Next time you have a free moment, stand outside an elementary school and watch the children play during recess. Make sure you’re not wearing a trench coat and staring for too long; otherwise, the teachers will call the police on you.
While you’re (surreptitiously) watching the children, take special note of how the little boys and girls interact. They will be flirting in the way only children do, and it will be pretty easy to spot. The boys will pick on the girls and pull their hair; the girls will scream and swat the boys away. The boys will throw soccer balls at the girls; the girls will keep the soccer balls and fold their arms together in sneers. Shins will get kicked, and cooties will be spread.
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Adults do the exact same things, just in a subtler manner.
Flirting is the art of getting the attention of the opposite sex—what you use the attention for is up to you. Flirting is undeniably an important part of how we create attraction and get what we want romantically. It allows us to say, “Hey, I’m interested in you,” without actually saying it, and sometimes the uncertainty makes the message even stronger.
Just as with any learned behavior, there are more and less effective ways of doing it as adults. Some of us are still stuck in the playground mentality of flirting that I just described. Others of us are flat-out trying to flirt incorrectly. I don’t mean there is only one objectively correct way to flirt. Many people try to flirt in a way they have read about, but it isn’t compatible with their personality or doesn’t really work in the context of their lives. This obviously will lead to bad outcomes.
They try to be someone they’re not, which completely takes away any advantage they may have had. It’s like someone who’s seven feet tall using the basketball strategies of someone who is five feet tall. The taller person may have read about the shorter person’s strategies working, but they probably aren’t a good fit for someone who can easily put the ball through the hoop by simply raising their hand.
There are specific types of flirting that work best for your personality and how you like to relate to the opposite sex. Take advantage of your unique strengths and quirks, and don’t lose yourself trying to conform to what other people might advise you to do. It’s a good idea to remember that successful flirting is all about two people feeling good in one another’s company—if you’re stressed out, running some cheesy script in your head, or unwittingly making the other person suspicious, uncomfortable, or anxious, then you’re not really flirting anymore.
When two people naturally have chemistry, things seem to flow on their own. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn to become better at creating the conditions that would allow that natural chemistry to flow more easily. You cannot force someone to be attracted to you, just as you cannot force yourself to be attracted to anyone you’re not. But what you can do is grab their attention and play with them. You can make them laugh or smile, you can make them feel good and relaxed, and you can enjoy the interaction itself, regardless of where it goes and whether you consider it a success. (Tip: for a woman, nothing makes a man seem more desperate and unappealing than the sense that he is talking to her because and only because he wants to sleep with her.)
The Stages of Flirting
When was the last time you were out at a bar or club at closing time?
If you were sober and took a look around, you might have observed some very interesting aspects of human mating. This is the stage of the night when people want to seal the deal and move from the bar to someone’s bed. Here, we see the mechanisms of the dating game stripped to their barest. More desperate measures are taken, and we can see the mechanics of attraction play out more clearly than perhaps anywhere else. We can also see that some people are consistently successful, while others almost always go home alone.
Why is that? Is it really just that some of us are that much more charming, or is there something going on in the background they have tapped into?
One scientifically proven answer lies within scripts. People follow scripts for pretty much everything they engage in, from ordering at a restaurant to going to the doctor’s office.
For example, at Burger King, you know someone is going to ask for your order, ask if you want a drink with it, and then you will pay them. After you pay them, you will get a receipt and then be pointed to an area where you wait for your food. That’s just one of many scripts we know and are familiar with in our daily lives. It means that you know exactly how to act in that situation, you know what to expect, you know what stage you’re at, and you know what you’re missing. It allows you to consistently be successful there. Waiting for the cashier to give you the receipt and your order number is almost instinctual. You don’t think about it because it’s a script you’ve engaged in countless times.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that going from strangers to flirting to the possibility of sex has a script as well, a script that makes it easy to escalate from one stage to the next because of how familiar it all seems. It’s just not a script that we have known explicitly, until 1980 when Timothy Perper and Susan Fox studied and determined the exact stages of successful flirtation to sex.
Knowing this script is more important than you might think. Just as you know the script for success at Burger King, knowing the script that Perper and Fox discovered will show you methods for successful flirting, period. You will be able to see what you are missing, what you may have skipped, what you still need to do, and, overall, how to achieve your goal of sex via flirting. You should also integrate this knowledge with the previous section’s discovery of your flirting style to see how you might be falling short.
The researchers sat in singles bars and watched people who entered alone and ended up leaving with other people at the end of the night. In other words, these were people who started as strangers, then utilized flirting as a means to sex. They discovered three main stages in the script for successful flirtation of those who more often than not left with someone for the night. Those who weren’t successfully typically ended the interaction early on, or else tried to change the order of the stages.
The stages are:
1. Approach 2. Synchronize 3. Touch
We’ll go through each in more detail so you can see exactly what’s involved in a successful flirtation interaction, no matter the style of flirting.
The first stage is the approach stage. As you might guess, this governs how a successful approach of a stranger for flirtation works. If the approach is not received warmly or at all, the flirtation will immediately end. Now, this isn’t to say that a perfect approach will necessarily succeed every time—there are two people in every social interaction, and if one of them doesn’t want to play, there is simply no game. Nevertheless, we can do a lot on our side of the bargain to broach that distance gracefully and approach another person in a way that leads to a positive outcome.
So what is involved in a successful approach? The researchers articulated three distinct points that would predict how well an approach would go.
The first factor was the direction and orientation of the approach. Males disliked being approached from the front, but females disliked being approached from the side (Fisher & Byrne, 1975). This speaks to how the different genders felt about violations of personal space. Males felt more comfortable being approached from the side, whereas females felt more comfortable being approached from the front. This means females actually felt more comfortable with a greater degree of violation of their personal space. Males tended to welcome directness, while females wanted to first feel more secure and less threatened. Choose the wrong orientation and the first stage is set up for failure.
The second factor is smiles. The researchers found that the more each party smiled, the more a successful approach was likely to have occurred. It didn’t matter whether the participants approached with a joke or even a serious conversation topic. The smile indicated an emotional arousal, interest on a party’s behalf, and the willingness to show that interest to the other person. Of note, only genuine smiles were indicative; an insincere smile was characterized by being delayed, a lack of eye wrinkles, and a lack of teeth shown.
The final factor that determined a successful approach was people’s use of their eyebrows and overall facial expressiveness. When we use our eyebrows separately and independently from other nonverbal gestures, we are essentially conveying interest with them. The researchers called this “flashing” our eyebrows. Using eyebrow flashes was more successful when approaching the opposite sex and led to people being able to continue along the script.
Synchronization. This is the second stage to a successful flirtation interaction and will only occur when the first stage of approaching was successful. Of course, the script is sequential because the so-called prospect must feel additional levels of warmth and comfort in order for the end goal to come to fruition.
This is important, and a big reason that flirting can flop or leave the other person cold. Some men approach a woman so focused on the desired outcome that they tend to rush the process or speed along at a pace that isn’t reciprocated. You may have researched the script in your mind all night, but she has only seen you for all of five seconds and suddenly you’re in her space and talking to her at a thousand miles an hour!
If the other person is giving you any signal at all that your approach has not been successful, then trying to push on to synchronization is likely to make things worse. They’ll only feel like you’re being rude and pushy. Only once the actual physical approach is accepted or welcomed, then a conversation can begin.
Other various studies have expounded on what types of pickup lines work best. The ones that worked best in the flirtation context were not cute and flippant. Trying too hard to be clever had a higher chance of failure. What worked more consistently, and was reported to generate higher levels of interest, were simple, straightforward introductions or observations about the environment. In other words, keep it simple, stupid. An effective pickup line, or some kind of conversation starter, is important because it’s what leads to quick synchronization.
The reason this stage is called “synchronize” is because people’s bodies will literally synchronize to face each other, and their movements and energy will become similar so as to adjust and adapt to the other person. That’s what happens when you participate in an engaging conversation with someone you hold in high regard. When rapport and interest are established, we begin mirroring their tone of voice and body language in an effort to appear more similar, and thus attractive, to them.
A successful synchronization stage is characterized by people simply looking directly at each other, making eye contact, being physically close, and appearing engaged. Both parties have signaled that they are interested in a continuing interaction by locking their positions. Initial attraction has been built, and they pass each other’s superficial filters and first impressions. They’re speaking, but they’re also analyzing each other’s body language and facial expressions to determine the level of interest they should show.
This is where the flirtation game truly begins—it’s a subtle test of how attracted you really are to the other person. After physical synchronization, physical touch begins.
Touch. At this point, both physical and mental attraction has been established, and it’s time to escalate. This is the final stage of a successful flirtation interaction: if the parties successfully touch each other, and the touch is received warmly, then the feedback will spur the parties to touch each other more, and the rest is history.
Remember again that the previous stage needs to be properly established before moving on to the next. If you are trying to synchronize with someone and for whatever reasons it’s just not happening, don’t think that you can hurry things along by using touch—this will probably only make the lack of synchronicity more obvious.
Of course, this stage isn’t only about touch. It’s about the continued rapport and tension that is created as a result of being in close proximity with each other. Touching heightens that and makes intentions clearer. Both parties will start at more neutral touching that can be interpreted in multiple ways before diving into the types of touch that are unmistakable in their intent and purpose. Breaking the touch barrier can feel electric.
If the touch barrier has been crossed and accepted by both parties, the script comes to an end because there is nowhere else to escalate to—in public, at least. You might differ on the path you took to get here, but this script was observed to be highly effective. The three stages of flirting that Perper and Fox found aren’t a guarantee of sex, but if you make sure to hit these stages, you will set yourself up for success.
Now that we know the stages of flirting to sex, what should we do with this knowledge? We need to diagnose how we send out our own messages, what we are doing, and what we aren’t doing.
For example, many people think they make their intentions well known, but they never so much as touch their intended mates. Clearly, that’s something to address because they are not following the flirting script that has been proven to be effective and successful.
Others may skip right over the approach phase and immediately begin touching. That’s too aggressive and forward for most people. What the script actually defines is the process of building rapport and comfort with strangers. Turns out it functions the same at networking events as it does for flirting and sex.
This script is highly simplified, but that’s about as good as you can get for human interaction. There are so many shades of gray and different interpretations of the same action that three steps are as good of a guideline as you are going to get.
This allows us to visualize what we should be doing or what we should be looking for. If you want to approach a stranger, you should make sure that your actual physical approach is improved and smooth and that you have a conversation starter immediately ready to employ. Then, after building rapport with humor, you should begin touching to create a sense of tension and attraction. Don’t skip ahead, and don’t neglect a step thinking that you are above it or don’t need it. It’s been scientifically proven that you’re not so special that you don’t!
If some of this sounds clinical, it’s because to some degree, it is. Humans study the behavior of rats by adjusting variables and administering more cheese or shocks. Human patterns of behavior can be studied in essentially the same way. However, when done “in the wild” and naturally, you’ll find that people tend to follow this formula whether they know it or not. The sex drive is one of the most powerful human motivators, and in a sense, can make us predictable sometimes. Flirting is to running through mazes, and the possibility of sex is to cheese if you were to continue along that analogy.
Understand your flirting style and then understand how it fits, or doesn’t fit, into the stages of flirting that have been observed to work. And no kicking of shins.
Show notes and/or episode transcripts are available at https://bit.ly/social-skills-shownotes
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