Is it flirting or just friendliness? The definitive guide to interpreting whether you are being wooed

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It always goes so well in the movies. Man sees woman. Woman locks eyes with man. They miraculously and seamlessly move closer together. And hey presto, a new romance is born.

But in real life, it turns out that only 28% of people accurately detect when they are being flirted with. 

In a study by University of Kansas in America, researchers monitored over 100 heterosexual strangers as they engaged in conversation with another participant. When each person was asked if they flirted during their interaction or whether they thought their partner flirted with them, it was only noticed 28% of the time.

A follow-up study found that observers watching from the outside, who were not involved the actual interaction, were even less accurate when detecting flirtation. 

It might be the universal language for courting someone - anthropological research shows that flirting is to be found, in some form, in all cultures and societies around the world - but it turns out it's not as explicit as a peacock's tail. 

We're often too oblivious, too awkward or over-analytical to wholeheartedly feel confidant when it comes to making or receiving romantic advances. 

So to help break down the confusion and myths behind it, we've uncovered what science officially defines as flirting. 

When it's most likely flirting

They dominate the space around you

In one study, researchers had two opposite-sex strangers meet and recorder their interactions for 10 minutes. They then asked each person about their romantic interest and compared it with their behaviour in the test. Males who were more interested gave off dominance signals, such as taking up space and leaning forward during a conversation. Similarly, women who were more interested changed their body presentation to accentuate physical features. 

They mirror your behaviour

When people are attracted to each other, they tend to unconsciously copy each other's physical gestures and posture.

Psychologists call this 'postural congruence' or 'postural echo' explains the Social Issues Research Centre. "Mirror-image postural echoes – where one person's left side 'matches' the other person's right side – are the strongest indication of harmony and rapport between the pair. If the position of your partner's body and limbs appear to 'echo' or 'mimic' your own, particularly if his/her posture is a mirror image of yours, the chances are that he/she feels an affinity with you."
But as a BBC report explains, mirroring also marks good communication and shows our interests are being reciprocated, which means it can also happen when talking to close friends. 

They're consistent

According to social psychology pinoneer Harold Kelley’s 1967 'Attribution Model' - the theory of how people interpret and make sense of behaviour - consistant flirtation over time is a good signal for attraction. Pyschologist Theresa E. DiDonato observed Kelley's study in detail and suggests there are three key questions that can help decode flirting. 

1. Are their interactions consistent across time (do you seem to flirt every time you see each other)?
2. Is the person’s behaviour towards you distinctive or unique (not how he or she acts toward everyone else)?
3. How do you behave? If there’s a general consensus that most people interact with this person the way you do, your interactions are less likely attributed to mutual attraction.

DiDonato adds that high consistency, high distinctiveness and low consensus might suggest that you have a connection with the other person. 

The importance of touch

"The behaviour that participants rated as reflecting the most flirtation and the most romantic attraction was the soft face touch, followed by the touch around the shoulder or waist, and then the soft touch on the forearm," says Pamela Regan, psychology professor at at California State University and author of Close Relationships.

"The least flirtatious and romantic touches were the shoulder push, shoulder tap, and handshake. Thus, touching that is gentle and informal, and that occurs face-to-face or involves “hugging” behaviour, appears to convey the most relational intent."

Identify their flirting style

Every person has a different tactic for communicating attraction, according to a study by the University of Kansas in 2013, which observed 51 pairs of opposite-sex heterosexual strangers in a questionnaire. 

"We found that as people became more attracted to their conversation partner, they showed that attraction in ways that revealed their flirting style," said Jeffrey Hall, associate professor of communication studies. He identified five flirting categories:

  • Traditional: Those who believe men should make the first move and women should be more passive. The traditional flirt was more likely to lean into the interaction and adopt an open body posture. Traditional females acted in more demure way, by palming -- or showing their wrists and hands -- and gently teasing their conversational partner."
  • Sincere: Those who communicate attraction through self-disclosure and focused attention. They are attentive and less fidgety in a short interaction. "Female sincere flirts laughed and smiled more, and more frequently showed a telltale sign of interest - the coy gaze," said Hall.
  • Polite: "A polite flirt tends to be very hands-off and respectful, but as you can imagine, this type of flirting isn't obvious to the people they're attracted to," Hall added. "They lean back, create even more space and are more even in verbal tone. For most people, it signals a lack of closeness, but polite flirts do it more the more attracted they become."
  • Physical: Those who express sexual interest through body language and feel most confident at parties and busy night spots. "They offer fewer compliments when they are attracted to a potential romantic match and are a bit stymied talking alone in a room, one-on-one."
  • Playful: Those who are less polite than physical flirts and tend to be highly extroverted, throwing caution to the wind when flirting. 

When it's most likely not flirting

Locking eyes a few times 

Unfortunately, exchanging glances with someone doesn't always hold romantic connotations. In one study where the encounters of opposite-sexed strangers were directly observed, the behaviours early on in the interactions were not indicative of actual interest. In fact, women with low and high interest gave off the same amount of solicitation signals. Real interest was only noticeable if women kept giving signals over time. 

In one groundbreaking experiment in generating closeness between strangers in the 1990s, researcher by Arthur Aron found that it takes a lot more eye contact to make a connection. In his study he asked various pairs of strangers to share intimate details of their lives with each other for 45 minutes and then spend four minutes staring into each others eyes without talking for four minutes. Many of the couples confessed to feeling deeply attracted to the other and two of his subjects even married afterwards.

As summarised by the Social Issues Research Centre people don't usually hold each other's gaze for more than a second. If it's longer than this or the person looks away and then back at you again, that is strong evidence that they are flirting.

A few laughs
The amount of laughter itself can not detect flirting according to one study on non-verbal flirting. It's only when laughter is accompanied by the right body postures and movements, such as mirroring and dominance. 

Closed posture
In the same study both sexes communicated a lack of interest through closed postures such as folded arms and crossed legs. 

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