If you feel like nobody gets it when you’re trying to flirt with them, you’re right. A trio of researchers at Stanford University recently found that humans are sort of terrible at picking up on flirtatious behavior; a computer program the team designed, on the other hand, is pretty good at it.
Dan Jurafsky, a linguist at Stanford, used some of his previous research on flirting to design the “flirtation-detection system” used in this study: Lots of talking, laughing, and disfluency — a term meaning interrupted flow of speech (read: awkward pauses) or the tendency to repeat a word — tends to give away a flirt. The researchers then listened in on grad students at a speed-dating session, equipping each participant with audio recorders; they ended up with audio from 946 four-minute dates. They also asked each participant to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how flirty they and their dates were during their time together.
The results: Women were okay, able to judge with 62 percent accuracy when a man was flirting with them. Men were worse, accurately guessing that a woman was flirting just 56 percent of the time. The Stanford guys’ flirtation-detection system, in comparison, was able to correctly judge flirting with 71 percent accuracy.
Sometimes science gives us information we can put to immediate use, and this is one of those times. This study found that men who said they were flirting tended to ask more questions; they also laughed more. These guys tended to use certain words more frequently: we and you, for example. They also used more sexual words (love, passion, sex, screw), angry words (hate, hell, stupid, sucks, shit), and negative words (bad, weird, hate, crazy, difficult). They spoke faster and at a higher pitch, but they also spoke more softly than the men who weren’t flirting.
Women who are flirting, on the other hand, have a wider range of pitch to their voices; they tend to speak both higher and lower than women who aren’t trying to flirt. Like the guys, they also laugh more, and they also use certain words with higher frequency: I and well, plus more sexual terms. No real surprise there. But flirting women also tend to talk more overall, using more words in general, but fewer of the kinds of words and phrases often deployed to indicate listening: uh-huh, yeah, right, wow, that’s true.
So why aren’t people very good at picking up on flirting? We believe people are flirting when they aren’t, or vice versa, because it’s what we want to hear, Jurafsky and colleagues argue; we project our own feelings onto our dates. Keep in mind that these were only four-minute-long dates — surely, given a longer period of time, people get better at recognizing a flirt when they see one, right? Either way, I’d like to borrow that flirt-detecting machine thing, please.