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Flirting, Failing, and Navigating Relationship Signals

Communication about love happens mostly beneath conscious awareness.

Key points

  • Much of the communication that happens between people is on an unconscious level.
  • Body language, facial expressions, and tone all are part of the conversation that happens as people gauge their interest in each other.
  • It is helpful to spend time interacting with others to learn this subtle art of relationship communication.

So much happens between people that is subtle and even unconscious. In matters of love, the strange dance of attraction is natural, but it can get tricky in a hurry. On the one hand, most people can understand friendly words and body language, but how do they get from initial interest to deep connection and committed love?

Despite the challenges, most people have innate skills in reading and responding to others, and this makes romantic success possible. Take the example of James and Dinah. James was a friendly and funny anthropology major with unruly blond hair and freckles. He was an impulsive, live-for-the-moment guy who played bass in a ska punk band.

James was taking a break at a party when he saw Dinah across the room. She had dark eyes, curly hair, and a wide smile. It was one of those times, as James recalled: “I saw her looking at me across the room, and suddenly I couldn’t see anything else. I know it’s cheesy, but the noise stopped, and I was drawn toward her against my will. I knew nothing was ever going to be the same” [cue the Aerosmith power ballad].

Vera Arsic/Pexels
Source: Vera Arsic/Pexels

A sequence of actions followed that linked these two, and the majority of these connectors were outside of their awareness. As James floated his way through the crowd, he unconsciously read the body language of the mob, feinting and dodging. Others responded to his body signals, parting to make way for his goal-directed movement. He watched Dinah for indicators as he approached. She met his eye and smiled, then turned away. As they got close, he cleared his throat, which signaled that he was about to speak. She looked up and gave an expression of welcome. Had she frowned or rolled her eyes, James would have immediately changed strategies. But so far, their wiring was active and attaching.

“He was pretty awkward,” Dinah laughed. “But very polite.” His courtesy and interest were communicated through words and expressions. He was playful, and repeated her name, drawing it out: “Diii -nah. Cool.” She laughed, “Yeah, my grandparents are from Israel.” They navigated small talk, which was mostly meaningless but had the effect of gauging interest.

“Some party...”

“Your band is really good.”

“What are you studying?”

Each tracked signs regarding how the interaction was going and used unspoken protocols of turn-taking. For instance, when finishing a comment and passing the verbal baton, they slowed their words a bit, talked softer, stopped making gestures, and looked expectantly at the other.

They followed each other’s behavior with enthusiasm, sharing nods, laughs, and verbal prompts to keep going. If these hadn’t happened, the direction would have shifted. For example, if Dinah got warning signals or odd vibes, then she would have indicated disinterest or completion, again using signs that most understand, like: “Well, good luck with the rest of your songs.” But she was enjoying the conviviality, and went with it, taking it further. She implied future possibilities: “Maybe I can see you guys play another time.” She also made unconscious physical flirting movements, including tilting her head to show her neck, crossing her legs, and leaning towards James. He also preened by sitting up straighter, sticking out his chest, and running his hands through his hair. She gently teased him, “You must have a lot of girls interested in you since you are a rock star!” This sent a tiny tingle through him, and he shifted into a cool flirt, which was almost a fatal blunder.

This style includes a calm tone but can be harder to read. “I thought he got turned off,” Dinah recalled. “Right when I was getting interested, he got all chill and started asking me hard questions about my music knowledge.”

“She said she liked ska punk,” James laughed. “So I was trying to bond with her.” She wasn’t really interested in ska punk, but she was in James, so they forged ahead over the bumps and talked late into the night. Their interest was ignited by a look, and tinder was added until their relationship burned bright.

It is impossible to pick apart all the things that happened between James and Dinah as they formed a bond, but it is important for partners to spend time in the dance. It is a natural, but complex process, and this is why people need to work at it. Knowledge about love is important, but trying to master relationships without spending time with others is like trying to become a brilliant dancer by reading about it. Only in the presence of people do humans experience all dimensions of relationships. So, it is good to put down the devices, get together with others, and strengthen relationship muscles. This will help in navigating the exciting and tricky landscapes of love.


Joseph N. Cappella, “Controlling the Floor in Conversation,” in Multichannel Integrations of Nonverbal Behavior, ed. A. W. Siegman and S. Feldstien (Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1985), 69-103.

Kate Fox, “The Flirting Report,” Social Issues Research Centre, 2004.

Jeffrey A. Hall, and Chong Xing. "The Verbal and Nonverbal Correlates of the Five Flirting Styles." Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 39, no. 1 (2015): 41-68.