In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a book about love and nihilism, Milan Kundera posits that “flirting is the promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee.” That’s true — at least get some of the signals right. Flirting can also just be an awkward preface to eat dollar pizza by oneself or a way to complicate work relationships or a way to make a friendship less cozy. Signals get crossed and stay crossed.
The simple reason for this is that humans, gifted and cursed by the concept of subtlety, aren’t good at flirting. Studies have shown that humans are “very poor perceivers of intended flirtatiousness” — and thanks to shared fear of rejection, dissembling doesn’t do anyone any favors. Heterosexual couples can partly blame evolution for their terrible job at reading social cues. It’s an agreed upon fact among academics that men over-perceive women’s sexual intent to make sure they’re not missing out on any mating opportunities. Survival of the fittest sometimes privileges the ego.
In a particularly eye-roll inducing study, men were more likely to think their female friends were into them while women under-perceived their male friends’ interest. But when it was revealed that friends did, in fact, like their friends of the opposite sex, the women felt that this fact had far more bearing than the men did. The men shrugged it off while the women dwelled on it.
In a study from Stanford University, researchers were able to more accurately determine if a heterosexual pair was flirting with a “flirtation detection system,” rather than the people who actually experienced the conversation. The subjects went on a series of speed dates, and then rated whether or not they were flirting and if they thought the other person was flirting with them. After that, the researchers pored through the audio recorded during the date and created an automated system that divided up the linguistic elements of the conversation — all the vocabulary, the pauses, the inflections.
In the end, the system beat the humans. The system could tell with 71.5 percent accuracy if the women were flirting with men, the men were only correct 56.2 percent of the time. Women were closer to the course — they were 62.2 percent accurate, while the system was 69 percent accurate.
“We have presented a new system that is able to predict flirtation intention better than humans can, despite humans having access to vastly richer information (visual features, gesture, etc.),” the researchers, who are presumably pitching an app, wrote.
There’s actually a lot we can unpack from this study that can help us have a better idea when someone is getting extra cozy with you. The Stanford researchers deduced that when men are flirting they ask more questions, speak faster in a higher pitch but in a quiet tone, and “use more sexual, anger, and negative emotional words.” They were more likely to use the words “you” and “we” while women were more likely to use the words “I” and “well.” Women who were flirting also didn’t say things like “wow” and “great” as much as men did, and stayed away from utterances like “uh-huh” and “yeah.” They spoke in an expanded pitch range — going from a higher voice to a lower voice, back and forth, through the conversation. Both men and women laughed more.
Because researchers study humans flirting with the same enthusiasm that David Attenborough observes marmosets, there is a ton of research on what makes for an actual flirting interaction. For example, we know that when women are extra interested, the flirt usually begins with an initiation of mutual gaze. We also know that a person’s pupils will dilate when they’re attracted to someone. Smiling, tossing the hair, and exposing the neck are all basic codes women give to tell a guy they’re into them. But they also seem like advice from a bad wikiHow page.
Actually, a lot of study results seem to be irritatingly locked in gender stereotypes. For example, a 2015 study in the journal Interpersona found that men thought the most effective way to flirt with them was if the woman was suggesting “sexual access.” Meanwhile, women rated men’s flirtations more successful if they suggested “emotional commitment and exclusivity.” It sounds like a bad interview montage from a movie called What Guys Want, but this is academics — these are the results that showed up. Maybe these desires are just reflections of ingrained gender roles, or maybe people aren’t being honest with what they really want because stepping outside of the constrictions of gender is intimidating. Maybe that is really just the reality of the scene (but I hope not).
Despite the perceived differences in flirting, men and women are usually still locked in a draw.
“Analysis of courtship interactions. . .showed that unless males received nonverbal indicators of interest, such as eye contact, they were less likely to approach females,” reads the SAGE Handbook of Nonverbal Communication. “But females may rely on males’ signals in deciding whether to encourage the approach of a male.”
“Traditional” is one of the five flirting styles identified by psychologists, but so is “playful” — and it’s playfulness that may really be the key to successful flirting. Flirting has been identified as a unique form of play; it’s a temporary state where both people need to let go and have fun if the game is going to work. If you’re coming at someone with some hot chat and they don’t banter back — it’s bad play. Talking doesn’t mean flirting, but playing usually does.
I was out with a friend once and when I went to go check and see how well the conversation was going with the guy she had met, they were in an elaborate conversation about how they were a long-suffering wedded couple.
“I’m only with you because of the kids,” he grumbled.
“Thank God for the children!” she replied. “I should have left you long ago!”
They ended up making out. Paying attention to verbal and physical cues is a good way to know if someone is flirting; a better way to tell if you’re both happy is to play along.