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Flirting 201: More than Meets the Eye

A warm smile, lingering eye contact, a touch on the arm – these flirtatious behaviors (also known as courtship behaviors) go far in letting someone know that you are attracted to them. Researchers have spent much time categorizing these numerous behaviors, which include head tossing, eyebrow lifting, lip licking, and back caressing, just to name a few (Moore, 1995). Being the complex creatures we are, however, no one behavior can signal instant attraction.

There are even more complicated patterns of behavior that operate on a subconscious level. For example, if your date crosses his or her leg, do you do the same? The patterns and kinds of movements you engage in with a partner are thought to communicate synchronicity, often implying that both of you are on the same page and on some level understand one another. In fact, studies show that the more you engage in mutual behavior patterns, the more interested you are in that other person (Grammer, Kruck, & Magnusson, 1998).

With courtship behaviors, one school of thought is that more is better, or at least clearer. The idea is that the more flirtatious behaviors you engage in, the more likely the other person is to know that you are interested. It is how you get the attractive stranger across the room to look your way or how you let your new date know that you want something more than just friendship.

As with any form of communication, however, success depends on the person giving the cues as much as it does on the person receiving the cues. How adept is the other person in picking up your signals? A wide breadth of research has been conducted on knowing when someone is trying to get your attention versus when they are just being friendly. While most people make mistakes from time to time, research shows that men are more likely to misinterpret friendliness for sexual intent. There are also several characteristics that make misinterpretation of sexual interest more common. For example, men with tendencies toward violence, hostility, openness to casual sexual encounters, and intoxication are more likely to see friendliness as sexual interest (Jacques-Tiura, et al., 2007).

Further research suggests that it might not just be men who make mistakes about sexual intent. One study found that both men and women who are more casually sexually oriented, were likely to think that others are sexually interested as well (Lenton, et al., 2007). In other words, people have a tendency to see others as they see themselves, and interpretation of sexual cues may have to do with your own sexual interest rather than your gender.

Increased sexual interest might explain why some individuals are more likely to misinterpret friendliness for something more; however, this is not the full picture. Further research has shown that men often make mistakes in the other direction as well, misinterpreting sexual intent for friendliness (Farris, et al., in press). In other words, it’s not that men just see sex because they are more sexually oriented, but rather that their perceptions are overall less accurate compared to women’s. The studies support the body of literature suggesting that women may be somewhat more skilled at reading emotional and nonverbal cues.

So if men are not as good at receiving subtle cues, are women doomed to signaling for themselves? When trying to attract a mate, one suggestion might be to be clearer in your flirtatious signaling. Another suggestion, be patient. Research relating to mating strategies of nonhuman species describes mating rituals with consistent patterns of behavior over a period of time. While the first few attempts might not be received, consistency and persistence go far in communicating your needs, especially with something as complex as attraction.

Flirting can show someone that you are interested in that person; however, it’s certainly not the only reason to flirt. Flirting also occurs when there is no desire for courtship or mating. To explain these behaviors, it may be valuable to introduce a second school of thought, that flirting can be used as a means to gain advantage. Whether used knowingly or not, flirting can create a self-esteem boost, make others feel good about you, or even get someone to do something for you. In other words, flirting behaviors may be effective in that they induce positive feelings in another person.

Take for example the courtship behavior of laughter. Like flirting, laughter is often thought to be an indicator of one’s internal state. If I laugh at something, it must mean that I think it’s funny; however, laughter can also indicate politeness, nervousness, or even ingratiation. Instead of communicating your internal state, laughter may be used to increase positive affect in the other person (Owren & Bachorowski, 2003). “The more you laugh at someone, the more likely the person is to like you. The same might be said for other flirting behaviors in general. It is a subtle (or sometimes unsubtle) strategy to influence the other person to make him or her feel good, to get the person to like you, or perhaps to get the other person to ask you out.

Flirting is a complex communication strategy involving more than meets the eye. With multiple meanings and ways to flirt, it is no wonder that flirting can be both a skill and an art.

Further reading:

Farris, C., Treat, T. A., Viken, R. J., & McFall, R. M. (in press). Perceptual mechanisms that characterize gender differences in decoding women’s sexual intent. Psychological Science.

Grammer, K., Kruck, K. B., & Magnusson, M. S. (1998). The courtship dance: Patterns of nonverbal synchronization in opposite-sex encounters. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 22, 3-29.

Jacques-Tiura, A., Abbey, A., Parkhill, M., & Zawacki, T. (2007). Why do some men misperceive women’s sexual intentions more frequently than others do? An application of the confluence model. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 1467-1480. Lee, E. (July 27, 2007). Breaking the Sexual Stereotype. eHarmony Labs Hot Science Blog.

Lenton, A. P., Bryan, A., Hastie, R., & Fischer, O. (2007). We want the same thing: Projection in judgments of sexual intent. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 975-988.

Moore, M. M. (1995). Courtship signaling and adolescents: “Girls just wanna have fun”? The Journal of Sex Research, 32, 319-328.

Owren, M. J., & Bachorowski, J. A. (2003). Reconsidering the evolution of nonlinguistic communication: The case of laughter. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 27, 183-200.

Setrakian, H. (November 13, 2007). Why Do Some Men Misunderstand Friendliness for Sexual Intent? eHarmony Labs Hot Science Blog.