You think you've met your soul mate -- or at least a decent dinner partner -- online. You've warmed up to each other through email and IM, and it's time to kick this thing up a notch. Here's how to make it work.
Rule 1: You don't know this person.
Yes, yes, you've had three-hour IM conversations and exchanged hundreds of emails. But that doesn't mean you know this person at all. You don't really know what your buddy looks like, sounds like, acts like in person. He may have a hard time expressing himself face-to-face (see rule #4); you may have thought all those references to "meeting with my lawyers" meant he was a high-powered executive when actually he's deep in a custody battle. (Conversely, your flame may not be ready for you to spring the idea of a perfect future in a four-bedroom colonial on him on the first date.) Take it slow. If something doesn't seem right, respect -- and respond to -- that feeling. If he asks for your phone number too early in the game, politely explain you'd like to wait a while. "Men generally don't have the same apprehensions about online dating as women have, so they tend to cut to the chase much quicker," says Trish McDermott, Match.com's dating expert. "Let him know that any hesitation isn't about him in particular." And if the first phone call doesn't go well, don't feel pressured to have to meet him in person.
Rule 2: Phone first, then face-to-face.
Even in the absence of red flags, don't jump from email to dining under the stars together in a single bound. Set up at least one or two phone conversations -- more, perhaps, if you two aren't in the same city. Use these talks as a way to get to know the person better and to judge whether you want to take the relationship to the next step. On the positive side, treat your first phone contact as an actual date, a way to get to know the person better.
See whether the online spark translates into the offline world. "Go all out," Trish advises. "Set up a time when the two of you will each be home and alone. Pamper yourself a bit before the call. Take a long luxurious bath, or work out and then treat yourself to a hot shower. Wear something that makes you feel desirable. Even though your date can't see you, the right ambience sparks romance."
Rule 3: Play it safe on your first date.
Always, always set up your first date at a highly trafficked public place, at a reasonable time of day -- late afternoon or early evening. "A familiar restaurant or coffee shop is fine, but not at midnight. Never meet at one of your homes or places of employment," Trish says. "Avoid hikes, bike rides or drives in remote areas for the first few dates. If you decide to move to another location, take your own car. Make sure you end the date while there are still other people present." These precautions don't make you paranoid; they're just common sense. If going to another town to meet your online friend, "Arrange for your own car and a hotel room," Trish says. "Do not disclose the name of your hotel, and never allow your date to make the arrangements for you. Rent a car at the airport and drive directly to your hotel. Call your date from the hotel or meet at the location you have already agreed to. If the location seems inappropriate or unsafe, go back to your hotel."
Rule 4: Don't put too much pressure on yourself -- or your date.
Planning a first date that's too long is a recipe for failure. "Don't plan an entire day together," Trish says. "Meet for one activity, and keep it at an hour or two." If things go well, there will be plenty of other opportunities to go on an all-day hike or spend hours antiquing through the countryside. And keep it light: "Stay away from any intense issues or conversations. Don't interrogate your date, but do use this time as an opportunity to learn a bit more." Keep in mind, however, that many guys are more expressive in email than in person. If Chatty Charlie turns out to be the strong, silent type in person, it doesn't necessarily spell disaster. You might have to work a little harder to draw him out in person. But if he refuses to answer questions, or his behavior makes you at all uncomfortable, take that as a red flag and remove yourself from the situation.
Rule 5: Make a good impression.
As cautious as you need to be, you also want to impress your date -- after all, he could be Mr. Right. If he's an upstanding sort of chap, he'll see your precautions as the signs of a mature, intelligent woman, but you still want to balance that with putting on your best face and behaving in a friendly manner. (No one's going to ask someone out again if they're openly hostile.) "You make your best real-world first impression by being calmly and confidentially yourself," Trish says. "Try to enjoy the nervous energy you are feeling. Have fun. Remember to smile. People are perceived as more attractive when they are having a good time." She says the top attributes that go toward making a good first impression are "warmth, a sense of humor, imagination, confidence, success, fitness, individuality, body language, conversational ability, creativity and kindness." You may not be a perfect 10 in all of those, but you can certainly make sure the areas you are strong in shine. And that's good advice not just for the dating world but for your whole life.