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The Signals of Flirting

We all know what a v-sign means — or do we? Depending on which way the hand is facing you will either interpret it as a sign of victory or a very rude gesture! If you come from the jungles of Peru it might mean absolutely nothing to you at all!

Language, be it communicated by the mouth or by the body, is a very complex business indeed. In times gone by women used a complex signalling system involving fans and eyes to flirt. Gay men have a great system of sexual signalling that involves keys, pockets and handkerchiefs! Unfortunately no similar system, sexual or otherwise really exists in the heterosexual world. In the absence of an overt dictionary of signals it’s easy to either get it wrong or miss the signals altogether.

Human beings are naturally endowed with a mechanism for sending out signals. We do it all the time. What we need is to polish up our ability to notice and then interpret the signals. When you develop this skill the world becomes a richer place. Opportunities that were previously unnoticed seem to leap out at you from all directions. [I often wonder what an opportunity leaping looks like !].

Richard Bandler, the founder of NLP, told me that when he ran a flirting class one of the biggest challenges was getting the participants to notice the signals from the opposite sex. He lined up the men and the women, told the women to signal and 97 out of 100 men failed to notice the signals! That’s why we will be practising this stuff in the flirting workshops. We need to understand what effect our signals have on others so that we can modify our transmissions to be clearer and more effective. As my friend Jonathan Altfeld says “we have to teach them to become super bio-feedback machines for each other”.

Blind Date – a treasure trove

I watch Blind Date every week because it’s full of superb examples of signal ‘botching’. The couple I watched recently were being filmed on the plane. She was looking at him with the flirtiest eyes I’ve seen for ages. Her smile, her body movements all said ‘I am interested’. Later when they were interviewed she said ‘He didn’t seem interested’. He said ‘she didn’t give me any signs’.

What transpired was that because he was a ‘touchy-feely’ person [his own words] a touch expressed interest for him. He didn’t notice her eyes. What would have happened if he had been more aware of the variety of signals that women give out and what would have happened if she had tried using a different sensory system to transmit her signals? I don’t know but it’s something to think about.

Touch, sight and sound

We communicate via our five senses. Most of us do not utilise our senses equally all the time. When expressing and perceiving data, we often use one system more heavily than another. For example, some of us use ‘visual words’ like ‘a light at the end of the tunnel’ as opposed to ‘kinaesthetic’ words like ‘it was a weight off my mind’. The guy on Blind Date described himself as a ‘touchy feely’ person. People who operate out of the ‘feeling’ sense look for ‘feeling’ signals. The girl on the other hand kept saying ” I looked at you all the time”. She expected him to pick up on her very visual signals.. This was clearly a case, not of mixed, but of missed signals!

Sharpen up the senses

Flirting isn’t just about sending out signals it’s about becoming more aware of what other people are doing.

We can learn to fine-tune our senses. When you develop the ability to perceive things like skin colour changes, voice tone, breathing rate changes and eye movement, you are developing your database of signals. When you have enough data you can begin to pattern the information and make sense of signalling. .As this happens you will become more aware of the signals you send out AND the reactions they provoke. .

Man/woman roles

In the Blind Date scenario the man was waiting for the girl to give him signals before he acted. They stuck to the traditional man/woman roles and they both missed out. What would have happened if, instead of waiting for a touch, he sent out his own strong signals? Would she have noticed them? What would she have read them as? This opens up a whole area for debate. When you attend a Flirting Weekend you will have opportunities to explore all these dilemmas and how we can unconsciously precipitate them with careless signalling.. Someone once said to me “Simple awareness is sometimes curative”. I like that concept.

Richer signals

Once we are more aware of our signalling mechanisms, we can also learn to vary the signals we give out so that we have more chance of getting our message across. When I touch someone on the shoulder to say a kind word, I make sure my eyes are saying the same thing as my hand and my voice tone. Successful flirts know how to send out the signals without saying a word and when your ‘quarry’ is seated across a crowded restaurant, that can be a mighty useful skill!

We all have our idiosyncratic signals. Some women twirl their hair or lick their lips, a man might twiddle his tie or rub his chin. There are some commonly used signals and there are some very individual ones. On the Flirting Weekend we do exercises that are geared to fine tuning our ability to a) notice signals and b) respond with clear signals. We delve into the whole world of signals and start to create our own dictionaries which we can add to with each new experience. You will begin to recognise patterns. We can then use those patterns to interpret other people’s signals and transmit clearer and richer ones. You can say it with your noses, your lips, your eyes, your posture and even your clothes.

Once you begin to learn this stuff, your interpretation of the world changes and instead of jumping to conclusions you begin to see things in a new light, as you get to grips with the signals of flirting.

©1998 Peta Heskell. All rights reserved.


Peta Heskell is a relationship facilitator, writer, broadcaster and flirt extraordinaire. Creator of the “Flirting Weekend,” the first ever UK workshop on flirting, and author of The Keys to Successful Flirting published in the UK.