Popular wisdom or results from a cursory Google search suggest that people with lower self-esteem have poor social skills. However, recent research finds that this is not true: In fact, people with lower self-esteem have the same social skills as people with higher self-esteem, but they often don’t feel safe enough to use them.1 This ‘safety’ concern comes into play in situations when one tries to start a relationship with another person, or what researchers call relationship initiation; such situations are risky because one often doesn’t know if the other person is going to be accepting or rejecting,1 and thus the outcome of the attempted initiation is often uncertain. So what do people do when they want to start a relationship but don’t know how the other person will respond?
Researchers set out to answer this question with a focus on how people’s initiation behavior might vary by their gender and self-esteem. Successful relationship initiation often relies on being direct or obvious so that romantic interest is made clear to the other person.2 Because people with higher self-esteem tend to not worry about being rejected, researchers hypothesized that people with higher self-esteem would express their interest directly when wanting to start a relationship. So, for example, they might directly ask the other person out on a date. Because people with lower self-esteem, on the other hand, tend to worry about being rejected, researchers hypothesized that people with lower self-esteem would express their interest indirectly, just in case the other person doesn’t feel the same way. For example, folks with low self-esteem might only hint at the fact that they want to date the other person by giving them “the look” (aka “bedroom eyes”). If the other person doesn’t feel the same way, then the hinter can deny that starting a relationship was the intention and save himself or herself from embarrassment. The researchers also wanted to know what happens if the risk (i.e., uncertainty about the outcome) is reduced. That is, do the self-esteem differences in behavior persist when risk is low or do they disappear? The researchers studied both men and women, but were particularly curious about men’s behavior, because men tend to initiate romantic relationships more often than women.3 To answer their questions, the researchers conducted two studies.
In the first study, college students wrote about a time when they had asked someone out and were rejected. They then used a checklist to note which behaviors they used to initiate the relationship (e.g., kissing the other person) and rated how risky they thought their behaviors were. The behaviors on the checklist varied from direct (e.g., directly asking the other person out) to indirect (e.g., waiting for the other person to make a move).
In the second study, participants who were single made a video where they answered questions about themselves (similar to video personal ads). They were led to believe that someone of the opposite sex was watching the video and would make a response video. Further, participants were led to believe that they could physically meet the other person if the other person wanted to meet them (high risk) or they had no chance of meeting in person because of university regulations (low risk). Research assistants later watched the video and noted how direct participants were in their expressions of interest towards the other person. For example, assistants noted whether participants said they wanted to meet the confederate (a direct behavior).
Results were the same for both studies. Researchers found that men with higher self-esteem who thought there was high risk of rejection used more direct flirting techniques than did men with lower self-esteem; no surprises there. However, when there was low risk, men with lower self-esteem used more direct flirting than did the high self-esteem men and in comparison to when they thought that risk was high. So these guys can flirt but just need the right situation!
For women, researchers found that, regardless of self-esteem, if women thought that risk was low, then their flirting was more direct. It’s possible that if the context were different (e.g., if looking at friendship initiation instead), then women’s behaviors in would parallel men’s.
TL;DR: People just need to be in the right situation to be direct and flirty.
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1Cameron, J. J., Stinson, D. A., & Wood, J. V. (2013). The bold and the bashful: Self-esteem, gender, and relationship initiation. Social Psychological and Personality Science. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/1948550613476309
2Cunningham, M. R. (1989). Reactions of heterosexual opening gambits: Female selectivity and male responsiveness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 15, 27–41.
3Metts, S., & Mikucki, S. (2008). The emotional landscape of romantic relationship initiation. In S. Sprecher, A. Wenzel, & J. Harvey (Eds.), Handbook of relationship initiation (pp. 353–371). New York, NY: Psychology Press.
Dr. Lisa Hoplock – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Lisa’s research examines how personality traits like self-esteem and attachment influence interpersonal processes in ambiguous social situations — situations affording both rewards and costs — such as social support contexts, relationship initiation, and marriage proposals.