10/17/2011 09:03 EDT | Updated 12/17/2011 05:12 EST

The Beginner's Guide to Dating

One of the perks of dating is that you're not exclusive until you say you are. There's no crime in realizing that you're not clicking with someone you're seeing, liking someone else better, or being bored.

Alamy: Emely

I'm no expert, but dating is something I've done, and actually done well. It's different from having a boyfriend or girlfriend -- it's the preamble, when you're getting to know each other and deciding if maybe, one day, y'all want to be exclusive. Confusingly, if you do eventually make it a one-on-one thing, that's also known as "dating," so for my purposes here today, that'll be known as Dating, or DATING if things get really serious.

People can hit it off from the get-go, and the first time a future couple hangs out might be a laugh riot, culminating in a whisky-soaked conversation at 5 a.m. about their favourite bands. On the other end of the spectrum, one party might set their hair on fire half-way through the date (I have done this). In my 20s, a lot of my friends got embedded in long-term relationships (LTRs), but I got a different education. I missed the master lessons on "how to not throttle your partner when you come home and the garbage is still a festering mess and that was the ONE THING you asked her to do this morning," but I got the community-college equivalent in "how to feign interest in someone's boring hobbies just so you can get through the end of this glass of wine and then fake an emergency and leave."

If you're lottery-winner lucky, you'll meet potential dates everywhere: in line for the gas station cashier, at the yoga center, skindiving. Most people, however, rely on more traditional methods of finding a date, like creating an online dating profile, getting friendly with a co-worker, or asking their friends to introduce them to that hot brunette from their Christmas party. More young people are meeting through Internet dating, often with an emphasis on serious, rather than casual, relationships. It's helpful to remember that folks you meet online are basically blind dates. Try not to be too hard on them, or yourself, if you don't find The One on your first trip out. Follow the three golden rules: always spellcheck, post accurate information (guys, I know you're not 6'4), and don't send pictures of your sex organs to strangers on the Internet.

So! Dates! Man, dates are fun. That's actually the whole point of a date: for you to go out and have some fun with a person whose underwear you might want to see later on. For some reason, people have decided that "date" equals "dinner." Dinner is boring! Take your date to the dog park and look at the puppies. (Aww.) Take your date on a brewery tour. Rent a paddleboat, browse in bookstores, get a vegan cupcake, watch a fire dancer. Fight the urge to drink loads to avoid awkwardness. Do stuff that interests you, and your potential suitors will be forced to a) bring their A-game and b) bust out the stuff that interests them on date number two. What sounds more enticing: dinner and a movie, or, "Hey, do you want to get falafel sandwiches and then go bowl a few frames? I know this bowling alley that serves crazy strong drinks." The subtext there is, "... because I am awesome."

At this point, I'd like to take a moment for the no-nos. I once had a date who drunkenly came home with me, made a failed pass, and then fell asleep on my couch. At some point, he sprinkled a thin layer of his belongings all over my apartment, in a crafty attempt to have a reason for another meet-up: a magazine, a book, and an expensive watch. We had an incredibly awkward second date, where he was supplicating and I was resentful, and we never saw each other again. Don't be that guy.

Here is a safe-date PSA: if you're meeting someone new, tell a friend where you're going and how to get in touch, and maybe offer a soothing check-in phone call if your friend watches a lot of sex-crime procedural shows. I think that most people will be fine, especially if they're diligent in their filtering, but it never hurts to have a safety net.

Let's say you've introduced each other to your favourite bars, you've maybe had a sleepover or two, ran into some friends on the street and been totally awkward about status ("This is Eddie, my uh....This is Eddie"). Terrific. But maybe things aren't going 100 per cent awesome, or maybe things are going better with Kyle than they are with Eddie -- one of the perks of dating is that you're not exclusive until you say you are -- and that needs a conversation. You can't just drop out of someone's life, so call them up (it's fine to do it on the phone if things aren't serious or long-term) and say, "Thank you for the time we've had together lately, but I don't think we're clicking as well as we could, and I don't think we should hang out anymore."

Memorize this. Tattoo it your arm. Let it wrap itself around your soul, if you're a hippie. People will often date someone because the other person likes them, not because they like that person. Being liked is cool, but if you don't dig what the other person is bringing to your table, you're not obligated to date them. There's no crime in realizing that you're not clicking with someone you're seeing, liking someone else better, or being bored. I have girlfriends who go back to the same guys, not because they're so in love, but because they're afraid of being alone, don't like ending it, or think the dude will change into something more desirable. Cut your losses, be the bad guy for a day or two, and move on.

You may have to go on dozens of dates, but if you want an actual partner, this is your tempering process. It makes you stronger and more knowledgeable about what you do and don't like. Pay attention! There'll be variations in age, body type, income, parent and marital status, gender, sexuality, kink, weight, height, location, and agenda. Follow your heart (barf!) and think critically about the things you want. You may discover a secret weakness for bears, or that you can't date a non-smoker, or that baristas are pretty boring when they're not feeding you coffee. It's all part of your education. One day, you'll be able to apply your expertise to finding the person you want to be with for a long. time. Until then, enjoy the ride, and don't feel too bad if you throw up every now and again.