The Language of Flirtation

A Slip of the Lip

Hailing from the glorious city of Queanbeyan, Caroline spent her first year of uni dabbling in Physics, Maths, English and Music. By some drastic turn of events she is now majoring in German and Linguistics. ‘A Slip of the Lip’ is a linguistics student’s attempt to provide interesting and (reasonably) well-researched language titbits.

For anyone participating in the dating world, one of the most nerve-wracking experiences is the first date. Will it be fun? Will it be awkward? Will it be flirtatious? Much depends on the quality of the conversation, and for better or for worse, our subconscious minds have a lot to do with how we talk to a potential partner.

Firstly, I should acknowledge the heteronormativity of the research on this topic. The linguistics of flirtation is not a very well-researched field, and I wasn’t able to find any studies on non-heterosexual couples or with trans-identifying participants, which makes it difficult to say whether or not the findings can be generalised to other relationships. With that in mind, let’s get into it.

It turns out there are a great many things we do linguistically when we flirt – most of which happen subconsciously. In an article called ‘Detecting friendly, flirtatious, awkward, and assertive speech in speed-dates’, Ranganath et al. examined data from more than a thousand speed-dates, and they made some interesting discoveries. For instance, women are more likely to use negative sentences, with lots of ‘don’t’, ‘no’ and ‘not’. They tend to use these either as self-deprecation, or as a way to tease their conversation partner. Take this piece of expert flirtation quoted in the research paper:

Male: I have to say that that’s a great question.

Female: No, don’t say that. That’s a stalling technique in a business interview. It’s not allowed here. [Laughter].

Flirting women also, like, use like a lot. They tend to laugh in the middle of what they’re saying and frequently use ‘I’ in their sentences. Flirting men, on the other hand, use a lot of ‘you’, ‘you know’ and ‘um’. Everyone speaks faster, laughs more, and uses a higher pitched voice than normal. The conclusion that the researchers drew from all of this is that in flirtatious conversations ‘women are the target or topic of the conversation.’ That’s a hot tip right there!

The way that people talk when they flirt may even come down to animalistic instincts. A study by Coyle and Kaschak found that ‘female fertility affects men’s linguistic choices.’ The researchers investigated the way 121 heterosexual males interacted with five females who were at various stages of their menstrual cycles. As a couple, a man and a woman would take turns describing the actions shown on a card, with the female taking the first turn each time.

The woman might describe the first picture as, ‘the children shows the teacher the book.’ The man would then describe the next picture, choosing subconsciously whether or not to use matching sentence structure. He may use the matching phrase, ‘the boy gave the girl an apple’, or he may choose to use a mismatched phrase such as, ‘the boy gave an apple to the girl.’

Usually the man would be expected to try to match the way the woman was talking. This is called ‘accommodation’, and is based on the assumption that people like other people who speak similarly to them. What this study found, however, was that the more fertile the woman was, the less likely the man was to use the matching sentence structure. But why?

The researchers suggest that using the mismatched form is a way for males to demonstrate their creativity. The more creative they are, the more superior they are as a potential mate. This is also seen in word choice – men who are trying to find a mate tend to use rarer words.

Considering that these cues for flirtation are so subtle and subconscious, you might not be surprised that people hardly ever pick up on them. What may surprise you though, is that according to another article by Ranganath et al. humans are actually ‘worse than machines at detecting flirtation.’

Yes, you read that right. A machine, with no access to facial expressions, gesture and physical touch – and unable to produce any of these subconscious cues for itself – is better at telling if someone is flirting than an actual person.

The reason behind this is that people are more likely to project ‘their own intended behaviour’ onto their conversation partner. If you’re being flirtatious, you’re going to have a tendency to think the other person is being flirtatious too, and if you’re not, then you’re going to presume they’re not either. Just imagine how much heartache could be spared if this weren’t the case!

So if you’re nervous for your next date, just remember, your subconscious will take care of you when it comes to giving off the subtle flirting cues. You’re probably going to misjudge how much the other person is flirting with you, and there’s not much you can do about that. If you really want to know how they feel, you may as well just ask!