Paraphrasing an old comedy skit of George Carlin:
"What exactly does it mean to pre-date? Does that mean you go on a date before you go on a date?"
Actually that is exactly what it means to pre-date. It means that you go on a micro-date before actually engaging in a full fledged date. A pre-date, similar to a job interview, is an opportunity to get a glimpse of someone's personality before committing to something more serious.
Is a pre-date a good idea for you? That depends on a lot of factors. It can help take the pressure off or prevent a disastrous date if done right, but it can also be awkward if done wrong. The following advice will help you decide whether you should pre-date and how you should implement a pre-date if you decide to go that route.
Is It Useful with Online Dating?
This is actually quite a good question. Between profiles and chat features, online dating sitesoffer a lot of the same benefits as a pre-date. You can learn information about your date's personality, favorite activities, and even their style from perusing their dating profile and engaging in an online chat session.
What you don't get from online interactions, though, or only learn about minimally, is social proficiency. Does your date slouch or sit straight? Do they interrupt you or listen closely to what you have to say? These little things are hard to determine from electronic interaction, but can be easily determined in a physical meetup.
What Is a Good Pre-Date?
A good pre-date likely only takes about 5 to 10 minutes. Therefore, you should consider something like meeting for a cup of tea or taking a quick walk around the park during a lunch break. Heck, even chatting together while one of you is waiting in the line at the post office can make for a good pre-date, if that can be arranged easily.
Usually a pre-date should be in person, but if that isn't possible, or makes one of you too nervous, you can still take advantage of electronic interactions. A 10 minute phone call is more personal than digital chatting and should make the first date more comfortable, just because you've already spoken before. Better yet, you can take advantage of video chat and actually see the other person as well as talk to them. The only really awkward part of that is some people may not be comfortable letting a stranger see their room or home, but most computers can be moved so that their is only a neutral background visible.
What Should You Do or Say on a Pre-Date?
The first part of the question is easy. If you are getting tea together, you drink tea. Any planned activities (drinking tea, walking a dog, etc.) should be simple, short, and require minimal effort. The main activity of a pre-date is simply chatting and observing each other. Don't let any other activities interfere with that.
As for what you should talk about, it should be something light. This is less about getting to know each other and more about feeling out if the other person is someone you are comfortable spending time with. Even more than on first dates, avoid heavy topics (Brexit is right out) and try to discuss something that you can both discuss equally. Also, if there is something that is important to know before your first date (for example, food preferences if going on a dinner date), this is a good time to get that out of the way.
After the Pre-Date
Once the pre-date is over, it is time to carefully think about what your date said and what you observed. It is unlikely you will have an instant connection during such a short time, but it is possible. If so, congratulations! It is equally unlikely that the pre-date will be a colossal failure, but if it is, hopefully you will realise that before the pre-date is over, allowing you to cancel the actual date as soon as possible.
More likely than not, though, you will simply have a pleasant, if somewhat stilted conversation. That is normal, natural, and for your purposes, pretty much perfect. A slightly awkward conversation gives you something to mutually laugh about during the actual date, where conversation should be a lot easier and smoother.
What you really want to get out of this is a sense of where you were connecting and where you weren't. This lets you try to focus on those points of connection and avoid whatever was causing missed connections, during your actual first date.