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1. THE FIVE PHASES OF COURTSHIPOnce I’m done with kindergarten, I’m going to find me a wife.—TOM(AGE 5 )
It’s better to be looked over than overlooked.—MAE WEST
LOVE SIGNALS IS a practical field guide to the body language of courtship. It explores the nonverbal signs, signals, and cues human beings exchange to attract and keep their mates. As a medium of communication, love’s silent language predates speech by millions of years. Indeed, humans wooed in a nonverbal idiom well before they could speak. And today, despite the world’s estimated six thousand spoken languages, we still express emotions and feelings largely apart from words.The first scientific study of courtship in our species, Homo sapiens, took place in the 1960s. Using a camera with mirror lenses to film couples without disturbing them, biologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt of Germany’s Max Planck Institute documented many of the common flirting rituals seen around the world. A student of Konrad Lorenz, Eibl-Eibesfeldt wrote his doctorate, “Breeding Biology of the Common Toad,” before turning his lenses on human beings. From research in Brazil, Samoa, Paris, and other exotic field sites, Eibl-Eibesfeldt discovered a universal vocabulary of nonverbal signs used in seduction, flirtation, and courtship.Since the 1960s, thousands of research projects in archaeology, biology, anthropology, linguistics, primatology, psychology, and psychiatry have been completed, establishing a virtual dictionary of courting cues. In the 1990s, we learned a great deal more about how the body speaks its mind apart from words. Progress made in neuroscience during the 1990–2000 Decade of the Brain and afterward has provided a clearer picture of what the unspoken signs in courtship’s lexicon mean.We now know more about how the brain processes nonverbal cues. Just as the brain’s newer speech centers, for example, Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, control language, older brain areas oversee communication apart from words. Specialized circuits of the central nervous system send, receive, and process speechless signs apart from our conscious awareness.
We now know more about how the brain processes nonverbal cues.
For the 90 percent of us who are right-handed, areas of the right-brain cerebral hemisphere process nonverbal cues. Our right brain is more holistic, visuospatial, and intuitive than our left brain, which is more verbal, analytic, and rational than the right. A section in the middle of our brain called the cingulate gyrus produces nonverbal signs of emotion. We detect facial cues and hand gestures through dedicated layers of cerebral cortex located at the sides of our brain. Thanks to brain-and-behavior research, body language has come of age in the twenty-first century as a science to help us understand the hidden meanings of attraction, courtship, and love.The Nonverbal Language of LoveOur unspoken language of love is universal. The postures, gestures, and facial cues of attraction are everywhere the same, in all societies and cultures. A case in point is the en face gaze. En face is an intimate form of eye-to-eye contact between mothers and newborns. An affectionate mother moves her face to within inches of her baby’s face and positions her eyes in parallel alignment with her baby’s eyes for optimal eye contact. Her en face gaze completely captivates the newborn, stops its crying, and nurtures a strong mother-child bond. Pediatricians view en face communication as a sort of “mating dance.” Mother and child gaze in seeming rapture, synchronize their body movements, and imitate each other’s facial expressions to enhance compatibility and build rapport.En face is a worldwide courting ritual as well. Affectionate couples move their faces within inches of each other’s face, lock eyes, and gaze deeply to show their love. Figuratively, they become each other’s baby. A potent love signal, en face is as romantic and compelling in Alabama as it is in Zululand.Since the body language of courtship is universal, you needn’t speak the native tongue to attract a mate. One of the most exotic courtships I know of, between a tall, white, middle-aged New Jersey man and a short, teenage, African Pygmy, took place entirely apart from speaking. Before their engagement, neither she nor he uttered a mutually intelligible word. Gestures accomplished what conversation could not.If the language of love is universal, you might wonder why we need a field guide to decipher its cues. One reason is that people postpone marriage in favor of careers today. As a result, they have problems attracting partners who are older, wiser, busier—and choosier. Thirty-somethings are less automatically smitten than they were as youths in high school. Another reason is that divorced men and women feel out of practice. They have trouble decoding the love signals they received earlier in their teens and twenties. Many, who avoided flirting after marriage, find it hard to shift gears and flirt again. In large metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, thousands of eligible partners await the attention of complete strangers. In the past—in rural areas—people were more likely to court familiar folk who were known to be “safe.” Unacquainted couples often had matchmakers to ease them through the psychological barrier of stranger anxiety.The dating scene is different today. Urban singles find themselves surrounded by strangers. Some use video dating services, go on cruises, run personal ads in newspapers, or search the Internet. Many find that interacting with people who are unfamiliar can be uncomfortable, unpredictable, even unsafe. Is that woman sincere? Is she telling the truth? Can I trust this man? Is he genuine? Is he dangerous? What clues should I look for?Answers to these questions lie not in words, which can be deceptively manipulated, but in more candid, unedited signs from our faces, bodies, and hands. Silent messages emitted from shoulder shrugs, eyeblinks, aftershaves, eyebrows, tattoos, and toe cleavage fill the nonverbal landscape Love Signals explores. Used as a field guide to the natural history of courtship, Love Signals shows how to read beneath and between a partner’s spoken lines.
Silent messages emitted from shoulder shrugs, eyeblinks, aftershaves, eyebrows, tattoos, and toe cleavage fill the nonverbal landscape Love Signals explores.
As you will see, the body’s unspoken script reveals volumes about hidden agendas, feelings, and fears. Estimates of what percentage of our total communication is nonverbal range from 60 to 93 percent. In courtship, the percentage of emotional communication that is nonverbal exceeds 99 percent. When it comes to emotions, instead of verbalizing how we feel, our bodies do the talking.What Do Hands Say?A case in point is hands, which attract special notice in courtship. We find fingers, palms, and wrists incredibly appealing to look at. Dedicated centers in our temporal lobes, the cerebral lobes located just above our ears on either side of the brain, respond exclusively to hand shapes (Kandel, 1991). Both men and women are unconsciously alert to the physical appearance of each other’s hands and digits as well as to their expressive shapes and gestures.Showing an upraised open palm is universally friendly. Recognized around the world, this inviting hand gesture says, “You may approach.”In daily life and in art, hands are our “great communicators.” Hands stand out in Michelangelo’s sculpture of David, for example, and in his paintings on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Hands establish the contemplative mood depicted in Rodin’s masterpiece, The Thinker. Thanks to the temporal lobes, hands “speak” to us and attract almost as much notice as faces.In courtship, palm-up gestures are psychologically friendlier than palm-down cues. The palm-up gesture is part of a submissive shoulder-shrug display identified by Charles Darwin in 1872 in his classic book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Upraised palms are gestural remnants of an ancestral crouching posture, a primevally protective pose designed to be defensive rather than offensive. Neural roots of the protective crouch reach back at least five hundred million years.Women find men’s hands and wrists most attractive. In courtship, display them with rolled-up sleeves.Holding a jacket slung over the shoulder displays the masculine forearm, wrist, and hand.
In courtship, palm-up gestures are psychologically friendlier than palm-down cues.
Our closest animal relatives, the chimpanzees, greet each other with compliant, upturned palms to show “I am friendly.” For human beings everywhere, gesturing with an upraised, opened palm is a convincing and time-tested way to say “Trust me; I mean no harm.” Throughout the world, palm-up cues captivate, charm, and psychologically disarm partners who may be unsure of each other’s intentions.In contrast, presenting a palm-down gesture is aggressive. Gesturing with the palm flipped downward as you speak, which is the pronated position a hand assumes in a push-up, is like slapping a desktop for emphasis. A palm-down hand cue resembles a sumo wrestler’s ceremonial stomp in the ring. Since both gestures are assertive and emphatic, they are too forceful for courtship. Across the globe, palm-down gestures like striking a conference table to drive home a point are used to show authority and negative attitude.An example is the widespread hand wag for “No!” in which a pronated palm wags back and forth to symbolize the human head shake of refusal. Another is the Greek “double-moutza” gesture in which both palms pronate and thrust horizontally outward to say “Go to hell twice.” Aggressive, palm-down “beating” gestures make your ideas, opinions, and remarks more forceful as you speak, but they are decidedly unappealing in courtship.At a wine-tasting party, I watched as friends Toni and Karen talked to strangers Bill and Steve. The foursome stood in a circle in the tasting room, holding wineglasses in their right hands. As Toni spoke, her left hand flipped upward to show an open palm. Holding her upper arm against the side of her body, she reached the open palm outward to Bill and Steve, seeming to draw them in with her hand. As Karen spoke, she held her wineglass in two hands. Karen rarely gestured, but when she did gesticulate she dropped her left hand to a position slightly below her wineglass, flipped her palm downward, and made choppy, up-and-down motions with her fingers stiffly extended. Karen’s palm-down gestures added authority to her words but did not personally “connect” with the men.Toni’s palm-up gestures were frequent and friendly. Her left hand reached out and appealed for attention. Karen’s gestures were sporadic, emphatic, and intense. A palm was nowhere to be seen, and her hand’s jerky, batonlike motions made her seem less friendly and not as approachable. How did the men respond? Bill and Steve gave Toni noticeably more attention. They looked and smiled at her more, and head-nodded and gestured more—with palm-up cues of their own. In courtship, it goes without saying that hands make a difference.Like the sumo wrestler’s foot stomp, palm-down hand gestures are controlled subcortically by basal ganglia. The basal ganglia are primeval motor centers embedded in our brain’s cerebral hemispheres that govern a reptilian display called the high stand. Like the iguana’s push-up to seem “bigger” to rival males, our own palm-down gestures derive from the ancestral high-stand display. Down-turned palms are less attractive in courtship because they suggest power at the expense of friendliness. In the 1950s, Elvis Presley gestured with upturned palms to draw women near. The palm-down hand signals of today’s rap singers seem to say “Get out of my face.”The Body Language of StrangersPresenting a friendly, open palm is an effective way to break through courtship’s stranger barrier. The stranger barrier evolved millions of years ago to protect us from being harmed by potentially dangerous, unknown human beings. Xenophobia (xenos is Greek for “stranger,” and phobos for “fear”) is a common human condition. Every culture mistrusts the stranger in its midst, and each of us experiences mild-to-moderate wariness around newcomers and outsiders—even those we find attractive.In courtship, someone you have not properly met makes you feel uneasy and self-conscious. The anxious feeling is perfectly normal. Sixty years ago, psychologist Edward Thorndike proposed that the fear of strangers is innate. Later research confirmed that what psychologists call stranger anxiety is indeed a widespread—possibly universal—human response.As a stranger approaches, your palms may turn cold as the sympathetic nervous system constricts blood vessels in your hands. Your level of blood adrenaline rises, and your palms sweat enough to register a galvanic-skin, or polygraph, response. For some, enough perspiration is released during courtship to make a friendly handshake too embarrassing.Stranger anxiety starts in infancy, between five and nine months of age, along with a general apprehension of almost anything new. It is to our advantage to be cautious about picking up strange objects—or about being picked up by strange adults. Wariness protects us from harm.Fear responses spontaneously emerge in monkeys between two and three months of age. At around six months, human babies begin to show such readable signs of wariness as crying, clinging, and gazing away to the side. Another wariness cue is a sudden, slight frown that creates vertical forehead wrinkles above the infant’s nose. To pediatricians this telltale expression is known as sobering. Stranger wariness peaks around eighteen months and declines after age two or three.Though it subsides in childhood, fear of strangers never fully goes away. Stranger anxiety runs especially high in courtship. It’s what keeps you from asking someone you don’t know out on a date. Nonverbally, stranger anxiety shows in gaze-aversion when a partner’s eyes shift away from you to one side, in lip-biting mannerisms, and in tightly in-rolled or compressed lips.
Though it subsides in childhood, fear of strangers never fully goes away.
These are the same protective facial expressions infants give when a stranger looms too close for comfort. As adults, we unwittingly compress our lips, lip-bite, and turn our heads away to avoid eye contact in elevators with people we don’t know—and with partners we’ve not yet met. We are not literally afraid of them, but wariness cues telegraph a reticence that suggests we are unwilling to meet. Though the signals may be fleeting, they register enough to keep us apart.For successful first meetings in courtship, avoid stranger-anxiety cues. Since you are not aware of sending them, inadvertent gaze avoidance and tight lips are hard to control. Knowing what the signals look like—and what causes the body to “leak” them—can keep anxiety cues in check. Your face, neck, and shoulder muscles are controlled by special visceral nerves. When you feel the least bit anxious, emotional circuits automatically contract the muscles that produce aversive facial- and head-movement cues.Tom, thirty-two, complained that women never talked to him in bars. Even when friends helped by attracting women to his table, the women eagerly chatted with everybody but Tom. They ignored him as if he were not there. A videotape of Tom seated in the barroom revealed why: Each time he made eye contact, Tom compressed his lips into a thin line. His tightened, in-rolled lips made him look unhappy and displeased. He was not angry, of course, but scared. Women who knew Tom described him as good-looking and sensitive, but the lip clench kept strangers away. Seeing himself on video enabled him to relax his mouth, and magically, solitude disappeared.An Expression You Should Never ShowA stranger’s presence prompts the brain’s amygdala, a primitive arousal center located at the front of our temporal lobes, to produce the tensed jaws, tightened lips, and lowered eyebrows that signal unease about meeting someone new. The body’s innate freeze reaction also may be touched off, causing postural immobility and an unsmiling—or “frozen”—face. The amygdala excites brain-stem circuits to activate these and other protective postures and facial expressions. Though you might like the nice-looking stranger to come a little closer, your face and body discourage the move with subtly discouraging messages that seem to say “Stay away.”Stranger anxiety may trigger an aversive facial expression called the tongue show. In tongue-showing, the tongue protrudes slightly and just the tip shows between the lips. The tongue show has been decoded as a socially negative sign in gorillas and human beings. A gorilla pushed from his favorite seat on a log, or a man entering a roomful of strangers, unwittingly shows the tongue in “displeasure.” The tongue show, a defensive sign children use when approaching strange adults, has been deciphered by researchers as an antisocial cue that means “Don’t bother me.”The brain’s amygdalae can prompt clearly visible negative signals in courtship.Seeing a tongue show, clenched jaw, or furrowed brow may keep you from approaching someone new at a party. You may suppose she finds you unattractive or imagine he finds something eccentric about your ankle tattoo. Understanding the psychology of stranger anxiety should reassure you that an unwilling face says little about you personally. At the very beginning of a relationship, your partner knows nothing about you. Your only fault is that you are momentarily a stranger, and this fact alone should not keep you from moving closer.Get Closer with the Familiarity EffectStudies in Korea, Japan, and the United States reveal that even slight familiarity with a stranger can lead to greater feelings of attraction and liking. Knowing where she works or where he worships can add a comforting level of predictability and safeness. In courtship, the simplest way to become more familiar is through a nonverbal technique called mere exposure. First reported by psychologist Robert Zajonc in 1968, mere exposure, also known as the familiarity effect, is the principle that repeated exposure to almost any stimulus—an oil painting, a Chinese ideogram, or a stranger—can arouse subliminally positive feelings of “liking” for that stimulus (Zajonc, 1968). Simply put, mere exposure is the idea that you like someone you’ve already seen better than someone who is unfamiliar.In courtship, mere exposure works even in impersonal spaces like elevators. When you ride the same elevator to work each day, you develop an emotional kinship with those you usually see. You may smile, nod your head, and lift your eyebrows in recognition. You may say “Good morning,” but speech is not required for mere exposure to work. From studies of how human relationships emerge and take form, psychologists have learned that physical proximity itself is the key. Researchers conclude that the closer your functional distance, that is, the more times you sit near him in a cafeteria or bump into her on an elevator, the closer you both will feel. From mere exposure alone, you are liable to like—and be liked by—the person who is emotionally “closer” than others who work just down the hall but who rarely cross your path.The principle of mere exposure is predictability and safeness. The human brain prefers what is known to that which is unknown. In his experiments, Zajonc showed Chinese written characters, or ideograms, to subjects who had no understanding of Chinese. Later, he showed them novel Chinese characters, but his subjects liked the original ones better—simply because they were familiar. Mere exposure to the initially presented symbols was enough to set a preference.
The human brain prefers what is known to what is unknown.
Zajonc’s familiarity principle is especially valid for faces. We strongly prefer faces we know to those we do not recognize. The principle holds even for subtle facial details. In a classic study, researchers showed women two photographs of themselves (Mita, Dermer, and Knight, 1977). One photo was of the face taken normally, as a true camera image, while the second was taken as a mirror image with reversed right and left sides. Because of slight asymmetries in its features, the two halves of a human face do not perfectly match. Predictably, women in the study liked the reversed-image photos of themselves better since these compared with what they saw everyday in the mirror. Their friends preferred the true-image photos because these matched how they saw their classmates everyday in the flesh.Applied to courtship, mere exposure suggests that before speaking to an unfamiliar man or woman you establish a baseline of familiarity. This prepares the partner by laying psychological groundwork in which a new relationship can germinate. Before you ask the nice-looking Safeway clerk for a date, go through the clerk’s checkout line to build familiarity. Establish eye contact, smile, bow your head forward, head-nod in agreement, and show an open palm. Three visits in as many days activates the familiarity effect. The odds that he or she will agree to take an espresso break with you dramatically improve. Repeated physical proximity over short periods of time converts you from “just a stranger” to someone who is better known and “liked.”Attracting with Your EyebrowsAn appealing way to greet someone new is with a universal sign biologists call the eyebrow flash of recognition. This cue is decoded everywhere as a sign of friendship and goodwill. You make eye contact, smile, lift both eyebrows, and briefly glance away. The eyebrow raise is a positive signal that says “I’m happy to see you.” Gazing away suggests you expect nothing in return. When combined, the two eye messages make your greeting emotionally unconditional. You neither pressure nor wait for a response in kind.As your face becomes familiar, your persona is better liked. Zajonc thinks the mere-exposure effect is deeply rooted in our species’ evolutionary psychology. It is probable that our earliest hominid ancestors considered familiar males and females safer than those who were strange. The rule of repeated exposure affects how we relate to potential mates today. In its own evolution, courtship has been uniquely crafted to familiarize.What Is Courtship?The word courtship evolved from the seven-thousand-year-old Indo-European root gher-, which means “to grasp or enclose.” In every culture, human beings attain the closeness of sexual intimacy through courtship, a usually slow negotiation based on exchanges of nonverbal signals and words. Since vertebrates from reptiles to primates reproduce by mating and internal fertilization of the female’s body, couples must get physically close enough to touch. Through its five phases, human courtship is the means by which two people close the physical gap—and the emotional distance separating them—to become a loving pair.
Courtship itself is peculiar in being the preliminary to another activity—mating.—Margaret Bastock
In his book The Naked Ape, biologist Desmond Morris calls humans the “sexiest” primates. Monkeys and most apes breed seasonally, sometimes for just a few weeks each year, but humans can make love in any season and at any stage of the female’s monthly cycle. Men and women have made love in trees, aboard airplanes, and on the steps of the U.S. Capitol—virtually anyplace and everyplace, including outer space. Though inquiries on the subject are discouraged, NASA doesn’t deny that sexual activity has taken place in orbit.Anytime, anyplace—but not with anyone. We are more fastidious about partners than we are about time and space. We pick and choose. The selection process is courtship. Most of us identify courtship only with attracting a mate, but it has an equally important repelling side. Courtship attracts and repulses, says yes and no. It is a double-edged sword that rules in and rules out.An apt analogy is that of a screen. Courtship is like a sieve that separates coarse from fine. It chooses and refuses but especially the latter, because courtship keeps out more people than it lets in. Most courtships end in screen-out several stages before intimacy.At its heart, courtship is a dialogue about personal proximity and physical closeness. It runs on messages—on tangible signals and visible displays. Love itself is an intangible, but love communication is concrete. Before we love, we exchange come-hither messages granting permission to approach. A man tilts his head sideward like a little boy; a woman responds with a coy lifting of her shoulders.The Cheyenne Indians of the Great Plains are a case in point. In the 1850s, a Cheyenne brave stood silently, with his head lowered, alongside a maiden’s usual footpath and timidly waited. As the maiden passed by, the young man froze, statuelike, until she gave a faint signal recognizing his presence: a brief smile, perhaps, or a quick look up from under her eyebrows. The brave’s courage would build, and the next time she walked by he might gently tug on her skirt (Hoebel, 1978). Cheyenne courtship started as loving relationships begin everywhere—slowly, tentatively, and silently.The Five Phases of CourtshipAs a nonverbal process, courtship moves slowly through five distinct phases. Worldwide, the stages are the same: (1) Attention, (2) Recognition, (3) Speech, (4) Touching, and (5) Lovemaking. Each phase has its own signs, signals, and cues. Since potential mates “test” each other before uniting as one, courtship is rarely hurried. Moving too fast—giving too many signals at once or showing them out of phase order—may frighten a partner away. Universally, patience is the key. A pair bond gradually forms through a choreographed give-and-take of signs granting physical and emotional closeness.
PHASE ONE: ATTRACTING ATTENTION. In the first or Attention Phase of courtship, people beam out signals to announce “I am here” and “I am female” (or “male”). With their clothing, facial adornment, aromas, gestures, and deeds, nonverbal messages are broadcast in all directions to attract notice, well before words are exchanged. At the same time, threat-disclaiming cues suggest “I mean you no harm.” Charles Darwin called these harmless signals submissive displays.We broadcast hundreds of beckoning messages, from the decrescendo laugh a woman gives to announce her presence at a party to the diffident, pigeon-toed posture a man shyly assumes to invite approach. In the chapters that follow, I will decode these nonverbal bids for attention much as anthropologists decipher hidden meanings in drum signals, picture writing, whistle languages, and dance.
SHOW NO HARMFor some animals, sending the right signals in courtship is a matter of life or death. Consider the wolf spider, who must get near enough to his grumpy mate to insert a sperm packet into her body. One too-eager footstep as he creeps down her earthen burrow and she attacks him, imagining he is either a predator or prey. Male wolf spiders must approach slowly, because the slowed motion is a cue: “I mean no harm.” When he meets her head-on in the dark, he must reach out and stroke her body gently, in just the right way, or she kills him on the spot.The psychology of spider courtship is not unlike that of humans. Should a man blindside a woman in a singles’ bar—approach her suddenly without bowing his body forward, tilting his head, lifting his shoulders submissively, and extending an open palm—her body language may tell him (guratively, of course) to drop dead. She will tense her lips and swivel around on her barstool, turn her face and body completely away, and give him a “cold shoulder.” In the courtship of humans and animals, we should not underestimate the power of Charles Darwin’s submissive displays.
PHASE TWO: ATTRACTING ATTENTION or reading the gleam in an eye. The Recognition Phase, like a bat’s sonar, begins as you seek nonverbal responses to signs emitted in the Attention Phase. “I am here! I am female! … Do you see me?” Recognition cues give information about having been noticed. They are the incoming signs received in response to outgoing cues previously sent. A woman tests a man’s reaction to her physical presence by reaching around him for hors d’oeuvres on an appetizer tray. Should he lift his shoulders, tilt his head, and smile, his body language says that he likes being near her. On the other hand, a deadpan “blank face” and angling his body away telegraph indifference—or say that she is “too close for comfort.” Recognition cues show where you stand in a relationship before you say hello. More important, they reveal who you should say hello to.
PHASE THREE: EXCHANGING WORDS or what to say and how to say it. From nonverbal cues advertising presence, gender, and safeness, you move to courtship’s third or Conversation Phase. Signs exchanged in the previous phases enable couples to penetrate the unseen barrier of stranger anxiety. So hindering is this invisible wall of suspicion that many would-be pairs never get beyond posturing to conversation. Men and women who are strongly drawn to each other may be unable to connect in words for months, even years.Some think you shouldn’t talk to strangers without having something witty or important to say. Remember that courtship is 99 percent nonverbal. What is said matters less than the saying. Research on opening lines shows that “Hello” works most of the time for men and all of the time for women. Of course, social psychologists who do the research don’t consider the preparatory gestures needed to spark a conversation in the first place. Love Signals decodes these prefacing cues and shows how lip, eye, brow, face, head, shoulder, arm, hand, and finger movements help or hinder your spoken remarks. At the close quarters of speaking face-to-face, nonverbal signs of liking, trust, deceit, and willingness to commit are available for the reading.
FIELD NOTES: THE CASE OF THE CAFETERIA COURTSHIP“Friday P.M., Oct. 8—On the University of Washington campus, cool, light rain,” my field notes read. No one was sitting on the damp, spongy lawn outside, so it was time to move the observations indoors. The lunch crowd in the cafeteria had thinned to one or two persons per table in the huge dining hall. Stranger anxiety leads college students to spread out and occupy vacant tables whenever they can.I sat and kept my eyes on a cluster of tables, each occupied by a lone man or woman. I nibbled on a hamburger to reassure those around me that I was safe. In her studies, primatologist Dian Fossey chewed on tropical leaves and belched audibly to calm skittish mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Eating together shows animals you mean no harm. If it worked with apes, the behavior would work with students.The strategy paid off. Halfway through my Huskyburger, I saw a graduate student, a scholarly type—beard, khaki pants, and tweed jacket—put his food tray on the far corner of a coed’s table. The young woman had a scholarly look, too. She wore black tights, no makeup, her hair in a bun. I sensed attraction because he tossed his head after glancing at her. The quick head toss, to flip wayward bangs from his forehead, revealed a brain stem engaged in arousal. If unaffected by her presence, he wouldn’t have tossed his head.The courtship began slowly—and cautiously—like others I had seen. Around the world, in people and animals, courtship calls for unhurried approaches to keep mates from attacking or running away.Watching the vignette unfold, I note how each person studiously ignores the other until she, not he, tenders the first beckoning cue. The woman takes an art book from her bag, sets it down with a thump on the table, and angles her upper body toward his. Without looking at him, she conspicuously thumbs pages to draw his attention. The man, in turn, without gazing at the woman’s face or eyes, slowly shifts his weight and brings his shoulders into alignment with hers. Anthropologists call mirroring of this sort postural echo. Finally, in a conscious act of will, he breaks through the invisible force-field of her presence to gaze down at her opened book. Not at her directly, not yet, but now they have an all-important shared focus. Instead of relating to each other, one-on-one, they relate indirectly—and less threateningly—through the art book.Seconds after looking at her book, the young man stretches, raises fisted hands to shoulder level, spreads his elbows widely, yawns, and thrusts out his chest. Mirroring his action, she stretches and returns the chest protrusion, and their eyes finally meet. After a period of nonverbal posturing, eye-to-eye contact is established at last. Twenty minutes later, the two are smiling, head-nodding, and flexing their shoulders in tandem as they speak. “Doing the same thing,” known to anthropologists as isopraxism , strengthens the burgeoning bond. After being together for thirty minutes, they say good-bye—but not before trading phone numbers on pieces of scrap paper. The couple passed through courtship’s first three stages in just half an hour.
PHASE FOUR : THE LANGUAGE OF TOUCH. The Touching Phase begins with the first tactile contact, from an “accidental” knee-brushing beneath a table to a more deliberate tap on the shoulders or back. After smell, touch is humankind’s oldest sense. So powerful are touch cues that initial body contact must be made with care. In a restaurant, if a man stretches an arm toward his date across the tabletop, she might read his casual reach as an invitation to touch. As a test, the woman should place her fingertips on his forearm and say something like “I’m glad we came here.” This allows her to read his willingness to be touched before trying a more serious handhold after the meal. Does he startle and pull away from her tap? He may not be ready for courtship’s tactile stage. If he relaxes, leans in, and touches her hand, they successfully enter Phase Four.
PHASE FIVE: MAKING LOVE. When partners receive tactile reassurance from each other, lovemaking may follow. The most intimate stage of courtship is, like the phases before it, replete with nonverbal cues. Embraces, pats, en face gazes, snuggles, nuzzles, cuddles, and kisses prevail as couples care for, handle, and treat each other tenderly as babies. Sexually, the most effective touch zones in Phase Five are thighs, derriere, and the “saddle” area. Anatomists call the latter region sexual skin. Touching in these zones stimulates nerve endings allied with the pudendal nerve, which prepares the sexual organs for duty on our species’ behalf.Voice contact continues. Couples exchange words in softer, higher-pitched voices. Physically through sound, words caress as gently and persuasively as fingertips. Our early amphibian ancestors “heard” vibrations conducted as tactile signals through the lower jaw. Millions of years later these perceptive jaw bones became the malleus, incus, and stapes of the inner ears. Our brain still responds to love talk as an intimate form of “touching.”After making love, courtship wanes as couples trade fewer wooing cues. Some say the relationship loses its “magic,” but a better reason is that after negotiating intimate closeness, the pair need not renegotiate with quite the same ardor. Since nearness is not the problem it originally was, fewer signals need be exchanged to attain it. Taking proximity for granted makes the body language of lovers noticeably calmer than that of couples who have not made love.
IN COURTSHIP, KNOWLEDGE is power. Knowing that gestures work better than words gives you a clear advantage in finding a mate. Nonverbal signals rouse deeper parts of the emotional brain, where mating instincts lie. Facial expressions, body movements, and postures register with more immediacy than do the linguistic sounds of speech. As world travelers know, you needn’t speak the native tongue to flirt.LOVE SIGNALS. Copyright © 2005 by David Givens. All rights reserved.. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.