In the movies, love always gets a second chance. Even when the first meet-cute is a disaster—involving crushed fenders or tangled dog leashes—you know the leads will see each other again before the end of the first act.
It doesn’t always work that way in real life, as Craigslist’s “missed connections” classifieds so heartbreakingly illustrate. Every day, lonelyhearts write passionate missives about gazes met on train platforms and sly smiles exchanged in bookstore lines. The authors were going to say something but then—poof—the train arrived, or the cashier yelled “next!” and their chance was gone.
Jeffrey Hall, a communications professor at the University of Kansas and author of “The Five Flirting Styles,” said most people are reluctant to make romantic overtures for the obvious reasons: we’re worried we might be wrong, and we don’t want to be embarrassed. We’re also terrible at knowing when others are flirting with us.
Hall conducted research that paired heterosexual college students with members of the opposite sex for what they thought was a study on first impressions. Each of the 52 pairs sat alone in a room for 10 to 12 minutes and talked. Afterwards, the participants were asked if they had flirted and if they thought their partner had flirted.
The research team found that participants were very good at determining when people were not flirting, with a more than 80 percent accuracy rate. But they did a terrible job of detecting flirting in their counterpart—only 36 percent of men and 18 percent of women judged correctly.
“When people are not flirting, we do a good job of detecting it. When people are flirting, on the other hand, we do a really bad job at detecting it. We miss it most of the time,” said Hall.
Why are we so obtuse? One reason is that pop culture has given us an inaccurate view of what flirting looks like. Hall noted that commercials for products like beer and body spray portray a very direct and seductive form of flirting rarely used by real people.
“Hair-flipping, coy-smiling, lip-licking—that kind of silliness is not happening,” said Hall. In the real world, people have very different flirting styles, some of which run contrary to what we’ve been conditioned to expect. For example, some people are “polite flirts,” who show interest by being respectful, rather than aggressive or forward. In a subsequent analysis, Hall found that polite flirts leaned back and maintained an even tone of voice. “They were flirting by being stiff,” he said.
Needless to say, many participants didn’t get the message.
On the flipside, playful flirts often have the opposite problem. Because they enjoy the act of flirting for its own sake, or for the charge it gives them, they often send confusing messages. “They run into the problem where everyone thinks they’re interested [when] they’re just messing with people,” said Hall.
So how do you figure out if that cute stranger likes you? Hall has several recommendations.
First, pay attention to verbal cues. Body language can be hard to read, but many verbal cues transcend flirting styles. In particular, if the other person gives you a compliment—on your appearance, ideas, taste in music, etc.—they are probably flirting. Another giveaway: if the person implies that they’d like to see you again by asking for your contact information or by letting you know that they’ve “been meaning to check out that art exhibit, too.” Finally, anyone who tries to determine your relationships status is probably into you. “If you say ‘we,’ and they say ‘Oh, do you mean you and hmmm.’ Then they are likely flirting with you,” said Hall.
Here are a few more suggestions from Hall:
Understand your own flirting style. “A little self-reflection can go a long way,” said Hall, who explained that there are five basic flirting styles: Polite, Playful, Traditional, Physical, and Sincere. Understanding how you communicate attraction can help you determine whether you need to make your intentions clear or tone them down.
Trust your gut. As clueless as we may be, our instincts about our own interactions are still better than anyone else’s. In Hall’s flirting study, third-party observers who watched videos of the participants were less able to detect flirting than the participants themselves.
“There is something about the embodied experience of getting to know someone that tells you something that a video recording doesn’t,” said Hall.
Befriend your anxiety. If being around someone you’re attracted to makes you nervous, it will probably work in your favor. Research finds that we become more attracted to people who appear interested in us.
“So rather than holding it back or tamping down on it, be comfortable with the fact that this person makes you a little bit excited,” said Hall.
Drop the games. Devoting your energy to seduction strategies and guessing games will only interfere with your ability to connect. Instead, focus on getting clear on what you are looking for. Do you like this person? Can you imagine spending time and having fun with them? Is there something special about this person that makes you want to be with them rather than others?
“Being in tune with that will probably get you a lot farther along than trying to second guess their actions or play some sort of game,” said Hall.
Just take the risk. Sure it’s scary, but the choice is yours: would you rather risk feeling the sting of rejection, or the sorrow of never knowing what could have been?