Show, Not Tell: How We Say “˜I Like You’

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Having a conversation with someone is not merely about the words we utter; rather social interactions also involve a wealth of non-verbal cues, which can serve to enhance, decrease or even confuse liking for a person.

Within social psychology, non-verbal communication is perhaps one of the most well-studied fields of research, though in truth many such studies are plagued by the difficulty of reducing non-verbal communication to a few expressions that can be studied systematically.

Indeed, most people can produce countless thousands of facial expressions and about a thousand paralanguages, which says nothing yet of physical gestures, body language, hand movements, eye contact and touch—all of which have an influence on our attraction towards a person (and of course, a person’s attraction toward us).

Most people tend not to be aware of the non-verbal cues they use or that they are being influenced by others’ use of such cues. Having said that, a consistent finding in the literature, which highlights the influence of gender roles, is that women are more adept at recognizing ‘covert messages’ such as deceptive communications and may also be more likely to use non-verbal messages that contradict the verbal message (for example, sarcasm accompanied by a smile).

Eagly (1987) has explained these differences as being related to child-rearing strategies, in which girls are encouraged to be more emotionally expressive, attentive and communicative than boys.

Perhaps the most important and information-rich of all non-verbal cues are gaze and eye contact, the latter usually referring to mutual gaze. As various authors have pointed out, the amount and pattern of gazing provides a wealth of information about a person’s current emotions, their relative status, their credibility, honesty and competence and of course their attractiveness.

In general, people tend to gaze longer at people they like, and similarly, intimacy is communicated by greater gaze. So powerful is this effect that false information about gaze can affect our liking for a person: in one study, couples who had engaged in a ten-minute conversation were given false feedback on gaze. Participants who were told that they had been gazed at less than average were less attracted to their partners; by contrast, above-average gaze increased men’s, but not women’s, attraction for their partners.

Gaze can also serve to regulate interactions, both in terms of initiating a conversation, regulating the course of a conversation, and ending or avoiding being drawn into a conversation. But there may also be cross-cultural or cross-ethnic differences in this pattern of communication.  

For example, while Caucasian adults tend to gaze more when listening than when talking, African Americans gaze more when they are speaking than when listening. Clearly, this can complicate matters in interracial communications, as can a lack of eye contact during some conversations.

Another important form of non-verbal communication that can serve to enhance or decrease liking is touch, although as always there are many different types of touch to many different parts of the body, by different people and in different contexts. In terms of positive affect, a number of studies have shown that even the most fleeting of touches can enhance liking. 

But there are gender differences in these effects: women derive greater positive affect from being touched than do men (indeed, in a study by Whitcher and Fisher, men who were touched in the pre-operative conditions actually reported being more anxious post-operation), although the circumstances of the touch are important.

The take-home message of this section is that physical attraction does not take place in a vacuum; rather, individuals are remarkably adept at enticing, tempting, charming and influencing potential partners’ perceptions of them. This includes a host of non-verbal cues, such as body language and gaze, but also the use of cosmetics, clothing, and so on.

We are also able to deceive others into thinking that we are somehow better than we really are—a tactic that has provided the crux of more than one romantic comedy. And of course, once we begin to have conversation with a person, we are able to draw on a wealth of verbal ploys to entice her or him, whether this is the clichéd “chat-up line” or regaling stories about our ‘good side.’

More than this, language communicates not only by what we say but also by how we say it—the latter can include volume, speed, tone, pauses, stress, accent and so on, all of which have an effect on interpersonal attraction.

In related news, check out these 18 body language clues that signal he’s definitely interested.

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