Updated 13 October 2020

This is how you know someone is flirting with you – according to science

A study analysed what flirting actually looks like and what men look at in women.

  • Flirting is an important part of initiating sexual interaction
  • A study identified three top cues women give when flirting that are easily identified by men
  • They are distinct from happy or neutral facial expressions

Is that cute barista at your local coffee shop flirting with you or just being nice for tips? Whether you're a suave Casanova or awkward yeti, the delicate flirting landscape can be daunting to navigate.

Unfortunately, the topic isn't very well-researched by science, and has been relegated to the realms of magazine advice columns.

Researchers from the University of Kansas, however, wanted to dissect what exactly constitutes flirting, and how it specifically affects men in new research published in The Journal of Sex Research

For them, the key to figuring out whether fireworks are exploding inside a woman lies in her face.

READ | What matters most to online daters? 

Flirting can vary

The study involved analysing facial cues in women while they were flirting to see which is the most common – even though the morphology of these cues did differ quite a bit among women.

The women were either actors or volunteers from the community, and were asked to spontaneously exhibit how they would act when flirting with someone in a social situation. Some were also asked to mimic facial cues gleaned from anthropological literature. 

Some of the top cues included:

  • Head turned to one side and tilted down slightly
  • A slight smile 
  • Eyes turned forward toward the implied target

They then used these top cues in experimental studies, which analysed to what extent they evoked associations with sex and relationship.

READ MORE | Dating, sex and HIV – what can you do and what can't you? 

Not all adept

Not all the women were equally adept at conveying these flirting cues, while some men in the study picked up on them much more quickly than others.

“Across our six studies, we found most men were able to recognise a certain female facial expression as representing flirting,” says Omri Gillath, co-writer of the study.

“It has a unique morphology, and it’s different from expressions that have similar features – for example, smiling – but isn't identified by men as a flirting expression.”

For social and behavioural scientists, this study shows how important flirtatious expression is in communication and mating initiation.

READ | The modern love story and the problems with online dating

Image credit: Pixabay


Live healthier

Lifestyle »

E-cigarettes: Here are five things to know

E-cigarettes have become hugely popular in the past decade, but a rash of vaping-linked deaths and illnesses in the US is feeding caution about a product that's already banned in some places.

Allergy »

Ditch the itch: Researchers find new drug to fight hives

A new drug works by targeting an immune system antibody called immunoglobulin E, which is responsible for the allergic reaction that causes hives.