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"Quasi-Courtship" Behaviors Can Energize a Workplace

Quasi-courtship enhances cooperation and creativity, but there are risks.

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Hopefully, you have known a co-worker with whom you just “clicked.”

You probably had no real sexual interest in the person, nor did you desire an intimate relationship with them, but you invariably enjoyed your daily interaction as you worked together smoothly and efficiently. In fact, the mundane, day-to-day duties of your job became more enjoyable because of this colleague, and the banter and rapport between you was a significant source of job satisfaction for both of you. You might have used words like “chemistry,” or “we make a good team,” to explain how well your working relationship functioned.

One of the things that you were probably not aware of was just how differently you behaved with this person compared to how you acted with other co-workers.

What Is Quasi-Courtship Behavior?

Psychologists have long been aware of a category of nonverbal behaviors known as "Quasi-Courtship Behaviors." These behaviors appear in interactions between individuals who would be appropriate romantic partners for each other under other circumstances, and on the surface they look very much like the flirting behavior seen between people who are exploring the possibility of a real romantic encounter. To my knowledge, quasi-courtship has only been studied in heterosexual couples, but it presumably happens in gay/lesbian interactions as well.

Quasi-courtship behaviors were first identified by psychiatrist Albert Scheflen in a paper published in 1965. Scheflen had been studying the effectiveness of different methods of psychotherapy, and he noticed that consistent patterns of interaction were popping up in mixed-sex therapy sessions when there was good rapport between the client and the therapist; this was happening regardless of the style of therapy that was being practiced.

At first, Scheflen believed that the behavior he was seeing was inappropriate and undesirable, but he came to realize that it was in fact an essential tool for establishing comfort and rapport in therapeutic relationships.

After Scheflen’s research was published, social psychologists studying nonverbal communication quickly realized that these same patterns of quasi-courtship behavior could be found everywhere: between coworkers, between professors and students, and even in business transactions between strangers. For the most part, these behaviors are unconscious and automatic, and most people seem to be unaware of what is going on.

Quasi-courtship behaviors energize our everyday relationships, and they can be a force for good in work situations where cooperation and creativity are indispensable.

There are four stages to quasi-courtship: Courtship Readiness, Positioning, Actions of Appeal or Invitation, and Qualifiers.

1. Courtship Readiness

Before quasi-courtship can occur, the individual must be in a state of “courtship readiness.” This is not the same thing as being interested in sex. People who are interested in sex may or may not be in a state of courtship readiness, and those in a state of readiness may not be particularly interested in sex or romance.

When you are in a state of courtship readiness, there are actual physiological changes to your body. Your muscle tone improves, bagginess around the eyes may diminish, your posture becomes more erect and alert, and your eyes may appear to be brighter. Some women even believe that the texture of their hair and the color of their skin change somewhat during courtship readiness.

While in a state of courtship readiness, people frequently display “preening behaviors,” such as stroking their hair, tugging at their clothing, pulling up socks, or checking their appearance in any mirrors that may be nearby.

2. Positioning for Courtship

Positioning for courtship usually entails posturing and a use of space that keenly focuses the pair's attention on each other to the mild exclusion of others. Their bodies and heads face each other as they lean forward or move their chairs to increase involvement with each other in a way that might make other people feel like intruders if they wished to join the conversation.

3. Actions of Appeal or Invitation

These actions involve the behaviors we usually refer to as “flirting.” The amount of eye contact increases, sometimes accompanied by flirtatious or mischievous smiles and glances. In women, crossing the legs to expose the thigh, exposing the wrist or palm when gesturing, and stroking a wrist or thigh with their fingers are also frequent signals, according to Scheflen. During conversation, humor and playful tones of voice are common.

4. Qualifiers of Courtship Behavior

And let us not forget the importance of keeping the “Quasi” in “Quasi-Courtship.” Because all of the aforementioned signals could easily be construed as genuine sexual or romantic interest, it is necessary to signal that the behaviors on display are not the real deal.

One might make overt verbal references to the inappropriateness of a relationship by discussing spouses, children, or romantic partners or by making joking references to the age or power differences inherent in the situation. More commonly, socially skilled individuals signal playful but non-serious intentions by modifying, omitting, or contradicting key elements of the courtship behaviors described above. Over time, the rhythm of the interaction between the two people becomes comfortable and second nature, so misunderstandings are most likely to occur early in the relationship.

In summary, quasi-courtship behaviors play a positive and influential role in everyday life. However, they are not without risk. Misunderstandings arising from a lack of clear qualifiers can lead to awkward situations when one of the parties, usually the man, infers sexual interest when there is none. In extreme cases, this may even lead to sexual harassment or date rape. When in doubt, a frank and open conversation may nip unpleasantness in the bud.

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