Arguably, one of the central reasons for going to bars and discoteques is not only to party with your friends, but also to meet new people, particularly those of the opposite gender (or the same gender, if you are gay). How does this take place?
The classical instance of contact initiation is when a guy picks up courage, selects a girl, and moves to chat her, wielding a more or less suave pick-up line. Or so we tend to think. But in fact, when you study the scene closely, it is normally not the guy who selects the girl and initiates the contact – it is the girl who starts the show. She does so in a very discrete way, typically by maintaining eye contact with the guy one second longer than normal. This acts as an ‘approach’ cue to the guy who then makes the more overt move of crossing the floor, offering a drink or similar. Girls make the first, covert move, guys make the second, obvious one. Sometimes, the girl’s cue is so subtle that the guy doesn’t even notice consciously that he has just been given the nod.
An interesting aside to this: are girls more afraid of losing face than guys? Everybody hates being rejected, but the important thing about rejections seems to be not whether they happen, but how public they are. The advantage of the girl’s move is that it is both discrete and deniable; if he doesn’t respond, nobody sees it, and the girl can deny making it, even to herself. You cannot really lose face when there are no witnesses. The guy, however, puts himself at a significant risk of loosing face in public when he crosses the floor and makes his move. If he is spurned by the girl, the rejection is both obvious and not really deniable to neither himself, the girl or his friends. It is comparatively rare to see a girl make an obvious move on a guy.
So, back to the main question, which is: how can we – in the role of a bar owner – encourage contacts between strangers? (I presume that it is in our interest to do so – again, the theory being that people like to go to bars where they have a better chance of getting lucky, and perhaps also that they spend more in an attempt to impress the other person. This, of course, is debatable).
The most obvious way to do so is the amount of people you let in, or what I call crowdiness. If the bar is filled to the brim with people, they will automatically come into contact with each other, merely because of the physical proximity. I have initiated countless conversations with strangers with an ‘oh, sorry’ and a smile after accidentally (or sometimes less accidentally) bumping into them. Inversely, if the bar is half-empty and people are grouped in little social islands, it requires a much more conscious effort to make contact with other groups, and supposedly happens more rarely – not least because the lack of people makes any contact attempts more public and obvious, and hence more embarrassing if they fail. A similar thing goes more locally, for the dance floor – a small enclosed wriggling space encourages contact making far more than a wide open dance floor. The discoes who master this are the ones that have cordoned off some parts of the club in the start of the evening, and open op more space gradually as more guests enter, maintaining a good crowdiness level.
Similarly, you can increase the contact opportunities by dampening the lights and by raising the music level to a certain level. Both of these initiatives decreases the ‘observability’ of the contact attempts, making them less costly to carry out. The atmosphere of the club also makes a difference, is it a cool lounge club where people are more or less posing for each other, or is it a rowdy, sweaty, fun jumping-up-and-down place where nobody cares too much about appearances (and consequently about loosing face)?
To conclude this, I’ll relate one of my own experiences about contact making. In 1996 in Copenhagen, I was at a very peculiar party taking place aboard a ferry. It was organised as part of a citywide event called Kulturby 96 – Culture City ’96 – and the ferry was host to no less than four different parties at the same time. The remarkable thing was that in one of the bars, the organisers had hired people to create new contacts among the guests. As I was standing in the bar, the girl next to me started talking to me. After a minute of two of chatting, she also got the person on the other side of her involved in the conversation. And then, when all three of us were talking, she excused herself and left me talking to my new acquaintance. I found out about the set-up when I met her later doing the same thing to another pair of guest. Fascinating idea, and a very cool party as well.