Q: Are there actually ways to start up a conversation with a stranger at a bar that don't come off as creepy or as an obvious, "Hey, I'm hitting on you" line?
A: I suppose that depends on what your motive is. Approaching a woman simply to compliment her on the most beautiful pair of eyes you've ever seen is an innocent enough gesture. Going on to explain how stunning they would look as amulets atop your scepter definitely tips the compliment into the creepy category. If your desired end result from talking to strangers at bars is crafting charms out of human remains, then please stop reading this column and seek professional help. If you're just curious about how to hit on people without coming on too strong, then, by all means, read on.
The universal, long-honored, kid-tested, mother-approved method of starting up a conversation with a stranger is and has always been to smile and say hello. From there, you might introduce yourself and offer a compliment such as "You have a beautiful smile," or "That jacket is fantastic but only someone as pretty as you can pull it off." Being nice to people so they're open to the idea of liking you is not rocket science, it's basic human nature.
Since a compliment can sometimes lead to a dead end after the recipient responds with the requisite "Thank you," it can be difficult to maintain dialogue without seeming like a nuisance. This is when you try an effective conversation starter that includes a question, such as, "Aren't you a friend of Megan's? She's my roommate," or "I love the drinks at this place, which one did you get?" If you are not bothering the person and he or she appears to enjoy talking to you, then you should be able to take it from there. In the event you want to secure a first date, then you have to ask for that before the lights go up and everyone scatters into waiting taxis. If your only goal is to get laid, then just keep buying rounds. (Kidding. Sort of.)
Sometimes love just isn't in the cards, and a few brief sentences are as far as the conversation goes. When that happens, all you should do is close with a polite, "It was really nice to meet you, hopefully I'll see you here again," and return to your friends. Nothing lost, not even your pride, because all you did was smile and say something nice. Who knows -- you may have even lifted the spirits of a fellow human being who needed some cheering up.
When two people meeting for the first time are interested in one another, their conversation tends to progress in an agreeable, organic manner. What's wrong with being obvious? It's always better to be upfront about why you're being nice. For one, at least you're not wasting anyone's time. It's also more honest and respectful than subjecting someone to stupid pickup lines, which require little creativity and rely on superficial and often faked dialogue to spark someone's interest. Pickup lines can also put the other person on the defensive -- you can come off as trying to be ostentatiously clever, and people don't tend to respond well to that.
A genuine approach, though, puts others at ease. By being polite and direct but not aggressive -- "HEY YOUR ASS IS HOT WHERE YOU GOING GET BACK HERE!" is just one example of too aggressive -- you're communicating your interest in an effective, nonthreatening way. There really is no worst-case scenario for being kind, honest and respectful to people, including hot strangers in a bar. Unless that stranger starts talking about eyeballs and scepters, in which case, run.