When it comes to flirting, men and women aren’t necessarily great at reading the nonverbal cues that show someone is romantically interested in them — and, at best, that can lead to some awkward situations. But the University of Kansas researchers now say they have identified a specific and effective group of facial cues women express when they’re flirting with a potential romantic partner.
In a series of studies, published in the Journal of Sex Research, women — some of whom were professional actresses, while others were volunteers — were asked either to spontaneously do a “flirting expression” they typically use in the real world or “follow instructions based on existing anthropological literature for what researchers define as flirting,” according to a University of Kansas (KU) press release.
According to the release, “The team found some women are more effective than others in effectively conveying a flirtatious facial cue, while some men are better at recognizing this cue.” However, the researchers found that “a few expressions were identified by most (if not all) men as flirting” — namely, when women turned their head to one side while tilting it down slightly, had a slight smile, and their eyes were facing toward their romantic interest, it sent a more clear cut message to men that the women were interested.
“Potentially it was [this] combination that made... the expression of some women more effective and recognizable than others,” Omri Gillath, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at KU, tells Yahoo Life.
“Our findings support the role of flirtatious expression in communication and mating initiation,” Gillath stated in the press release. “For the first time, not only were we able to isolate and identify the expressions that represent flirting, but we were also able to reveal their function — to activate associations related with relationships and sex.”
Body language expert Blanca Cobb tells Yahoo Life that she’s not surprised this facial cue combination is so effective: It involves expressing more than one sign that you’re romantically interested in someone. “It’s the head tilt, chin down, eyes up and smile — that’s four cues. It’s a really good one when it comes to women.”
This coy expression is “almost like a bashful thing when you look down and look up,” says Cobb. “You see it in cartoons and Disney princesses [with] the head down and looking up. It’s very powerful.”
Cobb explains that men, as well as women, can struggle with knowing whether or not someone is flirting with them because they often rely on only one cue. “You cannot just rely on a smile,” says Cobb. “You cannot just rely on eye gazing. They may not even be looking at you. They may be looking behind you or in your general direction.”
Terri Orbuch, a professor at Oakland University in Michigan and author of "5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage From Good to Great,” agrees, telling Yahoo Life: “In general, men and women are not that great about recognizing when someone is flirting with them because most people focus on what people say (verbal communication) — not on what facial or body language cues and signals they are expressing (non-verbal communication).”
She continues: “Most people look to the words and phrases that people say, rather than what they're doing to gauge interest in them. Also, even if people look to the body language and face for signs that someone is interested in them or flirting, most don't know how to recognize what those signs mean or how to interpret them.”
Some men can also “misread” a woman’s cues. Gillath tells Yahoo Life that men have a “tendency” to overestimate when women are flirting, “as it serves their sexual strategies — it is better to pursue and be wrong than to miss an opportunity,” he says.
In some cases, Cobb says, men “automatically assume intent. ‘You’re smiling at me because you think I’m hot.' [But] maybe they're being nice or maybe they’re uncomfortable but are smiling” to diffuse unwanted advances.
Cobb adds, “Sometimes a hello and a smile is just a hello and a smile. She may not be picking you up. It can just be friendliness.” Orbuch says there are several risks when it comes to misinterpreting that someone is flirting with you, from “embarrassment” and “awkwardness” to “insecurity” and “accusations of sexual harassment.”
However, Orbuch says, in general, women are better at both interpreting and displaying body language and facial cues.
Along with the flirtatious facial expressions shown in the study, Cobb says that touch is another more obvious way to convey that you’re romantically interested in someone. “You’re not going to touch something you don’t like or want to be around,” she says, “unless I’m pushing you away or turning you away. Those are obvious signs of ‘get away from me.’ But if you're talking to someone and you reach out and touch their hand or arm because they made you laugh, it’s a way to get closer” and can convey interest.
Eye contact — namely, “smiling, eyes relaxed and having fun,” says Cobb — is another signal. Glaring or staring is not flirting. If the person is avoiding eye contact or is mainly looking around the room while you’re talking to them, “they’re checking out whoever else is around,” says Cobb, and likely aren’t interested.
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