Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Mating Game: The Anthropology of Flirting

Over the disco beat driving through the Havanas Club in Spokane, Washington, Dave Givens is trying to make a point. We're watching a woman in an off-the-shoulder dress dodging the attentions of a guy in a baseball cap. Before any deep, soul-stirring conversations, says Givens who is an anthropologist, before heart-melding evenings, even before the lame opening chit-chat ("What's empowering about Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that she's a girl with teenage worries who still slays demons." "So, you got into this day trading thing yet?"), men and women engage in a silent ritual. Because they share a real problem.

"People don't trust one another at first."

It's evolutionarily programmed in -- being wary of strangers certainly never hurt anyone. So how do you get close enough to someone new to. . . well . . . do your bit to ensure the survival of the species?

OK, going forth and multiplying isn't the first thing on everyone's mind, but even if you're out just for the fun of it, you need to show you're harmless before anything else happens.

This is where the ritual of non-verbal flirting -- gestures, posture, dress -- becomes all important. It's a silent code, and Givens, who runs the Center for Nonverbal Studies, has been watching it unfold in bars and other gathering places for 20 years. One person signals it's safe to come near, the other moves in a bit -- no one growls -- and they move in a bit closer.

Courtship is an ongoing dance of tiny permissions.

Some of these signals can be found across cultures and species, performed identically from this Spokane nightclub to Swaziland, from people to apes. They call on muscles and nerve circuits that can be traced back millions of years through animal history, suggesting they're part of our evolutionary programming.

For example, the shoulder shrug. It's a sign of uncertainty, part of an age-old startle response that protects the vulnerable neck. A tilted head uses some of these same muscles and nerves. Neither move is a prelude to attack -- so you see a lot of people tilting their heads as they exchange glances across a crowded bar.

And you see a lot of hands held palm-up. Mr. Baseball Cap is doing that now. It's part of a muscle reflex that bends the body and neck back, away from danger, Givens says; as those muscles contract they also rotate the forearms and palms up.

The flirting signals show up in the feet, too. Feet pointed out are gestures of dominance, while pointing your toes in shows submission. The same foot position shows up on videotapes Givens made of men approaching women in bars, in parks, in restaurants.

(It also shows up on Givens himself. Trying to make his way into Havanas that evening with his wife and I in tow, Givens was stopped at the door by a beefy bouncer: "We have a dress code, sir." Givens looked puzzled. "Shoes for men. No sport sandals." Givens' gaze dropped to his Tevas which were -- like the shoes of his two companions -- pointing inward. "Uh, we can go change," he said.)

So, you've tilted your head, bared your arms -- a friendly sign by women -- and held your palms up long enough to collect tips at the door. Is any of this working on the object of your desire?

Good news if you see things like this: his -- or her -- body turned towards yours, instead of angled away; rapid eye-blinking; mirroring body movements (imitation being a sincere form of flattery, and a way to show the two of you are in synch); and a flush on the face. (Women didn't invent blush makeup completely at random -- it simulates that glow of attraction.)

And what are the signs that you're not succeeding? When she -- or he -- won't look at you, or is angling the upper body away. That's happening to Mr. Baseball Cap as we watch. She's looking away; now she's walking away.

The official scientific term for that is "crash and burn."

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