Here’s a trick to try out on your next date: During dinner, start playing with something on your side of the table like the salt shaker or the candle. After a little while, gently push it over to the other side of the table. Now watch what happens: If your date pushes it back to your side of the table, s/he’s just not that into you. If they leave it, or play with it, it’s called mirroring—one of the many unconscious ways we display our interest in someone.
Welcome to the world of flirting where subtle body language speaks volumes and where first impressions are usually right. Are you aware of the signals you’re sending?
In his new book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell explores the power of first impressions. In it, he argues that each of us has an “adaptive unconscious,” which he calls our “24/7 mental valet,” that makes instant decisions within the first two seconds of looking at somebody or something. It’s all about learning to correctly recognize and manage those first impressions.
One of his early examples is speed-dating, where men and women decide whether they’d like to see each person again after brief conversations. Interestingly, he finds that most participants are able to make their decision almost immediately—in much less than the allotted time. A University of Pennsylvania study of more than 10,000 speed-daters supports this: People “are able to judge each others potential compatibility within moments of meeting,” says assistant professor Robert Kurzban.
Saying “I Do” comes with a lot more questions these days: Many of our father’s didn’t wear wedding rings, but our friends do. Guys, will you wear a wedding ring? And for women, more and more brides are keeping their maiden names. Will you take your husband’s name, keep yours or do a mix of both? And what does that say about your marriage?
Should a married man wear a wedding ring?
Should a woman take her husband’s last name?
Have you/would you change your name or wear a wedding ring—and why?
What would you prefer that your partner do—and why?
According to psychologists who study interpersonal interactions, more than 90% of the impression we get from someone comes from their body language, tone, speed and inflection of voice. For years I’ve tested this out at restaurants and bars, and found it to be remarkably true: In that first minute when a guy walks up to a girl, I can tell you if they are hitting it off or not without being able to hear what they are saying. Give me five minutes and I’ll tell you if they’re going to see each other again.
What gives it away? According to Susan Rabin’s bestseller 101 Ways to Flirt, men and women flirt with short, repetitive glances, by leaning in and whispering, and offering lingering smiles. Women tend to lick their lips and toss their head when flirting, and men tend to square their shoulders, stroke their tie and raise their eyebrows.
Evolutionary biologists see it as a dance: After the first few minutes, the man will reach into the woman’s space (a variation on the saltshaker test) and will unconsciously note her reaction. If she flinches, he retreats. If she doesn’t, she’s comfortable having him near her. Then, if she’s interested, the woman will make first physical contact by lightly touching his arm or brushing against him.
Sometimes, of course, just getting introduced is difficult: Flirting guides advise men and women to stand apart from their friends to make themselves approachable on the theory that it’s more intimidating to insert yourself into a tightly-knit group than it is to casually chat up someone standing alone at the bar. BustedHalo readers seem to agree. Only 38% of BustedHalo male readers and 23% of BustedHalo female readers said they would introduce themselves to a group of people so they could talk to one person in particular.
For those who are bold enough to infiltrate the group, Paul, 28, says the rewards are high. “It’s kinda like you’re on stage, but if you do it well, all the girls are really impressed. It shows you are the type of guy who has courage and would rather try and fail than not try at all.”
But what about the things we say? The first question a lot of people ask is “So, what do you do?” BustedHalo readers say what you do for a living—and how you talk about it—makes a powerful first impression.
A close friend of mine is in private equity, and she hates announcing that at a cocktail party. “It’s a conversation killer,” she says. I’ve done a few personal experiments with this: I’m a social historian and researcher, a writer, and a teacher, and I’ve “street tested” each job description. Saying I’m a teacher seems to go over best. Perhaps that’s because of the nurturing, helpful connotations we associate with teaching?
If some snap judgments about people’s occupations are neutral or positive, Jeff, a 34-year-old youth minister, argues they can also be negative. He says a woman’s job will tell him a lot about her personality—and might send some warning signs: “I know that if I met a woman who seemed to be awesome in every aspect except that I find out she is an exotic dancer, abortionist, tobacco lobbyist, etc. it would certainly cause me to hesitate in pursing a romantic relationship with her.”
Normally we’re not conscious of how we flirt, or the process by which we come to instant judgments. But try some of these tricks—and if it doesn’t drive you crazy and make you even more self-conscious than usual, it will certainly make for fun post-date debriefs with your friends! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your
flirting and first-impression stories. And share your thoughts for my next column in the sidebar on the right: Should she change her name—and should he wear a wedding ring?