Four years ago, Prof. Timothy Perper, a biologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, was an established expert on the behavior of rats. At 39, he was also emerging from a divorce. He realized, with “quite a shock,” he says, that although he knew how female rats sent out subtle signals when they were interested in a male rat, he understood next to nothing about the behavior of women. “I was interested in precopulative behavior or, to be less clinical, in courtship and flirting,” said Perper. “It had been years since I experienced dating—way back in high
school and college—and I didn’t know about it any more.” He went to work on the subject and is now preparing to publish the findings from his exhaustive study of 2,500 “flirtatious encounters.”
Funded with a $30,000 grant from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation in New York, his research involved visits to more than 50 bars, lounges and taprooms from Philadelphia, where he now lives, to Windsor, Ont., where he spent a week to determine whether Canadians flirted the same way as Americans (they do). And his principal conclusion, Perper told Maclean’s, is that not only do women initiate more than half of all flirting, but many men also miss the women’s subtle signals entirely.
Although Perper studied flirtation at parties and picnics, in college classrooms and even in supermarkets, he concentrated on bars because he believes that flirting happens faster there, and an observer can stay in the background unnoticed. The first flirtatious move is not always obvious, he found, particularly if it is made by a
woman. At a party she may simply stroll over to a refreshment table where a man is standing, or in a bar she may just stand close to where he is drinking. But then it is up to the man. “He has to look at her,” he said. “He has to indicate in some slight way that he is aware that she has come into his territory.”
When a man and a woman begin to talk, according to Perper’s observations, they tend to turn slowly to face each other. In a bar, that process can take more than half an hour. “If all is going well, as the turning process is under way,” he said, “one of them, usu-
ally the woman, will make the first touch. Often she will remove an invisible piece of lint from his jacket.” But again the man may not even realize that the touch—signalling that the woman is opening up to him—has been made.
If the budding relationship develops well, the next stage “has to be seen to be believed,” he said. “It’s called ‘body movement synchronization.’ The two people will lift their drinks together, their hand gestures will be exactly the same, they will move their heads in the same way at the same time. Eventually it goes to the whole body and they will shift their weight from one foot to the other at the same time. It is very intimate, a dance that they are sharing.”
After the bar closes, or the party ends, and the couple leaves together, the next developments remain a matter of speculation. “I don’t know,” Perper said, “because I don’t follow beyond this point.” In his own case, Perper has remarried since he began his study. He learned, he said, from observation. -WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.