A Little Romance

Considering how many college campuses I appear at, it’s hardly surprising that one of the questions I get asked most frequently is “How can I tell if he or she is interested in me?” Somepeople do seem to have an innate gift for reading the non-verbal cues that signal romantic interest. Alas, most of the rest of us are hopeless. Or are we?

It’s not always our fault if we find it hard to read romantic body language. The non-verbal language of interpersonal attraction can be notoriously complex. Consider, for example, the proverbial “playing hard to get.” Although it may be a cliché, “playing hard to get” is in fact a very real strategy that people employ. Occasionally a person may display many of the signals of dis-interest or even aversion, when in fact that person is very interested. What is a people-reader to do?

There is good news. Even when a person is feigning disinterest, there are usually some “tells” that give away his or her real intention. Some of the more common of these signals fall under three different general categories: Proxemics, Body Mirroring, and Pointing.

As with all things having to do with body language, keep in mind that context is key. No specific gesture has any definite meaning. But when you start seeing a person display clusters of these behaviors, it’s possible a romance may be in your future.

Proxemics: Proxemics is the study of how a person communicates using space or territory. When an angry person “gets in your face” to make a point, he is using his intrusion into your personal space to send a message.

Each of us has a mental zone or bubble around us that we consider our personal space. The only people we are comfortable allowing into this personal space are those we trust or have some level of intimacy with. If person starts to move closer into your personal space, it may be a signal that they are hoping to establish a deeper intimacy with you. Often this entry into your personal space can come in subtle ways. It won’t necessarily be the case that their entire body will move closer to you. They may move into your space with a light touch, or they may move personal objects closer to you so that they can have an excuse to move closer to you themselves at a later time.

There’s one great challenge when interpreting proxemic clues; different cultures can have  very different interpretations of just how big our personal zone of comfort should be. Americans tend to have a very large personal zone and tend not to get too close to one another, while Europeans and South Americans tend to move closer. It’s easy to mistake a person’s cultural norms for a desire for greater intimacy. If you have a baseline for a person’s typical behavior, you can better interpret their intention. For example, if the person you suspect might be romantically interested in you tends to give other people greater space than he or she does to you, that’s a positive sign.

One way to test a person’s intent is to reciprocate their behavior. If they start to move into your personal space zone, try moving just a little closer to them as well. If they move back, it’s probable that their behavior was accidental, but if they stay within your zone it probably wasn’t. Likewise, if you pull back a little and they move to stay within your personal zone, that’s a good indication they have real interest. One warning, though. Research shows that if you pull away the first time a potential romantic interest breaks into your zone they will usually interpret that as lack of interest and give up the chase. Reciprocate first, save the dance for later.

Mirroring: Look around the room the next time you’re at a party, or watch people sitting in a restaurant. When two people are intimately communicating, they very often mirror each other’s body language. Their arms may be folded the same way, their bodies leaning the same direction, their heads tilted similarly. If a person you think might be interested in you is mirroring your body language, that’s a good sign. It’s not necessarily a sign of romantic interest, only context can tell that, but it is a signal that they are trying to establish rapport with you. Try shifting your body to a new position. If they move with you it’s a sign that they’re trying for deeper communication.

Pointing: A third way people often signal romantic interest is by arranging their body so that they point to you. They may cross their legs so that they point in your direction or lean in toward you. The opposite of this is also true. If they’re not interested, or if they don’t like you, they may organize their body so that they’re pointing away. Many times I’ve seen two people talking, and even though their faces are turned toward each other, one of them has his feet or lower body turned as if trying to get away. Usually the other member of this conversation is completely unaware that their partner really doesn’t want to be there.

In romantic body language, pointing often takes place in other ways. Often people signal their interest by unconsciously pointing to what they perceive are their best physical attributes. Watch people in a bar sometime, and take note of how may men are standing with their thumbs hooked into their trouser pockets and their fingers pointing directly to their crotch. Then notice how many women are standing with their arms folded beneath their breasts, lifting them up like a pushup bra. You’ll be shocked at how common these behaviors are, but keep in mind that the people who are doing them usually have no conscious awareness of it. Also keep in mind that this sort of ‘pointing’ also comes in more subtle forms. You may see a man stroking that beard he thinks makes him look so dashing, or pointing toward his manly biceps, or you may see a woman teasing her long hair that she thinks is one of her most attractive features


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