Let's set the scene, because this particular incident took place about 10 years ago.
We were running a bit late, our timetable disrupted by a few extra drinks "accidentally" ordered by a member of the crew not yet known by the Burning Question moniker. Meanwhile, a female friend waited for us in another State College, Pennsylvania, bar, quietly sipping a beer. This woman had a peculiar fascination with both Madonna and Disney's Little Mermaid. Annoying hobbies, sure, but she was an otherwise fine person.
Now, the kicker: When we finally stumbled into the bar (our third stop that evening) she was trapped in a conversation with a Penn State undergrad who "just happened" to know Madonna personally and to have worked on animation cels for Disney films.
You see, women learn early on that "guys are pathetic"--not our words, but those of Courtney, who was already quite drunk when we bumped into her at Hurricane Grill recently. "I hear the most ridiculous shit," she complains. "You just want to say, 'Grow up, fucker.'"
Seems men never learn.
Most women we spoke with while researching this week's question scoffed at lame conversational openings, known as pickup lines. "I don't want a pickup line," says Kelly, drinking at Obar. "What works is a nice guy you can sit down and talk to."
Despite Kelly's dismissal of lines and Courtney's obvious distress, however, women rarely drop the f-bomb on witless men or otherwise correct their errant ways. Instead, they bear the sorry-ass approaches and soak up free drinks.
It quickly became obvious, as we toured bars across the city, that women judge potential suitors according to appearance--looking first at teeth and then at shoes--and behavior. A cheesy pickup line, poorly delivered, is enough to cross a guy off the list.
Doesn't mean she'll refuse a free drink, though.
This sort of thing confuses men, who tend to assess the value of all actions based upon results but have an uncanny ability to adjust their definition of a positive result. The desperate guy can label buying a drink for some woman a successful encounter.
No wonder pickup lines endure.
Kicker No. 2: Young and untutored men rely on lame lines ("If you are what you eat, I could be you by morning") and obvious deception. More experienced men also use pickup lines but disguise their purpose.
And women appreciate the attempted subtlety.
"It's good when it doesn't seem like a pickup line," confirms Abby, drinking at Candle Room.
It's a strange thing. Women generally know they're being played. They just want the guy to use some finesse and keep them interested. "You've got to be entertaining if you want me to give you the time of day," slurbs Meg, while gulping from our martini glasses at Sense, much to our dismay. ("Slurb," remember, is Burning Question crew slang for a quote taken from someone spectacularly drunk.) "You hear so many cheesy lines," adds Lori, less drunk at Candle Room. "But cheesy and funny will almost work."
There's an art to pulling off a true line. Sometimes it's in the delivery or the circumstance. Too often, however, accidental success causes the inexperienced guy to keep blurting the "you be the screen door" or "then why don't you lie down while I have one" bit.
"A pickup line works in a specific situation," explains Jennifer, whom we met at Breadwinners while trying to sober up one morning. "If you use the same line over and over, it sounds fabricated."
OK, so what works?
To answer the question, we visited several bars, drained an extraordinary amount of courage and then coerced other guys to try out several distinct approaches. The goal was for our test subjects to walk up to an unfamiliar woman, start the patter and work it for five minutes. Obnoxious lines failed miserably. The basic "Can I buy you a drink?" method met with some success. Never got around to tossing the Lamborghini keychain loudly on the bar next to an interesting woman. Trying that maneuver with our editor's Oldsmobile keys just caused a mass exodus.
The saga continues: On a visit to The Elbow Room, we recruited a gay male by mistake. He proved quite unconvincing in the role. Didn't matter much, though, because the crowd resembled an off night in a rural Oklahoma tavern.
A conversation between members of the Burning Question crew during our brief stop:
"You know what would be a good pickup line here?"
"What, 'Nice tooth'?"
At Sense one evening, however, we sent "Matt" into the crowd armed with flattering phrases, and it worked. He spent seven minutes with a stunning blonde, and she complained when he stood up to rejoin us at the bar. Another woman handed him a phone number. When we peered into Dralion for a moment, he actually set up a date.
Of course, it probably helped that we were the only straight men in the place.
As long as it seems genuine, women report, a few pleasantries focusing on their outfit, hair, shoes, name or whatever generally meet with a welcome response. "Flattery will get you everywhere," admits Renee, one of the few hot women we encountered at The Elbow Room. "A compliment," Lori at Candle Room agrees, "will always get you at least five minutes of a person's time."
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And that's enough to transition into the old "You know what would look good on you?" routine.
The aforementioned Courtney advises men to "just be classy and be yourself," which serves nicely as a catch-all answer to this week's Burning Question. But flattery and an attempt at sincerity are workable substitutes.
Just "don't ask girls about their boobs," she warns. "Why do you wanna know, you asshole?"
Flattery only goes so far, it seems.