The Facial Expression Men Always Interpret As Flirting

As much as communication between men and women while dating and mating nearly proves we are two different species, rather than two different sexes, there are still expressions that bridge the communication gap. Well, maybe not a lot of expressions, but at least one was proved in a series of scientific studies to be a clear, mutually understandable signal.

In order to answer the question, "Is there a unique, identifiable facial expression representing flirting — and if there is, what does it convey, and how effective is it?" a three-person research team conducted six related studies, published in the Journal of Sex Research, that used the Facial Action Coding System (FACS). FACS was developed in the 1960s and is based on 23 different facial movements that express various emotions. In 2002, FACS was modified, and, per Psychology Today, the research team used the later version.

In the first study, male university students were shown photos of women making various facial expressions, from neutral to happy to flirtatious, and were asked to rate the flirtatiousness of the photos. Of the 482 photos, 18 were noted to be highly flirtatious. In a later study, the photos were whittled down to the two most flirtatious, which were recognized as such by 77 and 71 percent of the male participants (via PsyPost). The researchers used FACS to analyze the components of the flirtatious faces, and came up with a model.

What makes a female face flirty?

The most clearly flirtatious expression was composed of a head turned to the side and tilted slightly downward, with a slight smile, and eyes gazing forward at the object of desire. The faces that had a wide or conversely, a very subtle smile, or when the woman's head was tilted up instead of down were deemed to be much less flirtatious. The researchers believe such faces were probably too ambiguous or interpreted as simply being friendly.

In two later studies, the male participants were shown either flirtatious or non-flirtatious photos, then were asked if a string of letters represented a word or not. The words were either neutral or related to sex. The men who were first presented with the flirtatious photos were quicker to identify the sex-related words than the neutral words, and were also quicker than the men presented with the non-flirtatious photos.

So what do these results mean when it comes to communication between men and women out in the wild? In science-speak, the flirtatious photos activated "sex-related schemas" in the men who viewed them. In common parlance, such photos gave men ideas. The researchers concluded that most men were able to recognize a certain female expression as flirtatious. And, as one of the researchers said, their studies proved that the flirty expression had a function: "to activate associations related with relationships and sex" (per ScienceDaily). In other words, flash a man that expression with the coyly tilted head, slight smile, and directly gazing eyes, and they'll take it from there.