Gender Differences in Human Non-Verbal Flirting Behaviours

This entry was written by Gabrielle Eyer as part of a project done in BIAN 2133 ‘Human Reproductive
Strategies’ at The Australian National University in 2019 Semester 2.


Verbal and non-verbal flirting are fundamental aspects of human courtship. Men and women consciously and subconsciously use a combination of courtship techniques to express one’s interest towards another. Unlike verbal behaviours, non-verbal flirting cues are more ambiguous, such as the use of subtle facial expressions and body movements. These types of actions include smiling, eye contact and gazing, self-grooming, nodding and touching to name a few (Moore, 2010; Kotlyar and Ariely, 2014). One key gender difference in flirting behaviours is the overall use of non-verbal tactics. Whereas men tend to express more verbal cues during flirting, women prefer non-verbal behaviours. These gender differences exist today due to the importance of non-verbal communication during courtship initiation, different mate choice preferences in men and women, explained through parental investment theory and miscommunications arising from the different perceptions of non-verbal flirting from the two sexes.

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The Importance of Non-Verbal Flirting in the Formation of Relationships

Due to the subconscious nature of non-verbal flirting, the importance of these behaviours is often overlooked in the process of initiating a relationship. In reality, non-verbal communication is significantly important in the beginnings of an interaction. In a review of human non-verbal courtship behaviour, Moore (2010) explains a theory where there are five phases of courtship. These include attention, recognition, interaction, sexual arousal and resolution. In each phase, non-verbal communication contributes to the progression of the subsequent stage. For example, the initial eye contact and gaze when trying to grasp another’s attention, then leading to physically facing the other person as an invitational cue, transitions the interaction from the attention to the recognition phase (Moore, 2010). In another study, Kotlyar and Ariely (2014) demonstrate the importance of non-verbal flirting in relationship development through the use of online dating simulations, each with a varying degree of non-verbal communication, ranging from only text-based interactions to avatars that emote facial expressions and body movements. In this experiment, according to both men and women, the addition of non-verbal communication assisted in the development of a relationship. Interestingly, gender differences in preference for the type of non-verbal flirting used were observed, whereby men reacted more positively to static visual images and women preferred body movements and facial expression via avatars. These findings support the hypothesis that non-verbal courtship plays an important role in relationship formation, but also that men and women react differently to certain types of non-verbal flirting.

Parental Investment Theory in Non-Verbal Flirting Behaviours

Based on parental investment theory, preference in mate selection, and thus non-verbal flirting behaviours, can be explained by men and women’s survival and reproductive goals (Frisby et al., 2011; Moore, 2010). It is hypothesised that women are more selective in a mate, through the employment of non-verbal control tactics, as they are the higher investing sex. As women often use more non-verbal cues compared to men (Moore, 2010), they are usually first to make non-verbal contact, followed by men initiating verbal communication. The use of subtle, non-verbal tactics allows for women to have active control of an interaction (Moore, 2010). Women modulate a man’s behaviour by fluctuating the degree of non-verbal flirting cues during an interaction (Frisby et al., 2011), establishing patterns of synchrony with the male body and actively nodding as a tactic to control the attention and verbal behaviours of a potential mate (Kotlyar and Ariely, 2014; Grammer et al., 2000). Furthermore, parental investment theory stipulates that a male’s inclination to pursue a mate via non-verbal courtship is often driven by physical appearances (Ponseti et al., 2018). This concept is demonstrated through Kotlyar and Ariely’s (2014) experiment in male and female responses to non-verbal flirting, where males responded more positively to visual images rather than contextual body movements. Conversely, it is proposed that women tend to view courtship as a means to develop a relationship rather than only for mating purposes. This idea supports the evolutionary theory that men seek out mating opportunities, whereas women value relational commitment in a partner (Henningsen, 2004). Parental investment theory offers explanations to the different motivations of men and women when engaging in non-verbal flirting interactions.

Miscommunications in Non-Verbal Flirting Between the Sexes

The ambiguous nature of non-verbal communication, along with the gender differences in the approaches and the motivations behind non-verbal flirting, leads to miscommunication between men and women. One of the most common miscommunications that occur when engaging in non-verbal flirting interactions is that men tend to perceive a woman’s friendliness as flirtatious behaviours, whereas women often underestimate a man’s sexual intent (Grammer et al., 2000). Gender differences in motivations for engaging in flirting behaviours can also lead to misperceptions. While males tend to be more sexually motivated when engaging in non-verbal courtship, females associate certain behaviours to specific motivations (Henningsen, 2004). Another gender misperception in non-verbal communication relates to men and women’s ability to encode and decode non-verbal signals. Women can often more successfully decipher non-verbal cues, whereas men are not as adept (Grammer et al., 2000). This non-verbal communication barrier between men and women inhibits messages from being understood. These mixed perceptions of flirting behaviours between men and women only increase the opportunity for miscommunication when engaging in non-verbal flirting.


All in all, non-verbal flirting is comprised of a network of behaviours and communication tactics employed by males and females to attract one another in attempts to select a suitable mate. It has been demonstrated that non-verbal communication is important in the initial formation of relationships, despite the different preferences of the types of non-verbal cues between men and women. The explanation behind the different tactics employed by men and women can be linked back to evolutionary theories, such as parental investment theory. Particularly when engaging in non-verbal flirting interactions, the ambiguity and subtleties of cues can lead to miscommunications between the sexes. All in all, gender differences in human non-verbal flirting behaviours continue to be an area of interest from an evolutionary perspective due to the complexities involved in evaluating subconscious mating behaviours.

Literature Cited

Frisby, B., Dillow, M., Gaughan, S., & Nordlund, J. (2011). Flirtatious Communication: An Experimental Examination of Perceptions of Social-Sexual Communication Motivated by Evolutionary Forces. Sex Roles, 64(9-10), 682-694.

Grammer, K., Kruck, K., Juette, A., & Fink, B. (2000). Non-verbal behavior as courtship signals: the role of control and choice in selecting partners. Evolution And Human Behavior, 21(6), 371-390.

Henningsen, D. (2004). Flirting with Meaning: An Examination of Miscommunication in Flirting Interactions. Sex Roles, 50(7/8), 481-489.

Kotlyar, I., & Ariely, D. (2013). The effect of nonverbal cues on relationship formation. Computers In Human Behavior, 29(3), 544-551.

Moore, M. (2010). Human Nonverbal Courtship Behavior—A Brief Historical Review. Journal Of Sex Research, 47(2-3), 171-180.

Ponseti, J., Dähnke, K., Fischermeier, L., Gerwinn, H., Kluth, A., & Müller, J. et al. (2018). Sexual Responses Are Facilitated by High-Order Contextual Cues in Females but Not in Males. Evolutionary Psychology, 16(1).

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