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Flirting Fundamentals : A Glance, a Smile--So Sexy, So Subtle . . . So Scientific

October 03, 1994|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You probably shouldn't know about Monica Moore's research.

You think you want to know, but really you don't. If you did, you'd be too self-conscious to do what comes naturally. For while the rest of us fumble through life clutching our hearts and throats, this woman observes us and simply knows.

For almost 20 years, Moore, an experimental psychologist, has been studying flirting. In fact, she has spent a career turning an immensely subtle art into science. Which is a little like reducing Mona Lisa's smile into a neurological tic.

Moore, a professor at St. Louis' Webster University, and her teams of graduate students spent hundreds of hours in bars and student centers covertly watching women and men court, and painstakingly recording every smile and laugh.

After feeding all the data into a computer, Moore came up with a catalogue of 52 gestures women use to signal their interest in men. Think of it as L.L. Bean's Love Collection.

This is one of those studies congressmen like to rail against when it involves a federal grant. But Moore, the Jane Goodall of human courtship, is quite serious about her work.

"People see flirting as so frivolous," she says. "But I'd argue that to know about all this is very important because it helps explain human relations."

Like Charles Darwin, Moore began with the premise that women make the initial choice of a mate. And from there the courtship process begins. Western cultures wrongly assume men control the process, she says, because they focus on the far more obvious second stage of courtship: The approach. But Moore contends it all begins when girl eyes boy--and smiles or smoothes her skirt or licks her lips. And study after study showed that how attractive a woman is is less important than her flirting skills.

"So she gets the first turn, then he gets a turn. Each time one signals the other they are reaffirming their choice. Either one can opt out at any time along the way."

In fact, Moore's studies decode the obvious. The only surprise is that such excruciatingly erotic behavior can sound so boring.

Listen to her description of "neck presentation":

"The woman tilted her head sideways to an angle of approximately 45 degrees. This resulted in the ear almost touching the ipsilateral shoulder, thereby exposing the opposite side of the neck. Occasionally the woman stroked the exposed neck area with her fingers. . . ."

But Moore isn't writing for True Romance. Rather, she publishes in such scintillating academic journals as Semiotica and Ethology and Sociobiology.

The best part of her study on gestures, which included observing 200 women over two years, is the list.

To attract a man, women most often smile, glance, primp, laugh, giggle, toss their heads, flip their hair and whisper. Sometimes they hike their skirts, pat a buttock, hug, request a dance, touch a knee and caress.

Moore's description of one of the most frequent signals--"solitary dancing"--would make anyone who has ever been in a singles bar squirm.

"While seated or standing, the woman moved her body in time to the music. A typical male response was to request a dance."

In fact, there is something risky about Moore's work and she knows it. And so after one of her students came back from spring break boasting that it took 12 minutes of signaling to get a man to her side at an airport bar--and then she ignored him--Moore instituted an ethics policy for her graduate students.

"I didn't want them to misuse their knowledge," Moore says.

Moore began her research in flirting in the late 1970s when she herself was a graduate student in search of a dissertation topic. Her adviser suggested she pick something fun, and all she could think was: "Food, sex, food, sex, food, sex."

Later Moore heard an anthropologist lecture about biological theories of human female choice, which started Moore wondering how women made decisions about who they choose.

Moore interviewed 100 women asking what it was about the men they were seeing that made them sexy. But interviewing techniques presented too many problems, so she decided she had to make objective observations of women making choices. In other words, she wasn't as interested in when Harry met Sally as what Sally was doing with her hands at the time.

"I had to make a list," she says.

Moore doesn't have a similar list of men's gestures. All she knows is that men send out undirected signals of power and attractiveness by puffing up their chests or checking their watch or smoothing their ties. "But they don't do what women do," she says. "Once a woman looks around the room, she settles on one or two men and starts sending out the signals."

It's amazing how intricate her research is.

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