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The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues

Love Signals I


Her loveliness I never knew
Until she smiled on me. --Hartley Coleridge, Song


And then it will come to pass that she will rest her eyes on the knight and he will rest his on her, and each will appear to the other as something that is nearer divine than human; and, without knowing how or why it comes about, they will find themselves caught and entangled in love's inextricable net, with a deep pain in their hearts at not being able to put into words their longings and desires. --Miguel de Cervantes (Don Quixote, 1605:162)




Courtship. Any of several nonverbal signs exchanged during the initial or attention phase of courtship.


Usage: In courtship's first stage, signals go out to announce a. "I am here," b. "I am female" (or "I am male"), and c. "I mean you no harm--you may approach." These are the generic courting cues animals send to notify potential mates of a. their physical presenceb. their sex, andc. their good will (i.e., "I won't attack"). Crickets, e.g., chirp, peacocks display, and lions nuzzle like kittens.

Presence I. Bright colors, floral prints, bold lines, and geometric shapes attract the eye (see BODY ADORNMENT), as do necklaces, bracelets, and watches that gleam in evening's dim (i.e., crepuscular) lights. Designed to spot colorful fruits and berries from a distance, our primate eyes notice feminine necks decorated with strings of round, pigmented beads (which catch eyes and whet a desire to reach out and touch what seems to be "edible"). Worn as corsages, flowers designed to lure pollinating insects attract the eye, as well, and tempt our nose with their sweet fragrance.

Presence II. Our mammalian nose detects the warm, musky aroma of animal steroids, such as the male hormone, testosterone (see AROMA CUE). From the beginning of life, sexual communication in plants and animals has relied on the chemical sense. And courtship today is no less reliant on smell, e.g., at a singles' bar, where a man's best cologne alerts a woman to his physical nearness, yet without overpowering her. (N.B.: Should his ordinary aftershave come on too strongly, he violates the "good intentions" rule. "'Seduction doesn't have to be dangerous,' says Michael A. Perelman, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry specializing in sex and marital therapy at Cornell Medical Center in New York. 'And excitement is likeliest to come when people feel safe'" [Dyett 1992:95].)

Presence III. At parties men claim mini-territories, marking the immediate area around them with personal possessions (e.g., newspapers, cell phones, and car keys) set in the reach-space beside their drink glasses, finger food, and napkins. His artifact scatter is a sign of presence: "I am here," and from fixed courting stations (like those of the bowerbird [family Ptilonorhynchidae]), he and his colleagues sit and stand noticeably erect, puff out their chests, tell jokes, posture, and laugh loudly, as if to say, collectively, "We are here."

Presence IV. Meanwhile, women stay on walkabout through the party space--moving from table to couch to kitchen, to the restroom and back--skirting and brushing past the stationary men. A woman may seem to ignore them, but actually reads nonverbal reactions to her movements and gaze. She preens, sweeps her eyes from side to side across a man's line of sight, glances back and forth, and circulates. Her restless to-and-fro bespeaks presence: "I am here."

Gender I. We exaggerate sexual identity to make our gender messages absolutely clear. Grooming signals (e.g., makeup, hair cues, facial hair) and apparel (e.g., high heels, baseball caps, scarves) embellish natural signs to make our sexual preference obvious at a glance.

Gender II. Makeup conceals blemishes and highlights youthful features for men to see. To mimic the ideal courting face of an 18-year-old, women cover wrinkles with flesh-colored powders and creams. Smooth skin seems "youthful" to men, who are very visual creatures in courtship (and for whom seeing is usually believing). Feminine eyes, cheekbones, and lips are marked with pigments to be more visible, expressive, and striking at close quarters and from across a room. The nose is downplayed with makeup, so as not to interfere with theinfantile schema (i.e., wide-set eyes and full lips set upon soft, smooth, unblemished skin; see below, Intentions II and RESEARCH REPORTS). (N.B.: Beauty's essential template is the "baby face," with taut cheeks and prominent cheekbones, as pictured on magazine covers throughout the world.)

Gender III. A man's wrinkles need not be covered because facial lines work in his favor. Horizontal folds on the forehead, vertical creasesbetween the eyes above the nasal bridge, and slanted naso-labio grooves (running from the nostril bulbs to the lip corners) give his face strength-connoting "character." Additional strength comes with a moustache (bestowing a "fierce" expression) or a beard (to "widen" the lower jaw). Nonverbally, a man's face plays two roles in courtship: a. attracting women, and b. intimidating rivals. The ideal face (as, e.g., seen in the "sexiest men" profiled annually in women's magazines) combines "rugged" good looks (square jaw, prominent cheek bones, medium brow ridges) with boyish (i.e., disarming) qualities (wide-set, large eyes; medium nose; suede-smooth skin).

Gender IV. "Women prefer men whose torso has an 'inverted triangle' shape (i.e., a narrow waist and a broad chest and shoulders). This is a shape consistent with physical strength and muscle development in the upper body" (Maisey 1999).

Gender V. Numerous studies have found that both men and women rate as being "more attractive" those women whose waists are visibly narrower than their hips; however, ". . . compared with face research, research on the human figure is in a poor state" (Henss 2000:501). 

Gender VI. "Like water, bare skin reflects light at night. Nothing under the moon, not even satin or diamonds, lights up your face and brightens your eyes like a deep decolletage"(Vienne 1997:154).

Intentions I. In courtship, coming-on too strongly or too soon is apt to scare a partner away. Men and women need visible signs to be reassured that moving closer is alright. Because stranger anxiety incites mistrust, we need welcome signs to draw us near (See, e.g., HEAD-TILT-SIDEPALM-UPSHOULDER-SHRUGSMILE).

Intentions II. "It [i.e., regarding infantilisms] is a widespread phenomenon among mammals and birds that the male activates the female's brood-tending instinct in order to approach her and break down her individual barrier. In practice, this means that the male goes through various behavior patterns peculiar to the young of the species, thereby eliciting suitably friendly reactions from the female and facilitating sexual advances" (Hass 1970:75).

Media. According to an Oregon State University study conducted by Elaine Pedersen, and reported in the Washington Post (Morin 1995), a.women college students ranked "buttocks" seventh in importance out of 17 attractive male bodily traits; b. men students ranked breasts ninth out of 18 attractive female traits (women ranked breasts 13th); and c. women ranked male eyes second, while men ranked female eyes fifth, in physical attractiveness. 

RESEARCH REPORTS1. "Behavior patterns from the realm of parental care are particularly suited for group cohesion because cherishing behavior is primarily understood by the child as friendly. Conversely the mother is adjusted to the signals emitted by the young animal and reacts to them by looking after it" (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1971:119). 2. "We are left with the more realistic view that the plumage [of the peacock's tail] is for intimidating other males . . ." (Turner 1984:37).


E-Commentary: "I am making a documentary here in England about attraction, relationships and blindness, and am very interested in your views on the exact relevance of 'the visual' in attraction, and what might happen when this is removed. How might you expect flirting to operate, and how much is physical appearance of genuine importance when choosing a mate?" H.B., Producer/Director, Channel Four Television, U.K. (99-02-01 10:36:38 EST)






Cover of David Givens's book, Love Signals: A Practical Field Guide to the Body Language of Courtship (New York: St. Martin's Press [2005, 2006])