A reader recently asked: How can I tell if someone is interested in me?
Deciphering romantic interest is a difficult endeavor. On the one hand, if you fail to notice someone’s interest in you, you miss out on the high of realizing someone thinks you’re all that, not to mention the missed opportunity to form a relationship with that person. On the other hand, if you incorrectly think someone is interested in you (what researchers refer to as a ‘false positive’), you risk wasting valuable time and effort flashing your proverbial peacock feathers. You also open yourself up to the sting of rejection and embarrassment you might feel upon getting shot down after making your approach. Ouch. Worse, misperceiving romantic or sexual interest plays a role in sexual harassment1 and sexual assault.2 That’s a definite – and potentially illegal – ouch.
At least three factors complicate our ability to detect romantic interest. First, some situations are more ambiguous than others. Intense eye contact from someone at a singles mixer likely means something different than intense eye contact from a security guard at the airport. Second, some people are easier to “read” than others. Some display their romantic intentions like a billboard with flashing neon lights (think Snooki on the Jersey Shore); others are much more subtle. As you may have guessed, it turns out that men are more transparent with their romantic intentions than women3 (the drooling is a sure give-away). A third factor complicating our ability to know when others are interested in us is that some of us are better “people readers” than others. For example, people who are already in a romantic relationship are better able to predict the romantic interests of others.3
So what’s a guy or gal to do? Well, on the upside, research suggests some behaviors really do signal romantic interest. Grammer and colleagues4 recorded individuals’ while they had an opportunity to flirt, and then asked the same individuals to watch their recording and indicate when they were flirting. This method allowed the researchers to determine whether certain observable behaviors– like a smile or a hair flip– map onto people’s actual interest. Although the behaviors that took place during the first few minutes of the 10-minute interaction didn’t correlate with professed romantic interest, some behaviors observed later in the interaction did. For example, women who fussed with their clothing, tilted their head, smiled coyly, and used a lot of hand motions when speaking later reported being interested in the guy with whom they had interacted. The men who spent more time talking during the latter half of the 10-minute interaction reported greater romantic interest with their interaction partners.
So, yes, body language can signal important information. But, again, body language is ambiguous. In fact, scholars hypothesize this ambiguity serves a self-protective factor in that it allows people to venture out in public again when an object of interest does not reciprocate that interest.5 Basically you are putting yourself out there, but not all the way out there. If the target of your affection doesn’t reciprocate you can easily play it off as them misperceiving your intentions. The take home point? We can rarely know for sure that someone is interested in us unless they walk up and say, “I’m interested in you.”
This article was adapted from the book Science of Relationships: Experts Answer Your Questions about Dating, Marriage, & Family.
1Johnson, C. B., Stockdale, M. S., & Saal, F. E. (1991). Persistence of men’s misperceptions of friendly cues across a variety of interpersonal encounters. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 15, 463–475.
2Abbey, A., McAuslan, P., & Ross, L. T. (1998). Sexual assault perpetration by college men: The role of alcohol, misperception of sexual intent, and sexual beliefs and experiences. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 17, 167-195.
3Place, S. S., Todd, P. M., Penke, L., & Askenforpf, J. B. (2009). The ability to judge the romantic interest of others. Psychological Science, 20, 22-26.
4Grammer, K., Kruck, K., Juette, A., & Fink, B. (2000). Non-verbal behavior as courtship signals: the role of control and choice in selecting partners. Evolution and Human Behavior, 21, 371-390.
5Whitty, M. T. (2004). Cyber-flirting: An examination of men’s and women’s flirting behaviour both offline and on the internet. Behaviour Change, 21, 115-126.
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