Language of Love Shares Many Traits

By Daniel Goleman

New York Times

With the same ethological methods they have long used in studies of animals, scientists are turning their attention to the nuances of human courtship rituals-otherwise known as flirting.

By turning the ethologist's lens on human courtship, scientists are finding striking similarities with other species, suggesting that the nonverbal template used by Homo sapiens for attracting and approaching a prospective mate is to some extent part of a larger, shared animal heritage.

A woman parades past a crowded bar to the woman's room, hips swaying, eyes resting momentarily on a likely man and then coyly looking away just as she notices his look. This scenario exemplifies a standard opening move in courtship, getting attention, said Dr. David Givens, an anthropologist in Washington who is writing a book about evolution and behavior. "In the first phase of courting, humans broadcast widely a nonverbal message that amounts to 'notice me,'" said Dr. Givens. "They'll do it through movement, through their dress, through gesture."

From hundreds of hours of observations in bars and at parties, Dr. Givens discovered that women, more than men, tend to promenade, making numerous trips to the woman's room, for instance, both to scout and to be seen.

A second nonverbal message in this earliest stage is "I am harmless," Dr. Givens has found. The gestures and postures humans use to send this message are shared with other mammals, particularly primates. Charles Darwin, who noted the same gestures in his 1872 book, "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals," called them "submissive displays."

Perhaps the first serious study of flirting was done in the 1960's by Dr. Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, an eminent ethologist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. Dr. Eibl-Eibesfeldt traveled to cultures around the world with a camera that took pictures from the side so he could stand near couples and take their pictures without their realizing they were being observed. In research in Samoa, Brazil, Paris, Sydney and New York, Dr. Eibl-Eibesfeldt discovered an apparently universal human vocabulary for flirting and courtship.

In humans, one such gesture is a palm-up placement of the hand, whether on a table or a knee, a reassuring sign of harmlessness. Another submissive display is the shoulder shrug, which, ethologists suggest, derives from an ancient vertebrate reflex, a posture signifying helplessness. A posture combining the partly shrugged shoulder and a tilted head-which displays the vulnerability of the neck-is commonly seen when two people who are sexually drawn to each other are having their first conversation, Dr. Givens said.

Being playful and childish is another way potential lovers often communicate harmlessness. "You see the same thing in the gray wolf," said Dr. Givens.

When wolves encounter each other, they usually give a show of dominance, keeping their distance. But in a sexual encounter, they become playful and frisky, "like puppies," said Dr. Givens, "so they can accept closeness." The next step is a mutual show of submission, all of which paves the way for physical intimacy.

"We still go through the ritual of courtship much like our mammalian ancestors," said Dr. Givens. "These same gestures are subcortical, regulated by the more primitive part of our brain. They have nothing to do with the intellect, with our great neocortex."

The nonverbal repertoire for flirting is "part of a natural sequence for courtship worldwide," said Dr. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University in Brunswick, N.J., and author of "The Anatomy of Love" (Fawcett, 1993). "Mothers don't teach this to their daughters."

In the long view of evolution, courtship is less about romance than about genetic fitness, the struggle to pass on the maximal number of one's own genes to future generations.

"In evolutionary terms, the payoff for each sex in parental investment differs: to produce a child a woman has an obligatory nine-month commitment, while for a man it's just one sexual act," said Dr. David Buss, a psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and author of "The Evolution of Desire" (Basic Books, 1994). "For men in evolutionary terms what pays is sexual access to a wide variety of women, while for women it's having a man who will commit time and resources to helping raise children."

From this view, the coyness of courtship is a way to "test a prospective partner for commitment," said Dr. Jane Lancaster, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. "Women, in particular, need to be sure they're not going to be deserted."

Coyness is not seen in species where the female does not need the sustained help or resources of a male to raise her young, said Dr. Lancaster. In species where a single act of copulation is the only contact a female requires with the father of her young, "there's a direct assertion of sexual interest by the female," said Dr. Lancaster.

But in species where two parents appreciably enhance the survival of offspring, "females don't want to mate with a male who will abandon them," said Dr. Lancaster. In such species, "the courtship dances are coy, a test to see if the male is willing to persist and pursue or simply wants a momentary dalliance," she said. "Instead of the female simply getting in a posture for mating, she repeats a promise-withdraw sequence, getting in the mating posture and then moving away."

In humans, flirtatious looks imitate this sequence. The coy look a woman gives a man is the beginning of a continuing series of approach-withdraw strategies that will unfold over the course of their courtship. These feminine strategems signal the man, "I'm so hard to win that if you do win me you won't have to worry about me getting pregnant by another male," said Dr. Lancaster.

A taxonomy of 52 "nonverbal solicitation behaviors" observed in flirting women has been garnered by Dr. Monica Moore, a psychologist at Webster University in St. Louis. In her research, conducted in singles bars, shopping malls and other places young people go to meet those of the opposite sex, Dr. Moore has found that the women who send flirtatious signals most frequently are most likely to be approached by men-even more so than are women who are rated as more attractive.

"It's not who's most physically appealing," said Dr. Moore, "but the woman who's signaling availability that men approach."

Flirting is the opening gambit in a continuing series of negotiations at every step of the way in courtship. Indeed, the first negotiation point is signaled by the flirtatious look itself.

"When a man is looking at a woman and she senses it, her first decision is, 'Do I have further interest in him?'" said Dr. Beverly Palmer, a psychologist at California State University in Dominguez Hills who has studied flirting. "If so, by flirting she sends the next signal: 'I'm interested in you, and yes, you can approach me.'"

Once the conversation begins, there is "a major escalation point," said Dr. Fisher.

"The woman has a whole new basis for judging the man," she said. "A large number of prospective pickups end here."

Though men may say they are well aware of the tentativeness of flirting, Dr. Buss's findings suggest a male tendency-at least among college-age men-toward wishful thinking in interpreting flirtatious looks.

In settings where men and women go to meet someone of the opposite sex, Dr. Buss said, "we find that when you ask men what it means for a woman to smile at them, they interpret it as a sexual invitation."

"But when you ask women what it means," he continued, "they'll say it just indicates she wants to get to know him better."

In interviews with 208 college-age men and women published this month in The Journal of Sex Research, Dr. Buss and colleagues found that when it comes to seduction, "the sexual signals that work for women backfire for men."

"There's a huge sex difference in how effective different tactics are," he added.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the research showed that for women, direct sexual approaches-dressing seductively, dancing close, staring into a man's eyes-worked well in leading to sexual contact. But for men similar direct strategies were failures.

Instead, for men the less overtly seductive tried-and-true romantic strategems fared best. "For men the most effective approaches are displays of love and commitment," said Dr. Buss. "Telling her he really loves her, that he cares and is committed. (February 14, 1995, C1)

Keep Your Distance

By Oliver Burkeman

Most of us would prefer to believe we don't have much in common with the kind of people targeted by the government's new air rage legislation, which was used for the first time last week to bring charges against a man from Greater Manchester.

But you may have experienced feelings more closely related than you realise: new psychological research suggests that air rage, road rage and other seemingly irrational outbursts of wild-eyed, foaming-at-the-mouth fury could be extreme reactions to the violation of a set of rules that choreographs our every waking moment: the unwritten, unconscious system of personal body space. Mounting evidence shows that we all need this space to stay sane.

"We walk around in a sort of invisible bubble," says Phil Leather, head of Nottingham University's social and environmental research group. "It's egg-shaped, because we allow people to come closer from in front than behind - an entire language is expressed via the amount of distance we choose to keep between each other."

In northern Europe and North America - lovers, close friends and wrestling partners aside - the average depth of the bubble at the front is between two and three feet. When it's intruded upon, the physiological responses can range from feelings of mild annoyance and tension to a pounding heart, raised blood pressure, sweating and severe anxiety.

But for those with a predisposition to aggression, the invisible bubble seems to matter much more - and, worryingly for the rest of us, we risk invading it without knowing. "People in prison for violent crimes have a bigger personal space need than those convicted of nonviolent crimes," says Leather. "So when you're at a distance that's acceptable to most people you're already too close to them - and air rage is a prime example. Police and prison officers reporting incidents of violence often say that everything was going fine until they reached forward to reassure someone by touching them on the shoulder - and then everything just exploded."

The air steward who confronts a boorish, drunken passenger is caught in a bind: the point at which the steward moves closer to offer a calming touch is the very moment that the personal bubble is at its largest and most brittle. Earlier this year, research from London's City University lent further weight to the notion that cramped airline conditions exacerbate the desire to assert territorial control over any space one can.

The bubble is made up of four concentric layers, according to the veteran American sociologist Edward

T Hall, who first identified the concept of personal space in his 1969 classic The Hidden Dimension, and gamely tried to persuade us to call the study of it "proxemics". Invasion of the first, intimate distance -from zero to 18 inches - "in public is not considered proper by adult, middle-class Americans," Hall writes, "even though their young may be observed intimately involved with each other in automobiles and on beaches." Personal distance follows, at one-and-a-half to four feet; for impersonal interactions we opt for social distance (four to 12 feet) and public distance (12 feet and beyond).

Most of us, needless to say, don't flip into tantrums of uncontrolled rage when a layer is inappropriately invaded. But we do subconsciously deploy an armoury of techniques to preserve the integrity of our personal space, either by pretending that the violation hasn't occurred or by finding ways to vent our mounting fury. These tricks have been extensively documented by Robert Sommer, a psychologist at the University of California-Davis who conducted the research for his book Personal Space by systematically invading other people's private zones - a method which, if it didn't make him any more popular on campus, certainly yielded some interesting results.

"Tension levels increase hugely when space is invaded, and responses fall into two categories," says Sommer. "The first kind are blocking tactics - when you avert your gaze, put your hand up at the side of your head or just make yourself immobile: it's the old subway response of turning yourself into a tree. And then there are the tension and anxiety-reduction responses: hair-pulling, foot-tapping, getting red in the face and ultimately leaving the scene." Sommer and his colleagues wandered around their university library, sitting in chairs deemed out of bounds by the laws of personal space. Students grew irritated, anxious and fidgety - and then got up and left.

"People develop all sorts of ways to guard their own space - or they just withdraw into alternative spaces by clamping on headphones and turning up the volume," says James, a City worker regularly beset on the London Underground by personal space invaders. "I open up a newspaper and hold it about a foot from my nose - it creates a zone that other people can't impinge upon."

Our need for personal space is neurologically hardwired, the result of millions of years of evolution, says David Givens, an anthropologist who runs the Center for Nonverbal Studies in Spokane, Washington, and whose Nonverbal Dictionary website ( provides a comprehensive glossary of the tiny gestures we use to guard our invisible zones.

"Even 500 million years ago, the evidence suggests, living creatures displayed a significant sensitivity to spatial issues - and this territorial neural wiring has evolved in humans to such an extent that a tiny invasion of space on the highway can become an emotional issue," he says. "Our brains are wired for territoriality, so we overreact to minor infringements to the point where people feel like killing each other." Even infants, confronted by in-your-face behaviour, turn away - prompting a reduction in heart rate, blood pressure and sweating. There are documented cases, too, of schizophrenic episodes triggered by space invasion.

Hardwired though it may be, the parameters of personal space vary wildly from culture to culture. High-

contact societies in southern Europe adopt far closer speaking proximities, and in Latin America, Japan and parts of sub-Saharan Africa such as Nigeria, the average size of the bubble vanishes to almost nothing. Religious and traditional restrictions on contact between the sexes merely complicates the issue further. Differing attitudes to body odour have been cited to explain the differences, but urban overcrowding seems to be a central explanation.

"The classic case is Japan," says Givens. "There, you have to withdraw into yourself and ignore violations of territoriality because there are just too many folks: you can't get upset if people are brushing against you in the subway or sitting too close to you in the Japanese bath. That's a cultural solution to a phenomenon, overcrowding, which is biologically unnatural and extremely recent on an evolutionary scale."

The embarrassing cross-cultural misunderstandings that can ensue are documented with relish by Roger Axtell in his painstaking survey of body language around the world, Gestures. "There is a 'dance' done by an American or European freshly arrived in Latin America who is confronted by a sudden and startling custom of closeness," he writes. "The first reaction of the visitor is to step backward. But the Latin will follow. So the visitor steps back again. The Latin follows. And so it goes, in a poorly choreographed tango."

Misunderstandings of the etiquette of space don't always take such lighthearted forms as the "Latin tango". Apart from air and road rage, Sommer cites the notorious case of Bernhard Goetz, the self-styled "vigilante" who shot three youths on the New York subway in 1984. They had threatened him - but only after he'd violated their personal zones by sitting unnecessarily close by. "If you have a small space bubble and you go into a bar and sit what you consider an appropriate distance from someone with a larger space bubble, watch out," Sommer says. "There could be trouble."

Copyright Guardian Newspapers Ltd. 1999


Micro Expression Master

Micro Expression Master

If You Could Read Everyone Life A Book You Can Have Better Career, Great Relationships And Become Successful. This Book Is One Of The Most Valuable Resources In The World When It Comes To Reading the smallest and tiniest body Language and know what people are thinking about.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment