When You Meet Someone New, Do You Smile, Bite Your Lip or Stretch? Dr. Givens Wants to Know

updated 03/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

In the 1963 film Beach Party, Robert Cummings portrays an anthropologist who, with telescope and eavesdropping gear, spies on a teenage surfing cult in California, observing G-rated mating rituals as performed by Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. Recently, at the University of Washington in Seattle, life has been imitating Hollywood. There Dr. David Givens, 37, a research anthropologist, sits unobtrusively in the student union, called the Hub, watching the mating rituals of undergraduate men and women. Givens, who received his doctorate from the university in 1976, has spent the last five years studying courtship patterns and has found more than 100 consistent types of behavior—mostly nonverbal body language—that signal whether a prospective partner is sexually turned on or off. From these he has discerned five distinct phases of courtship, the subject of a work in progress titled Courtship Signs. Givens, a divorce who has lived with special education teacher Doreen McKenna for seven years, discussed his theories with PEOPLE Assistant Editor Rebecca Bricker.

What is the first stage of courtship?

The attention phase. Suppose a woman is alone at a cafeteria table. A strange man takes the seat diagonally across from her. They acknowledge one another by nodding, but then break eye contact. She reads a book as she eats and doesn't glance at him. Like most men, he is hesitant to approach without some indication of interest from her. So he begins a series of unwitting, though conspicuous, body movements to attract her attention.

For example?

He may turn his body toward her. Without looking at her, he might gaze back and forth across her field of view. He might stretch his arms toward her or raise them over his head, expanding his chest and pulling in his stomach.

How might she react?

Sensing that his movements are addressed to her, she might glance at him curiously. Their eyes meet. She tosses her head, then looks away.

Does that mean she's not interested?

Tossing the head stimulates him to look—that's a positive signal. But it's also a sign of anxiety. The essence of the attention phase is ambivalence—potential courters have conflicting tendencies to avoid and draw near each other. Even smiles can be ambivalent, if they involve biting the lip or showing the tongue.

What do you mean?

By biting, licking or compressing the lips, for instance, my attention is diverted from the person who is stressing me. Similarly, adjusting clothing, touching the face or neck, or fingering hair are examples of activities that help relieve stress. A woman will grab her purse, grasp her neck or squeeze her arm. A man will straighten his shirt collar or play with his tie.

Back at the cafeteria table, what happens next?

The recognition phase begins. Aware that the man is ready to interact, the woman might discourage him by turning away, staring blankly at him, tilting her head back disdainfully. Compressing the lips or subtly showing the tongue also indicates contact may not be welcome.

Are there any definite come-on signals?

One of the most positive is the "meek cue," which is common among children. It's a reflex that involves tilting the head to the side, elevating the shoulders and rotating the feet to a pigeon-toed position. In courtship, these are signs of submission, used by both men and women, which give the other person implicit permission to approach. Even at homosexual leather bars, you'll see men attracting attention using rough-tough signals, then using the same meekness cues.

Aren't these signals hard to interpret?

Sometimes signals get crossed because of the stress of meeting a stranger. You may think a person who responds shyly to your signals doesn't like you or is stuck-up. My advice is to forge ahead, even if the signals don't look promising, and get to the conversation phase.

How does a typical conversation proceed?

At first conversation heightens anxiety. Partners respond in exaggerated ways—by nodding too much, gesturing vigorously and laughing loudly. Sometimes face-to-face contact is so traumatic people freeze—they can't even look at each other. Though the average person finds stress gradually diminishing during the conversation phase, some people can't relax and don't move on to the next stage.

Which is?

Sexual arousal. If the partners achieve some compatibility, they exchange a series of affectionate gestures by finding ways to "accidentally" touch each other. The first touch is usually done obliquely. For example, a man will finger a woman's jewelry—he'll take hold of her necklace and make a comment. A woman will touch a man's forearm as she's telling him a joke. Partners begin to indulge in stroking, caressing, massaging, nuzzling, kissing and so forth to communicate the emotional intimacy necessary to lead up to intercourse, which is the final resolution phase.

Does courtship behavior continue after the "resolution"?

Courtship fulfills itself in copulation. Afterward, flirting becomes unnecessary. It would be nice to keep that electricity going, but it's hard. Many married people are dismayed that courtship behavior is only temporary. When they go to parties, they flirt with other people, but not each other.

How can couples find lasting happiness?

It comes down to being good friends and understanding companions who enjoy sharing experiences. If the relationship is based on sexuality and attraction, it's apt to fail.

What do you think of singles bars?

The lights, the music and the drinks lower inhibitions, so people go through the whole courtship process in two hours. You end up with a sexual partner for the night, but not a mate.

What's the ideal setting for a first date?

A restaurant is perfect. The partners share food, the slow pace of eating helps them relax, their blood sugar increases and they're face to face for a sustained period.

Do courtship signals carry over into other areas?

Women have problems on the job getting men to accept their ideas because they use meek cues. I've videotaped female executives as they present their ideas. I generally advise them to stop elevating the shoulders, raise the head, not smile as much and lean forward on the table with hands clasped—in other words, do as men do. It works beautifully.

Will the growing assertiveness of women damage male-female relations?

Probably not during the next 10,000 years. A lot of men aren't assertive and like women who are.

Is the macho man dead?

There's a more realistic view of the male animal today. The Beatles were the first to dispel the old macho image of the craggy, muscular male. They made it fashionable to be skinny or have a large nose. Dustin Hoffman was the first non-macho man in film, and men identified with him because they couldn't identify with John Wayne.

Is macho behavior learned or innate?

Innate. Little boys swagger when they're being tough. Men swagger when they're escorting a female and other males are around. Male chimpanzees and gorillas do the same. It's a sign of fierceness to ward off encroaching males.

How do you conduct your research?

By unobtrusive observation—it's like the old Sherlock Holmes technique of reading a lot in minutiae. I'm presently researching macho behavior by hanging out at fast-food restaurants frequented by high school students. For my courtship study, I watched more than 200 couples on the University of Washington campus, in restaurants and parks. Courtship builds to a crescendo right there on the lawns.

Have your findings changed your social life?

My students are virtual statues around me for fear I'll interpret their body language. But I wouldn't analyze anyone unless I was paid to. The only trouble is, I'm aware of what I do and that makes me self-conscious.

Aren't you occasionally uncomfortable watching people?

Sometimes I feel like a voyeur. But since these are scientific projects, I feel justified. I've never used binoculars like Bob Cummings in Beach Party—except once. I was standing on a cliff by Puget Sound looking through binoculars at people on boats when I spotted someone looking at me with binoculars. I was flabbergasted.

From Our Partners