You Suck at Flirting

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Why you should care

Because who doesn’t want more romance, sex or both in their life? 

Want to keep the fire burning in your relationship? Or eager to up your Tinder ratios? This story is part of OZY’s series on the Science of Dating — check out the rest here. Because numbers don’t play games.

Think of the last time you talked to a cute stranger. You smiled and laughed at his jokes, keeping the conversation light and fun — work, weather and the war in Ukraine, you know, the usual — sprinkled with a few compliments about what a cool job he has, blah, blah. But come time to leave you both awkwardly shake hands and say, “See ya later.” Don’t cry, you weren’t rejected, he probably liked you — you both just suck at flirting.

Flirting is a pretty fundamental human activity, so you’d think we’d have figured it out already. But according to a recent study, we’re not even close:

Only 18 percent of women knew a man was flirting with them in a one-on-one situation.

Men didn’t do a whole lot better, getting it right 36 percent of the time. Which can mean one of two things: either the flirter isn’t making it very obvious or the recipient is pretty oblivious. Actually, it’s probably both, says Jeffrey Hall, the lead researcher and associate professor of communications at Kansas University. Hell, we’d have a better chance of getting into an Ivy League school than that attractive barista’s pants.

Now we’re not talking about your typical drunken Saturday night when some dude saunters up to you and drops something along the lines of: “I forgot my phone number. Can I have yours?” Hall studied everyday situations, like meeting in class, at the coffee shop or in line at the grocery store. Which is where most of the results happen, considering only about 9 percent of married couples met at a bar. He paired 52 male and 52 female college students, sat them in a room, and told them to chat. Afterward, they tried to guess whether the other was flirting or not.

Though men aren’t exactly flirt detectives, women are far worse. Which could be because women are simply more transparent when it comes to showing interest in everyday situations, says Hall. They are recipients of so many unwanted advances that when they do find someone they like, they may want to make it very clear: I LIKE YOU, says Hall. It could also be because men harbor more anxiety, says David Wygant, a Los Angeles-based dating coach. “Men are a train wreck,” he says.

One of the reasons for such disappointing miscommunication, says Hall, is the fact that everyday flirting often looks a lot like friendliness. Wygant disagrees — there are pretty telltale signs when someone’s flirting, particularly when she’s standing close to you or “in your space.” Extended eye contact, merciless teasing, brushing against you or finding reasons to touch you. But those surefire ways of showing interest, like actually asking for that coffee date or touching, mean that you actually have to, you know, take the chance that she doesn’t actually find you attractive. Best dating advice: “Take the risk,” says Hall.

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