You're at a party that your best friend dragged you to. You don't know anyone at this party, so you resort to just hanging out by the punch bowl with the nachos and the pretzels. At some point, a Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome saunters over to re-fill his drink and you make eye contact. He smiles. You smile back. Commence the flirting.
Like peacocks who show off their beautiful tail feathers, flirting is the human equivalent of a mating ritual. It's how we scout others members of our species as potential partners.
According to anthropologist and director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies David Givens, flirting goes back to 500 million years. Humans have been flirting with each other for that long. But just like with any ritual, it can go amazingly well or terribly awful.
To shed light on why we flirt and why some flirtation attempts don't work, Fusion talked to behavioral experts about what happens to our brains and bodies during the act.
1. You trigger your fight-or-fight instincts.
Givens says that animals have a biological distrust of other animals. When we meet other people, the amygdala in our brain jump starts, triggering our fight-or-flight instincts. But flirting helps curb that instinct.
"When you have to get males and females close together to exchange genetic material, there are signs that have evolved to show safeness and interest. These are the signs and signals that make up our flirting," he says.
2. You send attraction hormones to the other person.
The amygdala that triggers fear is part of a larger system called the limbic system. After the fear of another human being passes, the rest of our limbic system takes over, triggering our desires. Those desires may include food, love, or sex. Then, dopamine, a feel-good hormone and transmitter, is released from the brain. Thus, our bodies begin to send out non-verbal signals to the other person.
However, David Henningsen, a professor from the Department of Communication at Northern Illinois University, has studied the behavior of flirting and says, "Flirting behaviors are all about maintaining an element of ambiguity. The genius of flirting is that it's a shield."
Flirting is non-committal, allowing you to leave at any time, without hurting the other person. Likewise, if you're the one being rejected, the anterior cingulate cortex in your brain puts up a shield, sending your body a cautionary message of the possibility of rejection.
3. We send subconscious submissive body signals.
Once attraction takes over fear, your body is ready to send signals.
Givens says that one of his favorite cues is shoulder shrugging. "In courtship, you're showing a submissive stance by shrugging your shoulders. That lets the partner know you're not going to bite."
You can also:
- Talk with your palms up, as it's a gesture of friendship
- Lean toward the person of interest
- Touch your hair
- Stare deeply into their eyes
Sometimes, you're unaware of the cues your own body makes, such as a racing heart, sweaty palms, rise in blood pressure, and blushing. Nothing's wrong; your sympathetic nervous system was just triggered. You might even start mirroring each other's movements without realizing you were doing so.
Flirting is also goal-oriented, according to Henningsen. In the case above, it's about finding a potential partner. In other cases, it can be used for attention, money, favors, or just fun.
Nonetheless, it's a natural instinct and no one is perfect at it. So, go ahead and get your flirt on. And if it fails, don't sweat it.