mise à jour du
3 août 2008
1978 41:346-35
The Nonverbal Basis of Attraction:
Flirtation, Courtship, and Seduction
David B. Givens
On Yawning or the hidden sexuality of the human yawn
Yawning Mannerism of speech and gestures in evryday life Feldman S


ACCORDING to a familiar phrase, the "language" of love is universal. Recent ethological studies of nonlinguistic communication in courtship using facial expression, gesture, posture, distance, paralanguage, and gaze have begun to establish that a universal, culture-free, nonverbal sign system may exist (EiblEibesfeldt, 1975), which is available to all persons for negotiating sexual relationships. The nonverbal mode, more powerful than the verbal for expressing such fundamental contingencies in social relationships as liking, disliking, superiority, timidity, fear, and so on, appears to be rooted firmly in man's zoological heritage (Bateson, 1966, 1968). Paralleling a vertebrate-wide plan, human courtship expressivity often relies on nonverbal signs of submissiveness (meekness, harmlessness) and affiliation (willingness to form a social bond). Adoption of a submissiveaffiliative social pose enables a person to convey an engaging, nonthreatening image that tends to attract potential mates. This report explores several conspicuous nonlinguistic cues that appear to be used widely in contexts of flirtation, courtship, and seduction. The expressive units are discussed from the standpoint of their occurrence in five phases of courtship, and are ifiustrated by four cases.
Courting encounters between unacquainted adults often progress through discrete phases of attention, recognition, interaction, sexual arousal, and resolution. Time spent within a given stage may vary; for example, some couples may skip the attention phase altogether, while others might never graduate from the stage of interac;tion. However, within each phase the nonlinguistic behaviors tend to be consistent. To illustrate, we might follow a hypothetical couple meeting for the first time during lunch through a complete progression.
Attention Phase
Suppose that a woman, alone at a cafeteria table, is joined by a strange man who takes the seat diagonally across from her. They may acknowledge one another and nod civilly, then quickly break contact and begin to eat lunch privately as noninteracting individuals. Although the imagined women reads as she eats and does not glance at him, the man may find that he is attracted by certain attention-soliciting features. Her long hair, the colorful soft and fitted clothing, the slightly rouged cheeks, the dark lashes and scented cologne may appeal to him and stimulate his interest in her. Feeling somewhat timid and reluctant to speak in the presence of the attractive stranger, perhaps because, as Crook (1972) has suggested, men generally are hesitant to approach without some indication of interest from the partner, he may begin to perform a series of unwitting-though conspicuous-body movements and expressions. First, he may orient his body toward the partner but refrain from looking at her, instead allowing his gaze to sweep repeatedly back and forth across her field of view. The head movements, visible peripherally to the partner, and interpreted as being in some way addressed to her, may occasion a reserved and somewhat suspicious glance toward him. A tentative and very brief period of mutual gaze, broken by downward eye aversion, may follow, during which the man perhaps would smile ambivalently, "head-toss" (tilt the head abruptly backward and shake it laterally; cf. Benjamin and Creider, 1975), and perform a hand-tobody automanipulation.
The anxiety level in the man presumably would be high-psychosocial stress, generated by simultaneous tendencies to approach and to avoid the partner, would be evident in such visible activities as yawning, stretching, and automanipulating, and in an overall accelerated tempo in behavior. For instance, stretching, extending the arms maximally, often toward the partner, or flexing and raising the arms and protruding the chest, along with yawning and gazing away laterally, thight occur several times during the attention phase, prior to speaking. Automanipulation-scratching,'djusting clothing, touching the face or neck, fingering the hair-would tend to increase in frequency due to the close proximity of the attractive but unknown companion.
All of these "displacement-like" activities (Displacement activities, out-of-context behaviors related to sleeping, eating, grooming, breathing, and so on, can occur in socially tense settings in a variety of vertebrate forms. Largely unexplained, they have been observed in human neonates, infants, and adults in contexts of uncertainty, where concurrent approach and avoidance tendencies seem to be present (Givens, 1978b) may function as unwitting and covert attentional cues in courtship settings, because they can be interpreted by receivers, nonconsciously, as signs that their presence in some way affects the performer. Many automanipulative behaviors, for instance, may function dually to console the user (by redirecting orienting energies inward, away from the stressing partner, such as when sucking a finger, mouthing a hand, or clasping the body; cf. Grand, 1977), as well as to improve the user's appearance (e.g., hairpreening, sock-preening, tie-straightening; Scheflen, 1965). Human beings, in the manner of their primate relatives, seem to be very close observers of companions, and although the information expressed in kinesic phenomena is usually out of conscious awareness, it can be expected to influence one's orientation toward unacquainted partners.
The essence of the attention phase in courtship is ambivalence-tentative and hesitant approach. Potential courters may be expected to emit nonverbal cues which indicate conflicting psychosocial orientations. Tendencies to draw near and to avoid may be communicated simultaneously as, for example, by ambivalent smiles (pouting, compressing the lips, or showing the tongue while smiling) and by sidelong glances. Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1975) has found that actions such as gaze-lowering, smiling, vacillation in gazing at and gazing away, and hand-to-face automanipulations occur in contexts of flirtation in a variety of Western and non-Western cultures. Such apparently ambivalent courting-related behaviors may have a panhuman distribution. Overall, the initial pose in courtship appears to be somewhat childlike. The same automanipulations, displacement-like activities, coy gaze patterns, and demure facial expressions are typical of young children in their own shy and ambivalent confrontations with strange adults (Blurton Jones, 1967; Stern and Bender, 1974; Benjamin and Creider, 1975). In courtship, adults seem momentarily to adopt childlike poses, and to perform what Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1971) has termed "infantile appeals" (p. 152) to elicit affectionate responses.
Recognition Phase
Suppose now that the hypothetical woman, covertly aware of the man's readiness to interact, initiates a response. She might discourage or cut off social contact completely by orienting her body away from him and withholding gaze. Or she might stare at him, blank-faced, without smiling, or stifi more aversively, she could tilt her head backward disdainfully, and compress the lips or protrude the tongue subtly ("tongue-show," to imply reserve; Smith, Chase and Lieblich, 1974) to indicate definitely that contact would be unwelcome. Such negative responses predictably would dampen the man's eagerness to interact, and he might at this time abandon the courting presentation.
On the other hand, the woman could respond with availability signals of her own. She could orient the body toward the man, gaze at him, raise the brows, smile, touch her face, and avert the gaze demurely downward. She might "toss" her head flirtatiously while returning his gaze, and like the man, she could stretch, yawn, protrude the chest, self-groom, and perform ambivalent smiles, all of which would tend to encourage further displays in the partner. Often during the recognition phase degrees of postural immobility are apparent; social anxiety sometimes is so magnified that participants may "freeze" after an embarrassing period of mutual gaze. The freezing phenomenon, a mammal-wide response to fearful stimuli, is evident as a social response in the human by four weeks of age (Givens, 1978c). Immobility can be seen frequently in the beginning phases of courtship, where it can cue the receiver that the partner will not be likely to behave aggressively should interactive advances be made. Another indicator of psychological stress, rapid eyeblink rate (Appel, McCarron, and Manning, 1968), may underlie a self-consciously stylized eyelash-batting sometimes seen in this phase.
Evident submissiveness appears to be a key message during the recognition phase. While behaviors such as smiling, gazing-at, brow-raising, and bodily orientation can communicate a willingness to interact, various submissive activities, coincident with these, can convey that the prospective partner need not anticipate hostile nor overly dominant reactions to social overtures. As in many vertebrate species, human shows of aggressiveness can frighten and drive partners away. By disclaiming dominance with submissive gestures, the courter grants to receivers an implicit permission to approach. Kendon (1975) has described certain female characteristics which may function in this way to reassure the male partner:
In approaching her ... the male must not only be sexually interested, but must at the same time be reassured that the female wifi not be aggressive to him. Certain characteristics of females, such as relative hairlessness, smooth complexion and voice tone which have a childlike character may contribute to this. They may also serve to dispose the male toward caretaking and protective behaviors which are important, not only as a reassurance to the female that she also will not be attacked upon approach by the male, but also in regard to the role that the male will play in relation to the offspring that are the likely outcome of a successful courtship. [pp. 328-329]
Featured as submissive-like movements in the recognition phase are elements from a culturally widespread shoulder-shrugging composite first described by Charles Darwin in his classic work, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). In another study (Givens, 1977a) I found that, in children and adults, shrugging units (which include lateral head-tilt, brow raise, pouted or opened mouth, raised or flexed shoulders, tightly adducted-pulled in-ward-upper arms, raised forearms, and upwardly opened palms) could be used to negotiate encounters submissively, to allay offensive or assertive responses in addressees. Many elements of the shrugging complex may be homologous to activities described in a primate-wide "clamping" reflex (McGraw, 1943). In courtship, partners frequently can be observed to tilt their heads, and to raise or flex the shoulders prominently as they engage one another socially, prior to verbal conversation. Scheflen (1965) has observed one element of the shrugging complex, "head-cocking," in courting contexts; Kendon and Ferber (1973) and Key (1975) have found lateral head-tilts to be more prevalent in women than men during periods of greeting, implying that it may communicate a submissivelike stance. Another element, pouting the lips, seems to have become a culturally stylized courtship sign in some Western European countries; it, too, can be used to establish a subordinate position vis-à-vis receivers.
Other submissive postures in this phase can include patterns of self-clasping, such as joining the hands, grasping the neck, holding the upper anns or forearms, and folding the arms tightly into the abdominal area. In adults and children (and monkeys, according to Suomi, 1977) such tightly flexed, adducted, self-clinging postures can be observed as signs of meekness in a great variety of stressful settings. Gaze-aversion downward is another submissive unit with an early childhood ontogeny (facing downward may occur even in congenitally blind children in embarrassing situations; Pitcairn and Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1976). In several ostensibly courting encounters I have seen rather complicated displays of meekness in men and women often performed in unison, consisting of mutual gaze followed, in order, by (1) downward eye aversion, (2) smiling, (3) clasping the hands, (4) stretching the arms outward, (5) raising and flècing the shoulders, (6) tilting the head, (7) yawning, and (8) rotating the feet inward'to a "pigeon-toe" position. Identical movement configurations can be seen in nursery-
school-age children as they interact shyly with potentially threatening adults. In mature individuals the full performance may be brief-and subtle-but is evidently definite enough to convey courtship readiness. Sociologist Peter Blau (1974) has stated, "Flirting involves largely the expression of attraction ... designed to elicit some commitment from the other in advance of making a serious commitment oneself" (p. 227). The submissive-like nonverbal behaviors may be available in this respect as covert indicators or mood signs of a commitment to respond.
Interaction Phase
If the partner has been assessed favorably the man or woman may initiate verbal conversation. Speaking, or more broadly, linguistic-like contact-which would include American Sign Language, writing, using mutually unintelligible languages, and so on-appears to be essential if courtship is to proceed. However, the speech topic itself seems to be quite irrelevant to the formation of the bond. Even a highly technical scientific or political discussion, from a nonverbal point of view, can be carried on flirtatiously. The two levels of communication-rational and personal-can be managed concurrently. One might be led from the apparent contrast here between man and beast to yet another facetious defmition of Homo sapiens: the only animal that can talk and court at the same time.
During the interaction phase, behavior would continue to be highly animated and submissive. Emotional tension, often pronounced in dealings with strangers, (In a study of galvanic skin responses, for example, McBride, Kin, and James (1965) have found that anxiety in subjects increases as they are approached by strangers. The possibly innate, infantile "fear of strangers" phenomenon (Emde, Gaensbauer, and Harmon, 1976) may continue to operate partially or vestigially in adulthood.) may increase as the interaction becomes focused and magnified in speech. Speaking seems to require an intensified vis-à-vis relationship that includes sustained periods of gaze contact, heightened responsivity to the partner, and what Goffman has called "social jeopardy." Regarding the latter, Goffman (1967) has stated, "By saying something, the speaker opens himself up to the possibility that the intended recipients will affront him by not listening or will think him forward, foolish, or offensive in what he has said" (p. 37). By speaking, the courter "exposes" the self and assumes a socially vulnerable position. In one sense the linguistic act represents a wager that the unacquainted partner's evident willingness to interact has been judged correctly. Rejection by the one being courted would likely be more painful than rejection by a stranger.
Heightened anxiety would be evident in the generally accelerated behavioral tempo. Preening, head-tossing, clearing the throat, stretching, yawning, and other displacement-like activities might occur more frequently and rapidly, especially at the beginning of speaking turns, when "jeopardy" would be marked. The partners might respond to one another in exaggerated ways-for example, by using overly emphatic head-nods of agreement, vigorous hand-arm gestures, and loud laughter.' Finally, there might be close synchrony in body movements and gaze patterns. Keenly aware of one another and anxious for clues as to the effects, good or bad, they may be having, the bodies of the partners might appear to anticipate and "dance" to each other's rhythms (Condon and Ogston, 1966).
Despite its fast-paced tempo, the distinctive mood of the interaction phase of courtship is submissive. The partners can be expected to speak in voices that are lower in volume, softer, and higher pitched than normal, a tone of voice used by adults when speaking to young children or to animals. The oversoft, high-pitched voice, clearly nonthreatening, would be less likely to frighten or to disquiet timid receivers. During courtship, gaze contact may continue to be broken by looking downward or by lowering the eyes, although periods spent in mutual gaze may begin to lengthen as anxiety decreases somewhat. And shouldershrugging units-lateral head-tilts, shoulder-flexing and shoulder-raising, upwardrotated palm gestures-may continue to be conspicuous while the partners are speaking and listening.
Sexual-arousal Phase
If the courting union survives the first stages, and the partners achieve some measure of compatibility, they may begin to exchange a series of caring and affectionate gestures such as those found in the caregiver-child relationship. The imaginary couple may now leave the cafeteria, together, to begin a liaison-a mating tandem-that is less public. Barriers to physical closeness have begun to relax in this phase, and tentatively at first, touching, stroking, caressing, massaging, playing with the other's hands, all behaviors that may be observed in the earliest parental responses to the neonate, begin to be exchanged. Paralinguistically, speech continues in a soft and high-pitched manner; semantically, it may be well stocked with childcare metaphors (e.g., "baby," "sugar daddy," "little lady," "babe"), and pet names (e.g., "cutie," "dollie," "sweetie").. Even varieties of baby talk may be used.' The partners can be expected to give and receive certain activities related to breastfeeding. Nuzzling, licking, sucking, playful biting, kissing, and so on, which appear to have a broad geographical distribution as sexually meaningful signs, can be used to communicate the emotional intimacy that is preequisite to sexual intercourse. Kissing has been interpreted as a form of ritualized mouth-feeding; it may also represent a form of mutual suckling. Nuzzling behaviors, such as' nose-rubbing among the Copper Eskimo and face-rubbing among the Gahuku Gama of New Guinea, can be regarded as cultural embellishments of infantile behaviors. Grooming activities may occur-such as fixing the other's hair, straightening and adjusting clothing, picking off lint, back-rubbing, buttoning and zipping the partner's clothing-once again in a manner that is highly suggestive of parental child-tending. Finally, there may be carrying and clutching activities, such as hand-holding, embracing, hugging, clinging, and sometimes even carrying (across thresholds, into bodies of water, and so on, possibly as a form of mock dominance), all of which can be found in parenting and courting contexts as expressions of warmth and attachment.
During the sexual-arousal phase there may be periods of en face eye-to-eye contact. Once more-as in the earliest motherinfant interactions, when the en face position is a prominent feature (Givens, 1978d)-lovers typically will gaze at one another "meaningfully" at very close quarters: mutual gaze will be sustained and will be performed with the eyes aligned and the facial planes positioned in parallel. From an optical standpoint the en face configuration, with its mirror-image symmetry, would facilitate maximal perception of the partner's eyes and facial expressions so that nonverbal communication would be intensified.
Generally, behavioral tempo in sexual arousal would be slower than in previous phases. The meeting would proceed gently and leisurely. A drawling, overslow style of paralanguage, with a baby-talk metaphor, might be evident. In courtship at this stage the partners would be relaxed and intensely attentive to one another, almost in a parental way. The tender exchange of nurturing signs would function to unite the pair physically and emotionally to a point where they may proceed. easily to sexual intercourse.
Resolution Phase
As a sexual signaling system, courtship fulfills itself in copulation. The human reproductive act, potentially an interesting entity for ethological study, will not be discussed in this report, except to say that afterward the couple's relationship may abruptly change. Almost immediately upon completion of the sexual union a social distancing occurs. The participants may sleep, take leave of one another, become involved in separate activities, and so on. The point is that after attaining the copulatory stage, courtship activities may suddenly cease, and the couple may experience a spacing effect, a period of physical and psychosocial separation.
After the resolution period, with its characteristically very personal, usually yentrum-to-ventrum, copulatory position, the couple may begin to behave as an established pair, without the fanfare of courtship signaling evident in the attention, recognition, and interaction phases. Established couples tend to become rather inactive nonverbally. Because sexual closeness need not be negotiated, and the partners may move more easily into the sexual-arousal and resolution phases, flirting may become redundant and unnecessary, although it may be kept up temporarily as a matter of form. To the dismay of many married people, courtship seems to be only a temporary relationship that occurs between the first meetings and intercourse. After resolution, courting signals may become scarce.