Friends of the Nonverbal Communication Blog, this week we present the paper “I saw him first: Competitive nonverbal flirting among women, the tactics used and their perceived effectiveness”, by Wade, T. J.; Fisher, M. L. and Clark, E. (2021), in which authors carry out two studies to know what are the nonverbal cues most used by women when they want to win the same man’s heart.

Universally, people have a desire to form intimate relationships, whether long-term, or just one-night stands. One of the challenges faced by people interested in establishing sex-affective relationships is partner recruitment, and one way to overcome this obstacle is flirting. 

Flirting is an essential aspect of human interpersonal interaction, and it can be used in many ways. For example, single people may use it to attract a partner, but those who are in relationships may flirt to provoke jealousy in their current partner. 

It can also be used as an attempt to intensify the relationship one already has and promote its development, as well as the growth of bonds between people in that couple. 

While flirting can be used for many purposes, the most well-known and evolutionarily important is that of mating. In fact, most of the literature on the subject is concerned with how to signal to a person that you are interested in dating them. 

Interestingly, flirting differs between men and women, reflecting their different priorities when choosing a mate. For example, evolutionary psychologists argue that heterosexual men tend to choose their partners based on signals of fertility and reproductive potential, as well as sexual access. 

On the other hand, heterosexual women tend to engage in intrasexual competitive behavior with each other to gain access to desirable mates. 

While these differences have been documented in previous literature, how they relate to flirtation and subsequent relationship formation is complex. 

For example, men’s preference for sexually accessible partners may lead one to believe that women’s flirting should emphasize these qualities to generate interest, but appearing sexually receptive is counterproductive for women when it comes to establishing a long-term relationship, according to previous literature. 

How women flirt to attract a potential partner presumably depends on many factors, such as, for example, whether the partner is of sufficient quality or has been selected as a potential long-term partner.

While flirting can be done verbally, the nonverbal component is more abundant and, moreover, more important in this context. For example, females may attempt to manifest their sexual availability, which is easier to do through nonverbal means. In addition, nonverbal signals tend to be associated with greater credibility than verbal signals. 

Authors propose the idea that women tend to compete intrasexually, that is, with each other, for potential male partners. However, this is a topic that has not yet been investigated through the prism of nonverbal language, nor has it been explored how this competition is executed. This is the aim of the article.

Authors focus primarily on the use of “tie signals” or “bond signals”, which are nonverbal public displays, signs, or objects (such as wedding rings or shaking hands) that indicate that a relationship exists between two people. They are considered an effective way that people use to say that a relationship exists between them. 

In the first study, 91 women were gathered and participated in an online questionnaire. They answered questions such as “how would you get your flirt’s attention to shift from another woman to you, in the context of a pub?” among others. The 11 most popular actions were used for the following study. These were: eye contact, dancing in his field of vision, smiling at him, touching him, laughing at his jokes, dancing between the other woman and the man, showing disgust or dislike towards her, brushing up against the man, hugging him, flirting with other men or waving at him. 

The second study gathered 139 participants, including men and women, and also through an online questionnaire they were asked which tactics they considered most effective for this purpose, using a scale.

It seems that touching a man on the arm, shoulder, chest or leg is the most effective flirting act, because it signifies to other women that a bond is being formed with the man. From the point of view of intrasexual competition, once a partner is “taken,” it is more useful to approach an alternative partner rather than try to compete with a rival. 

This is a simplistic explanation, as the authors acknowledge, since intrasexual competition involves many more factors, some from an evolutionary point of view, others from a social prism, and so on. 

Other useful techniques proved to be eye contact, hugging (which can be seen as a sign of bonding and also releases oxytocin, which brings people together), or laughing at their jokes.

Authors propose the interesting idea of exploring in future research how the self-perceived value of the partner influences flirting techniques and, in particular, competitive flirting.

If you want to know more about nonverbal behavior and how it affects personal relationships, visit our Master of Science in Nonverbal and Deceptive Behavior, which you can take in English or Spanish, with special grants for readers of the Nonverbal Communication Blog.


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