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How Men and Women Flirt with Body Language

The nonverbal cues of flirting and physical attraction.

Key points

  • Researchers have discovered evolutionary roots for many flirtatious behaviors.
  • Holding another’s gaze for a bit longer than appropriate, smiling, or touching someone are flirtation cues.
  • Gazing into another’s eyes can signify love and attraction and spur the release hormones associated with love and affection.

A recent book, Nonverbal Communication in Close Relationships: What Words Don’t Tell Us, explores the role of nonverbal communication in relationships. Edited by Robert Sternberg and Aleksandra Kostic, it features work by noted researchers of nonverbal communication. Several chapters focus on the more common flirting behaviors of men and women, ranging from static cues that attract others to more dynamic body language cues.

Here are some of the findings:

Facial Structure. Research from an evolutionary perspective has found that the structure and shape of the face are cues of attraction. Specifically, men are attracted to more baby-faced women with wide eyes, rounder faces, smaller chins, and smoother skin. On the other hand, women are attracted to more dominant-looking men – squared jaws and strong brows. In one interesting study, women wearing red were seen as more attractive, which might explain why red lips and blushing are such a turn-on.

Body Shape. Men are attracted to women with an “hourglass” body shape and a narrow waist with wide hips. From an evolutionary perspective, this suggests fertility. Women are attracted to taller and more muscular men, presumably signs of a potential mate who can be protective. Clothing can enhance these attraction cues, such as women’s dresses accentuating curves and men’s suits with broad, padded shoulders.

Gaze and Eye Contact. There is strong evidence that gazing into another’s eyes is a sign of interest and flirtation. Holding another’s gaze just a bit longer than is customary is a flirting cue. There are, however, sex differences in the interpretation of gaze. Men tend to view mutual gaze as a sexual invitation. There is even some evidence that mutual gaze in a couple can release oxytocin – the “love hormone.” Men also look more at a woman’s body than the face, while women focus more on men’s faces. There is some evidence that men who hold to more traditional sex roles will gaze more at a woman’s body.

Smiling and Facial Cues. A smile makes anyone more attractive, but this is especially true for women. Moreover, smiling in either sex is seen as a flirtatious invitation cue. Men and women whose faces display brief positive emotions (happiness, interest) are viewed as more attractive. Of course, laughter, for both men and women, can be flirtatious, but it must be regulated: Too much laughter or overly loud or unusual laughs can be a turn-off.

Voice Tone. This nonverbal cue is straightforward: A softer tone of voice is flirtatious, and is an especially potent attraction cue for women.

Body Language. A common cue of flirtation is women running their fingers through their hair or hair flipping. Also, adjusting the clothes, such as smoothing out a dress, is, from an evolutionary perspective, “preening” behavior.

Posture. Again, from an evolutionary perspective, flirtation is about cues of dominance (for men) and submissiveness (for females). Men, for example, will aim to have a more upright posture, while women will tilt their heads to the side, a flirtatious cue of submissiveness. Orientation toward one another suggests interest and also serves the purpose of keeping others out of the paired connection.

Personal Space. Closer proximity is a flirtation cue for both men and women (but not too close, nor too quick to intrude into the other’s personal space “bubble”).

Touch. A light touch for both sexes can be a turn-on. Men might grab a woman’s shoulder or pat a hand. Women might brush their hands or give a playful tap and a laugh. Touching shoulders or legs (if seated), ever so slightly, is another flirtation cue.

Synchrony. Mirroring others’ nonverbal behavior can be flirtatious and attractive.

At a party or bar, astute observers of nonverbal communication can see these flirtation cues in action.


Sternberg, R.J., Kostic, A. (Eds.). (2022). Nonverbal Communication in Close Relationships: What Words Don’t Tell Us. Cham, Palgrave.

Bowman, J.M., & Compton, B. (2022). Interpersonal oculesics: Eye-related signals of attraction, interest, and connection. In R.J. Sternberg & A. Kostic (Eds.), Nonverbal Communication in Close Relationships: What Words Don’t Tell Us. (pp. 1-24). Cham: Palgrave.

Frank, M.G., et al (2022). The look of love: Evolution and nonverbal signs and signals of attraction. In R.J. Sternberg & A. Kostic (Eds.), Nonverbal Communication in Close Relationships: What Words Don’t Tell Us. (pp. 25-50). Cham: Palgrave.

Horgan, T.G., et al. (2022). The verbal and nonverbal communication of romantic interest. In R.J. Sternberg & A. Kostic (Eds.), Nonverbal Communication in Close Relationships: What Words Don’t Tell Us. (pp. 137-164). Cham: Palgrave.

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