear something that the person next to you said and respond to that; I’ve joined many conversations when, say, somebody at the bar was from out of town and trying to figure out where they were going to go next. That served as a natural introduction to the conversation (“I’m sorry, I couldn’t help but overhear…”) and then provide a natural pivot from whatever started the conversation to getting to know them (“…sorry, where are my manners? Hi, may name is…”).
Incidentally, that same approach works for groups of people talking — assuming they’re giving that open-to-talking body language. A lot of people who aren’t used to talking to strangers at bars will often use an indirect method of getting the conversation started. The most common method is to ask for their help by getting an opinion on something, then pivoting from the conversation starter to getting to know them (“So how do you guys know each other?”).
Now, folks who are sitting at a table or in chairs or other seating areas, is a little more of a challenge. Most folks aren’t going to be worried that a stranger joining them is going to be a drain and they’re going to be stuck dealing with him. Again, if their body language indicates that it’s not a closed group or you’re getting an approach invitation from someone (especially the eye-contact-and-smile), then the initial approach is much the same as talking to a group of people standing around. You initiate the conversation with a plausible conversation starter. What changes, however, is that if they seem to be interested in engaging with you, then you don’t want to just be hovering over them. If there’s an open seat or a place to sit by them, while you’re going through the opening (“Hey, can I get an outsider’s opinion on something?”) then you ask if you can sit. However you don’t just sit; you want to give a little white lie and say “I’ve only got a second before I have to go/ get back to my friends/ meet my buddies at X place”. This is what’s known as a false time constraint; you’re letting them know that this stranger isn’t going to try to occupy their evening. You’ve got a time limit after which you’re going to get up and go get back with your friends. This lets them relax, rather than be thinking about how they’re going to politely ask you to leave (or abandon their seats). If the conversation is going well and they’re enjoying talking to you, then you have nothing to worry about. They’ll be happy that they met this cool and interesting person. If it isn’t going well… well, you’ve got a natural and easy reason to eject.
Incidentally, it’s not nearly as difficult to talk to people in groups as it may seem. I’ve written a lot about how to approach and talk to people in groups and you should check it out. However one key to doing so is that you don’t want to roll up and just start talking to the woman you’re interested in. That’s a good way to get squeezed out. Even if your intentions are as pure as the driven snow, people will take that as a sign that you’re only there to hit on her. What you want to do is start broad and go narrow. That is: you start by addressing the group as a single entity; you’re talking to all of them at the same time. Then, as they warm up to you, you start to give more attention to individuals within the group — asking them specific questions or directing a comment to them. As things progress, you can direct more of your attention to the person you’re interested in. Taking this approach makes it much easier to, if not befriend the group, get enough of their approval that they aren’t going to see you as someone who’s only goal is to try to hit on one of their friends and pull her away from the group. If you can befriend the group and help them realize just how of a good guy you are, then it won’t be as weird when you start vibing with the person you’re into.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com