Working up the confidence to initiate conversation with a total stranger is hard. What if he doesn’t reciprocate your interest? What if he’s got a girlfriend? What if he doesn’t speak English? Now you’re stuck leaving a conversation with someone who still doesn’t know why you came over and will probably think uncool things about you in a different language. Then what?

Flirting isn’t an exact science. There’s bound to be pitfalls, most of which come from your own body. Your pulse will quicken, you’ll start sweating a tiny bit (or a lot, I don’t know you), and once-dormant butterflies will take flight in your dark, bile-filled stomach. At least you’re smiling. Smiling is good.

There’s a lot (clearly) that can go wrong. Thankfully, most of it is within your control, which means there’s also a lot that can go right. Here’s the negative side of keeping a positive attitude toward flirting.

The Don’ts

5. Don’t assume you’re being obvious

You’re probably not as much of an open book as you think. Sorry, it’s just Science. People have this fickle habit of succumbing to what’s known as a signal amplification bias. Basically, they think other people can easily pick up on how they feel and react accordingly. Only, a much smaller percentage of that comes across in their body language, speech patterns, and overall vibe. What they see as smooth-as-silk charm could just easily be construed as basic kindness. What’s more, chances are the person they’re talking to is thinking the exact same thing.

Instead, be direct — not obtuse, but not coy either. Communicate your feelings when they count. At least then you’ll understand why the person stopped talking to you.

4. Don’t use a wingman

…or wingwoman. Wingpeople? Whatever. The point is, outsiders aren’t any better at recognizing what flirting looks like.

Last year, psychologists from the University of Kansas showed 250 people short video clips of people interacting. When asked if the people in the videos were flirting, the subjects guessed correctly just 38 percent of the time. Friendly conversation seemed like the precursor to pillow talk and actual romancing might as well have been idle chitchat about the weather.

If there’s a silver lining, it leans toward the Y chromosome. Statistically speaking, women were easier to judge as flirts than men were. Women guessed correctly only 22 percent of the time that men were flirting, but both men and women performed better identifying when women were flirting. So, if you bring a wingperson, just be ready for some mixed signals. They might steer you away from your gut instincts.

3. Don’t focus on physical attractiveness

This is more of a guideline for men, the sex that doesn’t worry about getting dolled up so much as projecting dominance and power. (Never mind that sometimes that message gets sent through a bejeweled t-shirt.) As far as science is concerned, a focus on looks is a red herring, not to mention kind of a waste of time. Our friends at the University of Kansas approached the problem in 2008. In a trio of studies, they found the strategies men used, including their level of explicitness and social affiliations predicted more chemistry between men and women, than how much they looked classically hunky.

This isn’t to say looks don’t matter. They just don’t matter the most. For instance, consider the next piece of advice…

2. Don’t be pale-faced

Let the evolutionary biologists rejoice.

There’s a mountain of research to suggest the color of your skin plays a role in how attractive you seem — not necessarily your race, but the relative lightness and darkness compared to your baseline. One thing scientists and anthropologists have noticed, surprisingly, is a heightened attraction when people’s faces are slightly pink. “In a range of non-human primate, bird and fish species, the intensity of red coloration in males is associated with social dominance, testosterone levels, and mate selection,” wrote a team of researchers in a 2012 report.

In humans, redness bears a certain meaning depending on the shade of red. Deep red faces signal aggression, intermediate reds signal dominance, and light red conveys vitality, which we interpret (apparently) as dead sexy. If you can help it, stay a little flushed. Maybe your crippling embarrassment can help with that.

1. Don’t be quiet and brooding

Unless you’re a causeless rebel, you probably shouldn’t base your flirting techniques off the idea that strong and silent types are the ones who seal deals. Even introverts, in their withdrawn and pensive way, are encouraged to embrace the philosophies of “space maximization,” the notion that being as large and open as possible, in order to command authority, is how you go about “getting that female glance,” as one 2004 study awkwardly put it.

Dominant males (even in 2015) “who exhibit more space-maximization movements will be more successful with females than will males who exhibit less space-maximization movements,” the authors predicted. The same goes for open- versus closed-body positions, frenetic hand motions while speaking, and “intrasexual touch,” which is the ability to make non-threatening contact that signals interest.

Be gregarious and be conscious of the nonverbal messages you’re sending in the process. They can matter even more.


On second thought, maybe you shouldn’t feel nervous about talking to the disinterested, committed, non-English-speaking person you’re pining after. The quicker you get the intel that they’re off the market (or at least out of your price range), the more disarmed you should feel. Why not take the opportunity to practice not being pale-faced? Or maybe you could work on talking with your hands more — provided you don’t gesticulate so wildly that you knock over a passing server.

By the time you’ve faced a thousand rejections, you’ll be a pro at rejecting other people. Or, if the mood happens to strike you just right, you could open your cold and jaded heart and actually be genuine, on the off chance it’ll work. Nothing beats love at first sight quite like the reluctant small talk of two people just trying to get by.