Flirting is a complex but highly necessary social ritual. Without flirting, prospective mates would find it difficult or impossible to build the framework necessary for a long-lasting and loving relationship. Many people claim not to know how to flirt, but research shows that flirting is actually a deeply ingrained and instinctive pattern of behavior. Here is how we all show romantic interest through our nonverbal actions.
In the initial phases of flirting, the potential partners do not yet know each other. Yet each is drawn to the other’s presence in some undefinable way. Men and women react differently to this initial attraction, but each gender’s behavior is remarkably similar around the world.
Women begin with a smile and an unconscious wide-eyed gaze. This is quickly followed by dropping the eyes, lowering the head, and turning or tilting the head slightly to one side. Covering the face with the hands or tossing the hair might follow, depending on the woman’s level of confidence in the situation.
Men’s initial body language appears to be rooted in ancient ideals of male dominance. When faced with someone they find attractive, men will extend their limbs, tuck in their stomachs, and unconsciously attempt to take up more space. They will arch their backs, puff out their chests, and project a sense of importance.
Eye contact is a crucial element to flirting. Both men and women will eventually attempt a meaningful gaze in the direction of the object of their affections. During this two to three-second stare, the pupils dilate, and the other person is forced to react. It is common for the recipient of the gaze to begin fidgeting or self-grooming as the body buys time for the brain to decide how to respond. If the recipient of the initial gaze ultimately decides to respond in kind, the mating dance continues.
Once the initial meaningful eye contact is offered and accepted, it is normal for the flirting pair to maintain significant eye contact throughout the rest of the encounter. It gradually starts to feel less awkward and more normal as the flirtation deepens.
Smiling is a very basic component of human interaction, with infants mirroring their parents’ smiles within just 36 hours. Social smiling begins at around three months of age, even among those who are born deaf and blind. Yet research shows that humans have at least 18 separate and distinct types of smiles.
Polite smiles of recognition, with the mouth closed, are used to acknowledge passing strangers or acquaintances. A nervous social smile, with the mouth open and teeth clenched, is common during awkward social interactions. A half-open “upper” smile, which reveals the top teeth, is used to show interest and positivity around friends. But during courtship, the fully-open smile that exposes both the top and bottom teeth is the most likely to occur.
Unlike other nonverbal cues, however, the type of smile can vary dramatically on an individual basis. Some people are self-conscious about their teeth and consciously work to avoid showing them, even during courting rituals. Others simply have quirkier smiles. Be careful not to read too much into exactly what the other person’s smile looks like. If he or she is smiling at you, it is generally a sign of flirtation, especially when combined with the other body language cues.
Other nonverbal flirting behaviors can also vary from person to person. In general, though, they can be grouped into a category known as attention-seeking behaviors. Exaggerated body movements, stretching, shifting from foot to foot, and pulling the shoulders back are common among men. Hair twisting, eyebrow raises, tongue flicks, and blushing are common among women. Both sexes employ preening behaviors such as patting the hair and adjusting the clothing.
Flirting is a complex dance, and many people claim not to know how it works. Yet when you are particularly attracted to someone, science shows that you will fall into an unconscious rhythm that is patterned after what has worked for thousands of years. The next time you are in a singles bar or other place where people tend to meet, take a look around. You will no doubt see this process playing out over and over again.
Looking for verifiable information on the science of attraction and relationships? We’re a neuroscientist and a biological anthropologist eager to help you put the Anatomy of Love to work in your own life.
Written by: Lisa Fritscher