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.

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 number (). 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.

. . .
. . .

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

  1. Good. People need help in interpersonal relationships. I hope many read this. There is not enough help for people who struggle making conversation.

  2. kate says:

    this is a free website right. people from every walk of life are on here. poor people who have lost their homes, rich people who seek a fling, genuine nice guys who have their shit together. you name it. i dont even have a pic posted, yet i have met very incredible people on this site. youre going to attract what you attract, based on how you present yourself, no matter what. you want to post a pic, go ahead, you want to tell your life’s story, go ahead, you want to be ready/willing/available, go ahead, you want to be woeful and sad, go ahead, you want to be gleeful and fun and flirty and cautious, go ahead. youll get what you give. guaranteed. i have had contact with dozens of people on this site, communicate with a half a dozen who are cool, met in person 2 who are really cool nice decent guys.

    every walk of life is on this site, as is the case anywhere. dont blame the site if youre unhappy. blame yourself.

  3. Braincandy says:

    Seriously though, it seems like the sensible thing to do is to read a person’s profile and comment accordingly. Surprisingly, this doesn’t actually garner much of a reply (in my experience). Perhaps it’s just me, but when someone makes the effort to talk to you in person, we don’t just ignore them. Some people ignore phone calls, and even more people seem to just brush off an online message. I don’t think I’m wrong in believing that it’s just rude to not at least make an effort to respond, or to clarify in your profile that your inbox is swamped.

  4. Squeedle says:

    I think some of you are taking this article WAAYYYY too seriously. This is a somewhat humorous framing of their research results, presented for your interest and entertainment. It’s not exactly science or it would be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

    For example I’m pretty sure the authors are not honestly suggesting one should change their religion, or even pretend they don’t have one, in order to catch a man/woman. What their results are really saying is that a much larger portion of people on OkCupid are atheist or not religious, than what one would expect in the rest of the population. However given that a certain level of education and computer literacy is required, and given that atheism/agnosticism/lack of religion are highly correlated with higher education, their findings should come as no surprise to anyone.

    If you just want quantity and not “quality” – however it is qualitatively and subjectively defined by you – then by all means follow every tip they have proposed. Just don’t expect this to increase the compatibility of the people who reply.

    PS: Dear Authors: I’m religious and I wasn’t offended, kthxbai

  5. Shabba Ranks says:

    I for one, gave up starting conversations by sounding interested in what the girl wrote in her profile. Most peoples’ profiles are lame and not the most accurate representation of who they are anyways. Plus, no matter what they write in it, they always sound the same. Online, its all about observing how the other person reacts to you in conversation. And even better yet, online is all about numbers. Instead of winking at or stalking a cute girl several times hoping she notices me, I just send a message saying, “Hi, I’m (my name)”. Now, the response rate is probably under 50%, but the responses do add up and it gives me a window into the girl’s personality by seeing how she responds to a very cut and dry greeting. Its kind of like how men can “feel out” the character of other men through their hand shake. I think its a huge turn off when someone won’t even give you their name after a lengthy IM session, so I try to weed out that character trait by being bold enough to start the conversation with a simple name exchange. If she can’t bring herself to do that or if that sort of regular human interaction isn’t good enough for her than that’s ok, there’s probably a few messages in the inbox from some girls who have patience and understand the numbers game. I compare online dating to two people locking eyes with each several times at a bar and eventually, one motions to the other to come over and talk. Dating online is like an extended, simulated version of that moment in the bar before they began talking. Everything we do on here is just size each other up from a distance. The real conversation doesn’t start until we meet in person, but at least here we can lock eyes with more people in one day than we could in 4 weekends at a bar. The success rate doesn’t necessarily have to go up if your attempts skyrocket.

    But who knows if any of this means anything. The “talent” level on this site isn’t exactly the big leagues. Maybe on another site my approach would be completely different.

  6. Tech support says:

    Great advice!
    Of course this assumes that you want people to reply to your messages.
    Personally I prefer that they don’t as this avoids embarrassment and/or disappointment later.

  7. Unknown says:

    Omg i am appalled about what i just read that how we should be athiests just to get noticed. That is f sad, literally sad. I think that to deny the LORD JESUS CHRIST to get noticed on a site is the saddiest thing i have ever read and i will no longer be a part of this website. Its not worth it. I can find a good Christian girl without some stupid site. Your site might be successful right now but when you deny CHRIST your so called success will soon end

  8. Arrgh says:

    Yay, crazy people.

  9. postinopete says:

    Wow “unknown”. You sound like a Christian assault rifle. I would say read what the blog says again, but there’s no evidence you read it the first time. Numbers are numbers. This Cupid blog (written by Christian!) is coming at us with results from what they found in terms of response success. Start by taking the word “success” and strip it of what you’ve loaded it with. I love the way this blog was approached. They assume we’re adults that can handle interpreting data and are strong enough to make our own decisions on how to move forward in the dating world. Also if this is the saddest thing you’ve ever “read”, you need to read more. Start with some Virginia Wolf. She’s pretty great. Ha! I used pretty as an adverb!

  10. I’ve spent a few days on this site now, and I just need to say that NO-ONE on here is going to be Mr./Ms. America anytime soon. I just wish people could get over themselves and use this site as it is intended, i.e. to meet new people and let things take their natural course, whatever that may be.

  11. Tae says:

    How’s it going?

    I’m sorry, but you are awesome. You mention you like metal, that is fascinating. I’m in a band and I like zombies. It’s nice that you are an atheist and a vegetarian.

  12. TheMoog says:

    Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha “Christian assault rifle” brilliant.

  13. Friendfacee says:

    I have to say: most of these rule would work for me :)

  14. AWESOME! says:

    I’m a man, and using the above advice my reply rate went from 0% to a whopping FIVE PERCENT.


  15. Shelley says:

    I have met men with various religious beliefs, christian, muslim, jewish to the anti-christ. I was raised lutheran, attend a parochoical through elementary. I do beleive in God or at least a higher power, but I feel that everyone has their own thoughts and feelings about this subject and who am I to question tobad mouth or try to bring them down. I am nobody as far as that is concerned. The information you have presented is interesting as I am a 49 yr. old Pscy. major. 10 years as a bartender taught me alot about human nature as well as my formal education. I am a people person who likes to observe others interactions, people will be people, what can you do?

  16. Mon says:

    I have been enjoying reading this blog tonight with it’s many posts.
    Always wondered about what responses get answers etc.
    Now if I could just figure out what question to ask I’ll move up to 100%.

  17. David here says:

    Good advise, interesting play on words. Pretty as an adjective is excellent advise!
    A word of caution, when communicating with someone in English where their first language is other than English, some of the above rules change. Example, Hello is good because they may have trouble with “How’s it going?” or “What’s up?”
    Cultural differences as well, for example, most people in the Philippines are Catholic and their religion has become part of Philippines English. Where I would say, “Take care, David,” they may say, “God bless…” God is a good word with them.

  18. thephoenix_ says:

    I spent a great deal of time writing and editing my profile. I did that so that men would know exactly what kind of person I was before they got involved with me. The men who I have met through the site first wrote me and commented on things they liked about my profile or the way I thought and mentioned how they had compatible or complementary interests.

    So, I guess whether addressing someone’s profile depends on who it is. That’s one of the great features of OKCUPID; you can make your profile whatever you want it to be.

  19. RDB1258 says:

    The positions of atheist vs christian in god-chart.png are apparently reversed compared to the text description below it. Where you have atheist at the top of the chart, it is “second only to christian” in the text.

    Which is correct?

  20. Gwyddnogaranhir says:

    Very interesting. I suspect that the results hold truer for Americans than for Europeans due to the predominantly American membership of this site. Certainly some of the questions, e.g. religious faith, appear to address predominantly American preoccupations – I would suggest that the question of religious faith or lack thereof is probably irrelevant to most Europeans these days whereas it seems to be a big deal in the US. It would be very interesting to see the study repeated but for users in individual European countries.

    All the same, many of the results probably do hold true for all countries and I’ll certainly be trying to remember those things I didn’t already do whether consciously or otherwise.

  21. viraginity2 says:

    I would be interested in seeing stats on messages received by those whose profiles contain common phrases. (“Laid back” and “down-to-earth,” etc.) Or seeing if there’s a correlation between the number of adjectives in a first message, and the response rate.

    I am also saddened that the saddiest (sic) thing Unknown has ever read is the laughing suggestion that someone claim they’re Athiest to get their response rate up. No sense of humor OR spell check! That makes Baby Jesus weep.

  22. deorum says:

    “Pretty” is an adjective, not an adverb.

  23. Gemsmimipatrol says:

    Awwww, I’m so happy I’ve found these reports. I love analysing behaviour and preferences! I kinda put myself out there fully exposed on my profile. I also stated I am Agnostic “and somewhat serious about it” because I thought it would be funny and I haven’t found any bad press so far. Some guys even commented on my humour. :) I don’t think religion puts me off at all, as long as they wouldn’t try to convert me but if they were super raving about God and Jesus etc then I think it would be too much for my world to fit into place with theirs.

  24. zeus says:

    Remember that some women answer your question about something she mentioned in her profile just to be polite. So a response doesn’t always means a date is in the air. In the real “virtual” world, stereotypes still rule. A princess with party pictures is going to respond to a guy with party pictures. An asian chick is going to respond only to white guys…or atleast to guys with names like Matt, Nick, etc.

    Etc. etc.

  25. dan says:

    I found this blog pretty interesting and accurate.

    I do think both men and women judge alot by looks on dating site. Admitadly the picture will be what originally convinces me too check out someones profile. But ofcourse i wont message someone based on a picture alone the profile too is important.

    I do think a height and or weight reply scale would be interesting too see, Though i do not think it is relevant too first impressions as i find most profile pictures are just head shots meaning height and weight are at best only guessable.

    I would like too add this when rating someone dont take ages too think about it, dont read into the photo. Just look at the photo do they look attractive or not.

    Some of the votes people give seem too me insane. On a 1-10 scale especially i mean 1 would mean u think their some sort of swamp monster. Generally if i find the girl attractive i will give her a 6-10, a 5 for average looking and 3-4 for below average but still not alien looking.

    Photo’s are the bane of online dating i guess, especially since alot of people dont photograph well.

    Lol sorry too rant on

  26. dan says:

    Interesting, although i felt the blog missed one point. Same faith. I’d imagion if for example your a christian messaging a christian that such a thing would work in your favour.

    I know alot of faiths are only aloud / suppose too date people of the same faith

  27. trip says:

    Gwyddnogaranhir, I live in Europe and I think you might be wrong about that. I would say that religion is probably more unattractive to Europeans than Americans due to the fact that there are far more religious people in the US than the EU. To most non-religious people I’ve talked to religion equals ignorance despite their best efforts to hide this judgment, and ignorance is not attractive. I think that mentioning God would almost guarantee 0% response from non-religious people. Speaking for myself I would not risk the possibility of having a religious person help raising my future children.

  28. Gnarfflinger says:

    I find it surprising that Aetheist gets so many responses. I would think that “fibbing” about one’s religious beliefs might be a recipe for disaster. While I wouldn’t rule out dating an Aetheist, I myself am not one, and if she can’t accept me because of my beliefs, then I’m better off without her. The truth can be an effective filter when determining contact.

  29. semi anonymous says:

    Maybe I am missing what I messed up on in my profile completion. I have a few awards but people I am attracted to and hoped would reply didn’t. Yet, I still have great conversations, get awards, and made a few great friends.

  30. Jen says:

    It is extremely obvious that men are not reading this article.
    But thanks, this gives me the opportunity to copy the link and send
    to those that need a bit of a refresher.

  31. Durkin says:

    I found my success rate went right up when I wrote a very original and witty profile (I write comedy scripts), put better photos up and wrote messages that avoided ‘Hi’, ‘I think you’re beautiful’, etc. Sending messages that simply state ‘have a look at my profile, I think we have something in common’ also helped a lot. I also got unsolicited messages congratulating me on my profile for being amusing/breath of fresh air/hilarious.

    My conclusion: being literate, not just in spelling, but overall and humourous is the equivalent of dressing sharply in the real world. I’m naked and overweight as I type this. Work it out.

  32. Jim says:

    LOLCATZ = fail ?? :(

  33. Dook says:

    This is pretty much just a basic course on how to get internet booty. No more no less. Just don’t take it seriously otherwise you fall into the trap of being that weird person that’s obsessed with manipulating the opposite sex into liking them, which is always bad. see: hitch.

  34. Kay says:

    This is very very true to me anyway.

    Literacy is my big big thing with messaging. I can not stand text speak. I will not reply to you if you use “2″ instead of “to” or “too”, “4″ instead of “for”, and “wut” instead of “what”. I understand a typo or two, but please spell out your words.

    Also, I agree with the section about commenting on looks. Talk to me. What do you want me to say about my looks? Gee, thanks I was born that way. Honestly, talk to me. I made a profile so you can contact and talk to me. Don’t message me with ‘hey cutie’ or ‘your pretty’. I can’t go anywhere from there.

  35. jules says:

    Kay I,m totally with you on this one. I deplore text speak and won’t even read a message containing it never mind answer it. I’m sorry but it just makes the sender come across as dumb and illiterate. same with messages that just say ‘Hi’ or ‘your profile pic is cute’ or make overt sexual references. what am I supposed to do with that, to me that just appears like all you have done is look at my pic and decide I,m shaggable. I don’t want to hear that, I want to hear that you have read my profile and I interest you as a person not just a vagina on legs, ask me a question. comment on things we have in common and leave me something I can answer and respond too.

    ‘Hi my name is John. I notice you like terry pratchett. I,m a huge fan of his too, how many of his books do you own and which is your favourite’

    this immediately tells me that
    a) you have read my profile
    b) we have something in common to start a conversation from
    c) you left me a way to respond to you with something non threatening and something I would feel comfortable talking about.

  36. 123 says:

    I’ve read that nontheism is more an obstacle in redstates, where agnostics, atheists, whatever are persuaded to stay underground (in the closet (-: )
    i recall searching ads to avoid the “I’m a strong christian woman and can’t find a real christian man” type ads. When “non-religious” or explicitly similar was a search filter choice, results were 0 to nearly 0 ads. However, if I could choose a filter roughly like “non-denominational”, the results were greater than 0. I don’t think of this search tactic as distorting my intention (or my implied nontheism) because I’ve become convinced that women check-off the weasel word “non-denominational” to avoid being filtered out.

  37. Lizzie (CutTheDuce is my username) says:

    :::chuckling::: Ok for those of you who have read “unknowns” rant and we’re all going to hell comment,, anyone ever consider it being a hilarious quipping joke? Its a tad ironic that she used both “netspeek” starting with OMG etc…. anyways I think i will chose to believe that it was an witty post to prove the study based on numbers how “off-putting” declarations.

    I have to appeal one thing, even though i somewhat agree. Spelling.. i for one, cant spell, even with spellcheck, sometimes (i duce you not) the computer correct spelling suggestions just pops as ” i have no clue what the heck word you are trying to get here” (ha)

    HUMOR is (when in doubt best odds default) key,
    personally, the mundane “how are you, blah about this interest” does not often illicit a response from me, but say something with a twist of both, shows you read profile, and twist it up with a CLEAR that you are being sarcastic joke, like ” hey there, i must admit, you’re kinda awesome…. its a shame those… you like purple socks? Total deal breaker…. ::::insert me laughing at myself and corny joke here::::

    or anything outrageous that a person cant help but respond to… it works

    ps, noted thanks to the person who created “agnostic, and somewhat serious about it” it is what i chose, anndd in addition to being ironically hilarious, its also oxymoron-ically true in my case.. somewhat ;-)

  38. Ray says:

    I wonder if the effects in the fifth figure are additive? Specifically, if messages with “vegetarian” and “zombie” each have response rates 9 percentage points above average, maybe a message with “vegetarian zombie” has an even greater response rate?

  39. K says:

    The best approach is to write something a bit obscure in the subject line. Rather than say, “Hi” or something lame like that, write something like, “it’s not because”

    You’ve got to pique their interest, as most emails are not read and/or just immediately deleted.

    Then you can play with that a bit. In the body of the message, continue the thought. “…you are a pianist that led me to write you.”

    From there, you can add a little more mystery, honing on specific things in their profile that would otherwise seem minute. “Maybe it’s because you have a slight aversion to carrots…or perhaps it’s the comment you made towards the beginning of your profile…”

    This will not always work, but your odds increase substantially by leaving an enigmatic, short and sweet message that picks out a couple random and specific things from their profile. Some will ignore it, but others will feel the need to sort out what you’re on about.

  40. dt says:

    Would be interested to see you guys write an article on drop-off rates after first messages and what leads to getting asked out.

    In my experience, I’ve messaged a lot with guys and they drop off without asking me out (after we’ve exchanged anywhere between three to fifteen messages), whereas if I IM with someone they’ll always ask me out at the end of the convo. I feel like this has the potential to be a male/female trend, too. Not to mention that IMs I get from guys are generally creepers, whereas messages tend to be more wholesome…but then fizzle. What’s the deal? Does this have to do with male attention span and the physical attraction rather than interest in making a verbal/mental/emotional connection?

    I’m not averse to asking a guy out, but it’s definitely a turn-off when they don’t respond to your message!