Whether it's a first impression or a first date, body language speaks loudly.
Flirting is often associated with the idea of spoken words, like witty jokes and pick-up lines. And words do make up a part of our social skills and the games we play. But dating, mating, and finding a relationship are also about body language. What you say without words matters when breaking the ice, making a first impression, and getting a date. What's more, the match between your non-verbal communication and a verbal request may mean the difference between connection and dinner alone.
Research About Body Language and Influence
The importance of this match between verbal persuasion and non-verbal communication (sometimes called congruence) is supported by research from Fennis and Stel (2011). The authors were interested in figuring out what types of body language would increase the success of various compliance strategies. Particularly, the authors were interested in which non-verbal styles would be most persuasive to individuals with different "regulatory focus" (Higgins, 1998).
There are two types:
- Promotion focus—goals are seen as hopes and aspirations, and the individual is eager for advancement.
- Prevention focus—goals are seen as obligations and duties, and the individual is cautious and vigilant.
Across two experiments, Fennis and Stel (2011) found that a good fit between a persuader's influence strategy and his or her non-verbal communication increased the chance of success. Essentially, they note, when trying to persuade someone with a cautious "prevention focus," it is better to use a vigilant non-verbal style. In contrast, persuasion with an open "promotion focus" requires an eager non-verbal style.
What This Means for Flirting and Dating
Throughout the course of meeting and attracting a partner, the regulatory focus of that partner is going to change (as are your influence techniques). When you first meet a potential partner, they are likely to be vigilant and cautious of you as a stranger: They will have a prevention focus. So your first persuasion strategies will be centered around making them comfortable and getting them to like you—getting their guard down.
Later in the relationship, after safety and liking are ideally established, the relationship can be moved forward. The potential partner usually feels safer and more adventurous at this point (signaling a shift to a promotion focus). Essentially, they transition from worrying about what could go wrong in their interaction with you to wondering what good things they can get from your connection. At that point, requests for dates, phone numbers, and further courtship becomes much more likely.
So in the beginning of a social interaction with a potential new partner, remember that the individual is most likely cautious (prevention focused). According to the research by Fennis and Stel (2011) above, this requires a vigilant non-verbal style, defined as:
- Using precise and small gestures.
- Using slower movements and speech.
- Taking a backward-leaning posture (away from the other person, rather than leaning forward and crowding them).
Essentially, this means using body language that is a little standoffish at first—quiet, calm, and non-threatening. Remember, you are virtually a stranger. Give your potential partner some personal space, lean back a bit, keep your hands from flailing, and smile warmly. This will support your verbal persuasion efforts to encourage them to feel comfortable and like you.
You will know you've won them over when your partner's body language begins to change: His or her shoulders will relax. They will lean in to you more, make more eye contact, and smile. They will start to open up. At this point, they have switched to apromotion focus—and now it's time for you to switch to an eager nonverbal style, defined as:
- Using more animated, open, and broad gestures.
- Using faster and more energetic movements and speech.
- Taking a forward-leaning body posture (conveying interest and excitement).
Now that you are no longer a potential threat, you can convey your own interest and excitement through body language—and in fact, you should. No one is going to get excited about a date request from a man with slumped shoulders and hang-dog look; similarly, a woman with her chin up and an animated personality is much more compelling. Once you've broken the ice, amp up your eager nonverbal style, and ask for a date. . .
What you don't say matters. It also changes throughout the course of a dating interaction. Stay calm and lean back in the beginning to persuade your partner that you are safe, trustworthy, and likable. Lean in and get more energetic once you've earned their trust, to motivate them to become excited about the prospect of seeing you again. Add these body language strategies to your social skills, and flirting, dating, and mating will become much easier.
- Fennis, B. M. & Stel, M. (2011). The pantomime of persuasion: Fit between non-verbal communication and influence strategies. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(4), 806-810.
- Higgins, E. T. (1998). Promotion and prevention: Regulatory focus as a motivational principle. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, Vol. 30. (pp. 1-46), New York: Academic Press.