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3 Steps to More Successful Flirting

Are you following this script?

Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock
Source: Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock

We all have expectations about the order in which events should happen. This mental order of events is referred to as a script (Schank & Abelson, 1977), and an oft-cited example of a script is eating in a restaurant: When we visit a restaurant we expect events to occur in a certain order—we will be shown to a table, receive a menu, eat our food, and pay the bill. Our expectation that these events will occur in that specific order help guide our behavior and affect what we expect to happen at certain times.

We employ scripts in our relationships too, establishing expectations of behaviors which are performed in particular sequences. Such sequences of behaviors in relationships are often nonverbal and subtle. For example, people generally don't arrive home from work and say, "Evening honey, how about sex at ten o'clock?" The negotiation is subtler: We may turn down the lights or move a little closer, for example.

These patterns also occur in the initiation of relationships. One such pattern was identified by Timothy Perper and Susan Fox, who performed observational studies in singles bars in New Jersey and New York City, where they watched single people enter alone and sometimes leave with another person (Perper & Fox 1980). The researchers discovered there are three distinct stages people have to negotiate in order for their flirtatious behavior to succeed.

1. Approach

The first stage is approach, in which one person approaches another person who must then respond in a positive way for the flirtation to continue. If the approach is not greeted warmly, the flirtation ends. One important factor is the direction of the approach: Males dislike being approached from the front, whereas females dislike being approached from the side (Fisher & Byrne, 1975). The reason for this is related to invasion of personal space. The researchers found that females respond more negatively than males to side-by-side invasions of space, while males respond more negatively than females to face-to-face invasions of space.

When we approach someone, it is also important that we smile and that the smile is genuine and sincere. Insincere or fake smiles are often asymmetrical, the onset is delayed, the smile lasts longer, and a full-face smile isn't displayed, meaning no wrinkles can be observed in the area around the eyes.

Finally, as we approach and say "hello," we flash our eyebrows. This eyebrow flash is an unconscious signal displayed when we approach another person with whom we hope to engage in social contact.

2. Swivel and Synchronize

If an approach is welcomed, some kind of opening line or conversation starter is needed. One study asked participants to generate opening lines men or women might use to initiate an interaction with someone of the opposite sex. Some of the more bizarre, cute, and flippant lines used by males—and not recommended—include, "Is that really your hair?" "You remind me of a woman I used to date," and "Your place or mine?" Those used by females included, "Didn’t we meet in a previous life?" and "Hey baby, you’ve got a gorgeous chassis, mind if I look under the hood?" One of the study’s conclusions (perhaps not surprisingly) was that cute or flippant opening lines are the least desirable (Kleinke, Meeker & Staneski, 1986).

This stage is referred to as "swivel and synchronize" because people turn to face each other and synchronize their movements. One indication of the establishment of rapport with a person to whom we are talking is indicated by behavior matching and movement synchrony. This means that our gestures and postures begin to match, and we do this at more or less the same time. However, note that we are very good at hiding our nonverbal behavior from the waist upward, but not so good at hiding it from the waist down. So, if you need to establish whether someone is bored in your company, just look at their lower legs and feet.

In the swivel and synchronize phase, it's possible to be near enough to the other person to closely see their eyes. When we find someone attractive, our pupils dilate or become larger, and this in turn makes us appear more attractive ourselves (Hess, Beaver, & Shrout, 1975).

3. Touch

In the touch phase, one person touches the other, and the person touched must receive the touch in a positive manner for the interaction to continue. Touch is very important in social interaction and in relationship development. This stage not only involves touch, but also talking, listening, reciprocal self-disclosure, and engaging in humor. Perper and Fox found that females were more likely than males to touch first.

In the touch stage, in addition to talking, we need to listen to the other person. Good listening is not automatically saying "yeah, yeah" but noting and summarizing what the other person has said. Reciprocal disclosure—telling somebody about yourself and listening while they tell you about themselves—is also very important for the establishment of rapport. Research tells us that the more people disclose to us, the more we like them; and we tend to like people more the more they allow us to disclose to them.

During the conversation stage, it's likely that the two people will engage in various humorous exchanges. However, researchers have observed that during conversations between males and females, it is the amount of laughter produced by the female rather than the male which indicates their interest in dating (Grammer & Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1990). The researchers suggest that female receptivity to humor indicates her sexual interest.

This is just one script that's been observed by researchers. It is not intended to be a guide for pickup artists of either gender, but an outline of each stage in a relationship initiation or flirtation script.

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Fisher, J. D. & Byrne, D. (1975) Too close for comfort: Sex differences in response to invasion of personal space. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32 (1) 15-21. Grammer, K., & Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. (1990). The ritualisation of laughter. In W. Koch (Ed.), Naturalichkeit der sprache un der kulture: Acta colloquii, (pp. 192–214). Bochum7 Brockmeyer. Hess, E. H., Beaver, P. W., & Shrout, P. E. (1975). Brightness contrast effects in a pupillometric experiment. Perception & Psychophysics, 18(2), 125-127 Kleinke, C. L., Meeker, F. B. & Staneski, R. A. (1986) Preference for Opening Lines: Comparing Ratings by Men and Women. Sex Roles, 15 (11/12), 585-600. Perper, T. & Fox, V. S. (1980, April). Flirtation behaviour in public settings. Paper presented at the meeting of the Eastern Region of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex, Philadelphia, PA. Schank, R.C. & Abelson, R. (1977). Scripts, Plans, Goals, and Understanding. Hillsdale, NJ: Earlbaum Assoc.
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