Exactly What To Say In A First Message

September 14th, 2009 by Christian Rudder


Ok, here’s the experiment. We analyzed over 500,000 first contacts on our dating site, OkCupid. Our program looked at keywords and phrases, how they affected reply rates, and what trends were statistically significant. The result: a set of rules for what you should and shouldn’t say when introducing yourself. Online dating advice at its best. Let’s go:

Rule 1
Be literate

Netspeak, bad grammar, and bad spelling are huge turn-offs. Our negative correlation list is a fool’s lexicon: ur, u, wat, wont, and so on. These all make a terrible first impression. In fact, if you count hit (and we do!) the worst 6 words you can use in a first message are all stupid slang.

Language like this is such a strong deal-breaker that correctly written but otherwise workaday words like don’t and won’t have nicely above average response rates (36% and 37%, respectively).

Interesting exceptions to the “no netspeak” rule are expressions of amusement. haha (45% reply rate) and lol (41%) both turned out to be quite good for the sender. This makes a certain sense: people like a sense of humor, and you need to be casual to convey genuine laughter. hehe was also a successful word, but much less so (33%). Scientifically, this is because it’s a little evil sounding.

So, in short, it’s okay to laugh, but keep the rest of your message grammatical and punctuated.

Rule 2
Avoid physical compliments

Although the data shows this advice holds true for both sexes, it’s mostly directed at guys, because they are way more likely to talk about looks. You might think that words like gorgeous, beautiful, and sexy are nice things to say to someone, but no one wants to hear them. As we all know, people normally like compliments, but when they’re used as pick-up lines, before you’ve even met in person, they inevitably feel…ew. Besides, when you tell a woman she’s beautiful, chances are you’re not.

On the other hand, more general compliments seem to work well:

The word pretty is a perfect case study for our point. As an adjective, it’s a physical compliment, but as an adverb (as in, “I’m pretty good at sports.”) it’s is just another word.

When used as an adverb it actually does very well (a phenomenon we’ll examine in detail below), but as pretty‘s uses become more clearly about looks, reply rates decline sharply. You’re pretty and your pretty are phrases that could go either way (physical or non-). But very pretty is almost always used to describe the way something or someone looks, and you can see how that works out.

Rule 3
Use an unusual greeting

We took a close look at salutations. After all, the way you choose to start your initial message to someone is the “first impression of your first impression.” The results surprised us:

The top three most popular ways to say “hello” were all actually bad beginnings. Even the slangy holla and yo perform better, bucking the general “be literate” rule. In fact, it’s smarter to use no traditional salutation at all (which earns you the reply rate of 27%) and just dive into whatever you have to say than to start with hi. I’m not sure why this is: maybe the ubiquity of the most popular openings means people are more likely to just stop reading when they see them.

The more informal standard greetings: how’s it going, what’s up, and howdy all did very well. Maybe they set a more casual tone that people prefer, though I have to say, You had me at ‘what’s up’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

Rule 4
Don’t take it outside

Obviously, all successful OkCupid relationships outgrow our in-site messaging feature. But an offer to chat or of an email address right off the bat is a sure turn off. One of the things online dating has going for it is its relative anonymity, and if you start chipping away at that too early, you’ll scare the other person off.

Also, don’t ask for or give away a cell number (10%). I thought that was a no-brainer.

Rule 4
Bring up specific interests

There are many words on the effective end of our list like zombie, band, tattoo, literature, studying, vegetarian (yes!), and metal (double yes!) that are all clearly referencing something important to the sender, the recipient, or, ideally, both. Talking about specific things that interest you or that you might have in common with someone is a time-honored way to make a connection, and we have proof here that it works. We’re presenting just a smattering: in fact every “niche” word that we have significant data on has a positive effect on messaging.

Even more effective are phrases that engage the reader’s own interests, or show you’ve read their profile:

Rule 5
If you’re a guy, be self-effacing

Awkward, sorry, apologize, kinda, and probably all made male messages more successful, yet none of them except sorry affects female messages. As we mentioned before, pretty, no doubt because of its adverbial meaning of “to a fair degree; moderately” also helps male messages. A lot of real-world dating advice tells men to be more confident, but apparently hemming and hawing a little works well online.

It could be that appearing unsure makes the writer seem more vulnerable and less threatening. It could be that women like guys who write mumbly. But either way: men should be careful not to let the appearance of vulnerability become the appearance of sweaty desperation: please is on the negative list (22% reply rate), and in fact it is the only word that is actually worse for you than its netspeak equivalent (pls, 23%)!

Rule 6
Consider becoming an atheist

Mentioning your religion helps you, but, paradoxically, it helps you most if you have no religion. We know that’s going to piss a lot of people off, and we’re more or less tongue-in-cheek with this advice, but it’s what the numbers say.

These are the religious terms that appeared a statistically significant number of times. Atheist actually showed up surprisingly often (342 times per 10,000 messages, second only to 552 mentions of christian and ahead of 278 for jewish and 142 for muslim).

Though very few people actually do it, invoking the sky-breaking thunderbolts of zeus does help a person get noticed (reply rate 56%), but maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise on a site that is itself named for a member of the Classical pantheon. So if you can’t bring yourself to deny the deity, consider opening yourself up to a whole wacky bunch of them. But ideally you should just disbelieve the whole thing. It can help your love life, and, besides, if there really was a god, wouldn’t first messages always get a reply?

A word about user privacy on OkCupid

Though this post talks in detail about the content of people’s messages on OkCupid, all messages have been anonymized, with sender and recipient data and all IP and timestamp information stripped out. In addition, our analysis program looked at messages only two or three words at a time, to track the success of certain words or phrases (like “what’s up” vs. “wats up”). The program then aggregated results by phrase before presenting the data. No one at OkCupid read any actual user messages to compile this post.

523 Responses to “Exactly What To Say In A First Message”

  1. steven says:

    just because you have no religion doesn’t mean you are an “atheist”

  2. Chris says:

    ^^^Response to Joe.

    I understand your need to go back after sending a message and see if they are ignoring you, but I would recommend against it. The advantage to doing that is..well nothing! You only get hurt or reassured that they haven’t read it yet. If they don’t respond just let it go and move along.

    About messaging back, even if your not interested. It is sometimes hard to message people back and be polite stating your not well-suited for one another. Some get more hurt by hearing that than they do by just not receiving a response. Some people just don’t have the heart for being blunt. And then..some people might take the polite rejection other ways, such as a compliment; which would then just continue their interest.

    My advice, don’t take anyones actions or inactions to heart.

  3. James says:

    to joe (april 18th) thats because women dont want a nice guy..they say they do because of all the times they been burned by the bad boy..but they still go back to the bad boy..they just cant help it. Just accept it…the majority of women are stupid hoes who are horrified by a man who might be more intelligent than she is. And then they complain when the jerk their dating ignores their calls and leaves them in the dust. You know who they complain to? To guys like you and me who will listen to their whiny problems and give them our condolances so they can feel good enough about themselves to go to a bar and pick up the next jerk to come along and use them for sex, then dump, so they can feel sorry for themselves all over again.

  4. Daradada says:

    Joe – I totally agree – at least don’t be rude, send a short reply – yay or nat, it makes a big difference.

  5. Jono says:

    I hear ya Joe.

    I also make an effort with my messages, point out common interests and elaborate a little and ask some basic questions, but don’t even get the courtesy of a reply. Like you said, even a rejection email would be fine, but to just ignore someone who has spent time reading your profile and messaging you is just fking rude….

    Its really turning me off online dating. Heaps of women say “are there any decent guys left online”…. well there would be if they actually bothered to reply to them.

    If I was ugly, clingy, angry or mentally unstable then sure, but I’m not and make friends real easy in real life – I just want to meet new people outside of my existing social circles… time to join some interest/sports clubs I think.

  6. toweliee says:

    lol @ first ‘rule’. oh yeah, because we all know chicks HATE that badboy devil-may-care attitude. proper english, etiquette, impeccable grammar, and kowtowing chivalry really makes a girl wet!

    protip: i have an ivy league degree, and let me tell you, I got more chicks into bed by talking about sex and cheetos than Marcel Proust and Feynman.

    Ladies, you get the men that you deserve.

  7. Chase Lawson says:

    Zeus! Are you kidding me? Lol hilarious. I’m gonna go change my religion right now. I find it fascinating that actually APOLOGIZING can help your chances. Unbelievable. Awesome article.

    I also recommend checking out this guy’s guide to online dating. This guy’s been dating forever and spills everything he’s learned. Great read…

    http://www.daveglenn.com/2011/03/dave-glenns-guide-to-online-dating/

  8. Cameron says:

    to james (april 21st) Do you feel certain that women reject men who are “nice” guys, or have you considered the possibility that they reject men who refer to them as “stupid hoes” who are “horrified by a man who might be more intelligent than she is”? Just out of idle curiosity…I would think by your theory you would have no problem getting women, because “nice” is not an adjective I would apply to you.

    It amazes me when guys talk about how senseless, vapid, promiscuous, or cruel they think women are and then wonder why they can’t get a date. If I called you an idiotic dick and accused you of being intimidated by my intelligence, you probably wouldn’t want to date me either, now would you. Why? Because that’s a socially inappropriate thing to say, not to mention offensive and upsetting. Why, who WOULDN’T be turned on by hearing about what a terrible person they are for failing to be someone else’s ideal of what they want them to be, to give them what they want, or to feel how someone else wants them to feel? Which is of course a required obligation of someone wanting something from you, which is possibly the only reason they’re being nice to you in the first place.

    Because naturally, it’s very easy to feel physical attraction to only good people that desire you for the right reasons and the issue never becomes confused by self-destructive tendencies, random biological impulses, masochism, or a distorted image of what a man is supposed to be like from every available form of media in society. You know, the ones that tell you not to cry or to be strong all the time and to act like a dickhead in order to get ahead and either you believe them or you don’t but are still bitter because the dickheads are seemingly rewarded which makes you mad at the women that like them who are brainwashed by the same suggestions on top of being told they by the same sources that they should be hot skinny kind of dumb and preferably a little mean to get ahead.

    Why don’t women like “nice guys”? Because you’re not actually nice. You might be kind and polite by nature, but when you’re kind and polite to a woman and she doesn’t respond the way YOU want her to or do whatever it is you want her to do as a result of that, you become even more of an asshole than an openly aggressive guy. Because it hurts your feelings and that somehow makes it okay for you to start hating on girls when it’s obviously directed towards a specific person or persons that hurt you. And just because they didn’t possess a character of the highest order doesn’t mean that everyone is like that.

    How about not letting the unfortunate unkind and impolite people that appear to look for things you don’t understand dig their own graves and not use it as an excuse to persecute and bash an entire gender with broad generalizations about their intelligence and all the special little words designed in order to berate them whenever they do things you don’t like or understand?

    Signed, Stupid Ho Who Is Obviously Horrified By the Prospect That You’re More Intelligent Than I Am. (because you’re such a nice guy and all.)

  9. Matt says:

    I don’t know if even this gets you responses, I’ve messaged many types of girls, all with about the same idea of a message, Introduce myself, show an interest in one of theirs and maybe crack a joke, and for say for every 50 messages I’ve had 5 responses.
    I’d like to think I’m a decent guy, but really, thats a sad number…

  10. Miguel says:

    Women are looking for the bad boy/family man…a guy who stands out from the norm, a rebel who can be tamed into a good husband. Read a romance novel. They’re all the same. The reason they are attracted to assholes is that assholes have confidence. That is what is attractive. Nice guys don’t have it or don’t display it well.

    Men are looking for the Madonna/Whore…a woman who is a slut in the bedroom, but he can take home to mom. Rarely the same person. If you want a healthy, smart, mature woman, ask yourself if you are working on these values yourself.

    If you are a good person and not getting any responses, then it’s obviously how you portray yourself. Take a better look on how you’re marketing yourself. Read articles on how you can do it better.

    I’ve gone through books and audios about how to make women think you are better then you are. I’ve concluded that the most magnetic trait is to just become a better person. Talk about what you are doing to improve yourself on you’re profile.

  11. Colton says:

    Super lolz on that one

  12. dahlia says:

    Cameron,

    I totally agree with you and so well put! Men who complain that women only like “bad boys” are generally very insecure. They project the frustration of that insecurity onto women as a way to disfuse what they actually hate about themselves. Women do not like “bad” guys. We like guys with confidence and guys who genuinely like and appreciate women. The “girls only like bad guys” is such a cop out. She probably just doesn’t like “you.” Get over it. Women deal with rejection too. Bitterness is not attractive!

  13. Chris says:

    I want to know the reply rate for guys/girls who had “sex” in their message. I bet people who use the real word, as opposed to “hit” or whatever, would do significantly better. Is it too late to run one more word?

  14. MolotovCupcake says:

    This makes it all so clear! Obviously… you should start telling people that you are a vegetarian zombie in a metal band! :D

  15. mike says:

    alot of women do like bad boys. so many of them even admit it. ive seen guys be abusive in one way or another right from the beginning, and yet the girl actually think he’s gonna change and they stick with him only to get hurt time and time again. then if they ever do move on its to a similar relationship. and im talking about women in their 20′s and 30′s not ignorant teenage girls. and none of these are girls that i got turned down by, in fact ive never been rejected by a girl because i wasnt a badboy, and to say that all guys that notice that alot of girls prefer badboys are just insecure men who just think their nice but are bitter assholes on the inside is just bullshit. im not gonna go deeply into domestic violence because its too much of a touchy subject. but statistics prove how high it is in this country (these men are assholes that should be shot) and statistics prove that most women dont leave these men or just move to another similar man.

    signed: A nice guy without a violent or vindictive bone in my body, that’s not insecure and can handle rejection

  16. Darrel says:

    This staff was really helpful to me.Thanx a lot to the guys who researched it.

  17. Spazz_Attack says:

    This is sort of the 2nd half of the story. So a guy will write to me and I guess his message is the right length/not lame because I reply to it. He replies. We hit it off well enough to leave OKC (sorry) in order to exchange pictures– we like each other’s looks– or several more emails… Maybe a long IM session. After such promising exchanges, how many of you ACTUALLY go on a date? Maybe it’s just me and I’m a pig that doesn’t deserve to live, fine, but of late I’m finding that guys completely flab out when it comes time to meet in person.

    Forget about a lifetime commitment, they can’t commit to going to Cat and Fiddle! Dutch. Then I keep hearing from “him” over and over either on OKC or my email saying– hey, when are we gonna get together! Over the years I’ve been on many internet dates, good, bad and otherwise. I’ve found boyfriends, friends, one night stands… All of them obviously occurred because WE GOT TOGETHER. I don’t know why “he” (three to five of them now) bothers to send messages of any length or enticingness when “he” doesn’t want to follow through, whatever the consequences may be.

    Do me a math chart on that one! Huh, fellas?

  18. she says:

    actually the women who have relationships with bad guys and stay with them regardless of continuing abuse do not because the like such men and such treatment (they are hurting and getting mentaally and physically destroyed by this) but because they have a completelly distorted negative image of themselves and of the human relationships. most of them are victims of previous mental/physical/sexual abuse and are suffering under the longterm complications of post traumatic stress disorder. stockholmer syndrome is also very often a part of the abused person’s symptoms. there is no such thing as enjoying constant abuse and staying deliberately with the perpetrator. the reasons are usually the victims belief (internalized through extensive previous/ongoing verbal abuse and failed attempts to escape that and PTSD untreated) that she/he does not deserve others cause she/he feels to be worthless or becomes to believe the perpetrators victim turning into perpetrator accusations , feeling of utter terror, fear for life, helplesssness and seeing no way out.

    the people who care about these women can do only one, they can try to give always the feeling that she is no alone (without accusations and trying to make guilty etc.) and be prepared to be there for her when the victim is ready – aka her survival instinct gets stronger than the fear of being killed by the abuser, when the self-hate, guilt, shame and self-punishment for being abused and not being able to resolve it alone gets replaced by the constructive survival power and wish to get a professional outside help to enable the victim to escape and get professional therapeutical treatment of the traumatic expierences current and past and their mental consequences.

    one important thing people who have relative/friends in such situations is to work on themselves to not feel guilty if they find out that they cant help the victim in abusive relationship to SEE and accept their help by advice, pleads, talking to her/him etc. because the person “seemingly” ignores the advices and help offers etc. they do not ignore it, they just not ready to risk their life yet, because mostly when a victim of abusive relationship finaly breaks out and seeks help it mostly when they find out that staying in that relationship and surrender to the perpetrator wishes does not change that fact that they are fearing for their life and being destructed, when their psyche is demolished enough that they feel they have nothing to lose (life), as they could be dead soon in either way (suicide, or the abuser may once hit harder or the abuser trying to punish them cause the fled him and got professional, legal help)

    i am ESL, so please ignore my mistakes.

    professional therapy and good future experiences with people (of any kind) who help the victim to find her sense of worth, readjust the distorted world view and loose her fear of people in general, especially non judgmental treatment and behavior of others.

  19. Jack The Ripper says:

    To Cameron…

    You talk so much shit it’s unreal…

    Just deal with it… You’re all shallow and heartless. The only things you love and get turned on by on this planet are money and power.

    Signed: A man who is sick & tired of all you bitches on this planet.

  20. Onomasticon says:

    I met someone on here about a year and a half ago. She was just coming out of a divorce and when we first met there was that instant click and chemistry. The “honeymoon” phase was completely amazing and we were serious enough that she even introduced me to her parents.

    Shortly after this (once we got back) she became VERY distant, avoided calls and made excuses to why we couldn’t meet. However, claimed to be just “sick” (she did have a number of medical issues.) However, when I would ask if she would like for me to come over to help her, she would either blow me off or claim to not hear her phone (which is on her more than makeup.)

    I’m the type of person that says what’s on my mind and I asked her after about 2 months of this if she was seeing someone else. Of course, this was the beginning of the end because now I was acting like her ex, LOL. Time passed and we were on and off for a while (a year) while each time the messages were fewer and fewer via texts, IMs and so on.

    Shortly thereafter, for a couple weekends she would also claim to be going to bed early and said she was going to sleep in the next morning and was going to turn off her phone for the night and we could meet up the next day. That was fine and I thought that I would call her about 11 and check on her to see how she was feeling. In doing so, I got no response. So, being concerned I went to her place and she answered the door with her hair partially styled / partially bed head.

    Just as things settled down and I was offered a permanent position with a company doubling my salary where I could finally move closer to her. I told her and heard her say “That’s awesome! I’m so happy you got it!” and later followed by “Love you and ttyl.”

    Unknown to me, when she did call two hours later the first thing that she said was “I have something to talk to you about and I told you I would always be honest with you.” LOL, all guys know that this isn’t going to end well. ;)

    These are just a few of the things that made me question her honesty. Despite the fact that she was also a hoarder and even her parents mentioned she was manipulative.

    I know there are many sides to a story. Hers, his and the truth. It’s sad that there are good people out there (both men and women) who are so jaded that they won’t let themselves be vulnerable to the possibilities of someone who really does love them for who they are.

    I do still love her and despite her downfalls, we did have great times together when those times were there. I’m not looking to turn into the next “jerk” and I know that’s not who I am. I’m just tired of dating the wrong women LOL. “There’s someone out there for everyone…” Yep! In the Tibetan mountains, covering Monty Python skits ROFL!

  21. Tyler says:

    I did everything. I used to show confidence in messages, then I tried some of the tips given on here. Nothing works, I guess I am not worth the time to anyone on here… I have literally tried being nice ( thats my personality anyways), being cocky and confident, talking about similar interests. Nothing works for me. Online dating sucks.

  22. she too says:

    I am one of those abuse survivors and yes I inadvertently went from one to another. You DO NOT see it coming necessarily and these guys were text book “nice guys.” (and met in real life) That’s why you think they are good guys and the red flags pass by. They seem so nice.These people are methodical and covert and quite frankly turn out to be a lot like the guy Cameron responded to: underlying deep-seeded anger they mask with politeness, caring and ‘doing things’ for her…it’s all kept track of and used against her. They use crazy making tactics. There is too much to describe here, and a lot was already described well,before me, but let me just say- when you figure it out and try to leave that’s when things get *really dangerous*. Your chances of being killed by them go up to 75%. And yes they each not only threatened me, but made actual attempts! My ex-husband nearly killed me by putting all his weight (through his leg on) my neck while I was sleeping. I woke up to that! I couldn’t even scream my larynx was being crushed. My last one cut the brakeline on my car and told me after I drove it, and the brakes went out (but I thankfully escaped serious injury). CREEPY. NO ONE WANTS THIS!
    so all the stuff they do, and most you don’t realize until you are out of it- serves not only as current abuse- but as future warnings.

    There are women like this too most abuse is emotional and psychological- and is actually harder to heal from than the physical– see onomasticon’s post: tons of redflags about that woman- but he still didn’t see. That doesn’t make him a guy who only wants bad women or to be treated bad- it means he’s normal. As are the women who find themselves in abusive relationships. Most of us are normal and don’t , CAN’T imagine the person we are closest to, we care about capable of the things these people are. No one asks for this, and no one wants it. and very few know what to do when they finally realize they are in it- at whatever level the abuse is.

    So do not confuse abusers with guys with bad-boy images or what have you. they are not the same. Or predatory women in the same group as women who have poor relationships skills and or are looking for financial security through love. Whole different ballgames.

    Much as it hurts, Thank God (or Zeus) for everyone who did not reply – it means at best they are immature and have bad people skills and worse are trawling for a victim, andyou did notappear to be good victim material to them at first glance). About the rate of return replies- salesmen would be glad to get that high of a rate. Really- watch GlenGarry Glen Ross. Cold calls are hard.

    But yes, I guess many women feel overwhelmed. they get too many messages and men get too few. Old gender roles coming back to haunt us. But it’s no excuse to not politely decline- just say you are overwhelmed with messages.

    (have none of you never felt the urge to fake your own death just because you have too many emails in your inbox every day?) : )

    I think both men and women behave badly on internet dating sites for a variety of reasons; usually their own s**t and really- as hard as it is- don’t take it personally- and be glad you dodged a bullet. I always write a polite decline, unless they have been outrageously inappropriate, if I don’t think we’ll hit it off ( too different politically, etc or activity level {why are guys so ACTIVE on their profiles? I’ll paraphrase a comedienne I saw recently:’ his profile ” all I need is you here para -sail- glide-mountainbiking with me every weekend! hers: I’m going to try and make it in to the library to return my five-month old overdue books…’ : )

    Read up on the early warning signs of abusers. You’d all be really surprised and helped as you go about this business of trying to meet decent people online.

    PS what makes a good victim: Honesty, integrity, loyalty and commitment to their word. Devastatingly IRONIC.

  23. Chris says:

    To Tyler

    Hi Tyler please don’t let the whole online dating experience make you doubt or even question yourself, I find it the hardest way to meet people. dating websites are like the argos book and for that reason people can pick and choose everything they want in a person, i find it a very shallow way to meet people cause its 90% based on looks. I’ve tried and tested all ways of meeting people and for being a nice genuine person for me actually going out and meeting people is the best way, it allows you to be the person you are and not something someone is looking for. anyway i’m rambling haha. so my suggestion to you is go out and meet people. My advice to you is never change the way your are cause one day you will meet someone who wants you for you, somethings don’t happen over night. hope this helps :)