Study Reveals We Actually Don't Know when Someone's Flirting with Us

Sensing mixed signals? You're not alone.

By: Ian Landau


Remember that time when the salesperson was following you around the store, keeping eye contact for what seemed like an intense amount of time, and offering to contact you with more information about that item if you'd leave your number-and you just couldn't tell if this was a true come-on or a sales technique? Well, a new study says that these and other borderline experiences you've been pondering for years may well have been missed opportunities. Hookups that slipped through your finger. The ones that got away. . .

Here's how we know: Researchers at the University of Kansas paired up 104 male and female heterosexual college students and had them chat each other up for 10 to 12 minutes. Afterwards each participant filled out a questionnaire that asked, among other things, whether they had flirted with their partner, and whether they thought their partner had flirted with them.

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Both sexes were good at detecting when they weren't being flirted with. Researchers found that guys and girls were accurate on this front about 80 percent of the time. But when their partner actually was flirting with them, everyone pretty much sucked at noticing it. The study found that 36 percent of men accurately detected flirting from their female partner, while a mere 18 percent of women read guys' signals right. In one notable pairing, both the man and the woman said they were flirting with the other, yet both indicated they thought the other wasn't flirting with them! Basically, any behavior less than a flashing neon sign saying, "I am flirting with you," was likely to be missed.

OK, so maybe signals can be confused in the heat of the moment, right? Surely a neutral observer to such interactions would be able to tell if the guys or gals were flirting or not. Um, not really. In a second experiment, KU researchers showed yet more students one-minute clips of either just the man or woman partner from the first experiment. This second batch of students was then asked if the person was flirting or not. But while women were a teensy bit better here at recognizing men's onscreen flirting than they had been in the first experiment, they still were only accurate 22 percent of the time.

To boil it down: A little more than a third of dudes register it when a woman is flirting with them, and fewer than a quarter of women know when a man is flirting. It's a wonder the human species has been able to propagate! So what the hell is going on?

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"Behavior that is flirtatious is hard to see, and there are several reason for that," KU professor of communications and lead study author Jeffrey Hall said in a statement following the study's publication. Hall, an expert on the subject of flirting and author of the 2013 book The Five Flirting Styles, went on: "People aren't going to do it in obvious ways because they don't want to be embarrassed, flirting looks a lot like being friendly, and we are not accustomed to having our flirting validated so we can get better at seeing it."

So how is anyone supposed to get better at the process? Is there any way to hone flirting detection skills? Hall says the key is to be more open to the idea that people may be flirting with you, and to consider the context. For example, if you're at a party, or out on the town, odds are better the person you're talking with is flirting with you. More so than if you're at work or on the subway. It's not scientific, but it sure beats the flashing neon-sign approach.

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