When it comes to flirting in the hopes of finding The One, what works? The direct approach, “Hey, I couldn’t help but notice your beautiful eyes?” Subtle glances? Playing hard to get? These were among my questions as I headed out on a field trip with Dr. Helen Fisher, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, author of Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, and Chief Scientific Advisor for chemistry.com. Dr. Fisher has devoted her career to understanding human mating rituals—and her knowledge applies perfectly, she says, to today’s pickup scene. “Even in this modern age, humans adhere to courtship strategies that are as old as the hills, and used throughout the animal kingdom,” adds Fisher. And that’s why she and I headed out for a night of café- and bar-hopping, to observe what works (and what doesn’t) when it comes to mingling and the human mating call. Six hours, two coffee shops, and one (or was it two?) bars later, we had some interesting findings. Come along with us as we make the rounds—and learn!
Destination #1: The classic coffee bar for flirting how-to’s
Our first stop: Starbucks. To me, the woman in the green shirt is sipping a cappuccino and catching up with friends. But in Helen Fisher’s eyes, something much more primordial is happening: The woman in green is on the hunt, and has already staked out her quarry—a tall man in a blue-checkered button-down sitting next to her.
“See how her body’s twisted toward him in the ‘crouch’ position, with her hands near her face when she laughs?” Fisher whispers to me as she sips her chai latte. “It’s the ‘broken wing’ tactic. She’s sending a subtle signal his way that says, ‘protect me.’ Men love that.” Indeed, Fisher says that secret signals of sexual attraction are at work whenever people mingle. The way you sit down with your cappuccino or Corona begins the courtship dance. “The first thing all animals do when attempting to find a mate is to set up their territory,” says Fisher. People who place laptops on their table or their coat and bags on a chair next to them, she explains, are attempting to carve out a perimeter so they can proceed to the next stage of courtship: attracting attention.
“Notice how that guy’s stirring his drink with his entire arm?” Fisher points out. “He’d never bother to do that at home.” The man then casually stretches his arms back in a gesture Fisher calls the ‘chest thrust,’ to appear as large and formidable as possible. “Pretty much all courtship postures fall into two categories: attempts to look big and attempts to look little,” she explains. Traditionally, men generally try to look big, or ‘loom,’ while women try to look small, or ‘crouch.’ The direction someone’s feet are pointing can also convey interest: Smitten women turn pigeon-toed; men pivot outward. “Feet can be a real giveaway,” says Helen. “People are quite conscious of their body and hands, but forget to control their feet.”
So, how do hopeful singles transition from a ‘loom’ or ‘crouch’ to an actual pounce? For women, Fisher suggests trying the tried-and-true ‘five-part flirt.’ “You catch someone’s eye, cock your head to the side, raise your eyebrows, look down, then away,” she explains, adding that women are usually more socially adept than men and thus better at initiating courtship. But at some point, she observes, a transfer must happen: In other words, the man has to pick up the ball and make his move.
Destination #2: A quirkier coffee bar for connection lessons
Dr. Fisher and I decide to move along to a coffee bar with more of a lounge-around atmosphere. Here, we observed some more mating rituals: “See those two girls over there? I think they want to be picked up,” Dr. Fisher says, nodding toward two bubbly twenty-somethings in cool, dressed-down clothes and knit caps, who are sitting in the corner of Grey Dog’s Coffee. While hardly dressed to impress, the two young women are nonetheless employing a different courtship strategy called “handicapping.” “They’re saying, ‘I’m so cool I don’t have to show off,’” Dr. Fisher explains.
While four men seated nearby can’t help but notice the two giggly girls, no one works up the guts to break the ice, and their reluctance is understandable: After all, what can you say to a complete stranger that won’t come off as corny? Fisher suggests trying questions (“Excuse me, do you know a good place around here to grab dinner?”) and compliments (“That’s a great laptop case. Where’d you get it?”) since both require a response and get you engaged in the next stage of courtship: ‘grooming talk.’ “It’s called ‘grooming talk’ because it really doesn’t matter what you say,” Fisher says simply. “If someone’s interested in you, they’ll keep talking.”
As the conversation heats up, a behavior called “mirroring” can kick in, says Dr. Fisher, furthering the connection. When mirroring, couples sip their coffee or cross their legs in unison, subtly mimicking each other’s movements. “It’s a very powerful way to develop rapport, since it actually helps your brain waves get in synch,” Dr. Fisher explains.
Singles should also keep an eye out for ‘intention gestures.’ “Basically that means the other person wants to touch you, but since she's not sure if you’re receptive, she'll rub her own arm or leg,” says Fisher.
We notice a couple in the corner, plying one another with forkfuls of cake. This is more mating in action, says Dr. Fisher. To further forge a bond, couples may engage in ‘courtship feeding’—each offering the other a sip of tea or a bite of his or her food. “Nuptial gifts of food are common among many animal species,” Dr. Fisher notes. “When a male chimpanzee offers a female a piece of sugar cane, she’ll copulate with him and then eat the sugar cane. Humans don’t move that quickly, but we all know there’s no such thing as a free lunch!”
While both men and women respond similarly to many courtship cues, one area where they’re wired very differently is eye contact. To prove her point, Fisher gestures towards a man who’s moved his chair so he can sit next to a woman rather than across from her. “That’s because while women gain intimacy from face-to-face interactions, men would rather avoid it—they find it uncomfortable, even invasive,” she explains. The reason for this dates back to the dawn of mankind, when males were forced to face their enemies, but sat side by side with their friends. It’s also why, these days, men love nothing more than sitting at a bar with their buddies watching the Rams vs. the Redskins, while women love nothing more than staring into their amour’s eyes over a candlelit dinner. “When couples fight over these types of differences, they’re also fighting millions of years of evolution,” Dr. Fisher explains. “Men and women are fundamentally different in many ways, and nothing’s going to change that overnight.”
Destination #3: A busy bar on Friday night for the laws of mating
We decide to see how the courtship dance looks when in a more ‘intense’ pick-up environment—a bar called Peep. As we sit down, Dr. Fisher points out that clearly, the couple sitting next to us is in love. They’re mirroring each other’s movements, ‘courtship feeding’ off each other’s cocktails, and displaying other tell-tale signs of a honeymoon period. Even so, their mating dance is far from over, says Dr. Fisher. At this point, keeping the person they’ve got, or ‘mate guarding,’ becomes a priority, and this pair illustrates this principal perfectly. “Now, normally the man would offer the woman the seat against the wall to signal he’s protecting her,” says Dr. Fisher. “But in this case, he’s in the back seat and she’s sitting facing him with her back to the room. It could be due to what she’s wearing.” The clothes in question? A camisole with a plunging neckline that, had the woman been seated facing the crowd, would have probably had every guy in the vicinity eyeing her. “By dressing that way, she’s asking to be mate guarded,” Dr. Fisher explains. “And maybe that’s why he took the back seat: so she attracts less attention.” Such displays of possessiveness are hardly unnecessary or “Neanderthal,” as some people might put it. One recent study found that 60 percent of men and 53 percent of women admitted to ‘mate poaching,’ a practice of stealing partners who are already taken. While it’s distressing to think that someone we love could be so easily ensnared by new prospects, Dr. Fisher points out that a little competition also pushes us to become more caring, attentive, and in short, better mates.
In fact, as we look across the bar, we see this principle in action: A woman in a slinky tank top, jeans, and stilettos who’s flirting with two men. “She’s giving them equal attention,” Dr. Fisher notes. “Since she obviously hasn’t made up her mind which one she likes, both of those men are working really hard.” We head home before finding out which man, if either, wins in the end. But it gets me wondering: Does courtship really boil down to winners and losers? Is the game of love really that cutthroat rather than warm and fuzzy? “The game of love is not nice,” Dr. Fisher says, “but then again, you’re playing for the biggest stakes in town. Nothing is so important.” And after listening to Dr. Fisher call the play-by-play on our night out on the town, I feel like my skills are definitely ready for the high-stakes game of romance.
Judy Dutton is the executive editor of Happenmag.com and lives in Brooklyn, NY. She has contributed articles to Women’s Health, Redbook, Cosmopolitan and other national magazines.
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