Interpersonal distance

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The distance you keep from the other person when flirting is important, because it will affect his or her impression of you, and the quality of your interaction. Perhaps even more importantly, paying attention to the other person's use of distance will tell you a great deal about his/her reactions and feelings towards you.

When you first approach an attractive stranger, having established at least an indication of mutual interest through eye contact, try to make eye contact again at about 4ft away, before moving any closer. At 4 ft (about two small steps away), you are on the borderline between what are known as the 'social zone' (4 to 12 ft) and the 'personal zone' (18in to 4ft).

If you receive a positive response at 4ft, move in to 'arm's length' (about 2ft 6in). If you try to approach much closer than this, particularly if you try to cross the 18in 'personal zone/intimate zone' border, your target may feel uncomfortable. The 'intimate zone' (less than 18in) is reserved for lovers, family and very close friends. If you are close enough to whisper and be heard, you are probably too close for comfort.

These distance rules apply particularly in face-to-face encounters. We will tolerate reduced interpersonal distances when we are side by side with someone. This is because when you are alongside someone, it is easier to use other aspects of body language, such as turning away or avoiding eye contact, to 'limit' your level of involvement with the other person.

You can therefore approach a bit closer than 'arm's length' if you are alongside your target -at the bar counter of a pub, for example -rather than face-to-face. But be careful to avoid 'intrusive' body-language such as prolonged eye contact or touching.

If you have misjudged the appropriate distance, in either a face-to-face or side-by-side encounter, the other person's discomfort may show in his/her body language. Your target may attempt to turn away or avert his/her gaze to avoid eye contact. You may also see 'barrier signals' such as folded or tightly crossed legs, or rubbing the neck with the elbow pointed towards you. If you see any of these signs, back off!

Finally, remember that different people have different reactions to distance. If your target is from a Mediterranean or Latin American country (known as the 'contact cultures'), he or she may be comfortable with closer distances than a British or Northern European person. North Americans fall somewhere between these two extremes. Different personality-types may also react differently to your approach: extroverts and those who generally feel at ease in company will be comfortable with closer distances than introverts and shy or nervous types. Even the same person may vary in tolerance from day to day, according to mood: when we are feeling depressed or irritable, we find close

Most of us are quite good at controlling our faces - maintaining an expression of polite interest, for example, when we are really bored to tears, or even nodding when we really disagree! But we tend to be less conscious of what the rest of our body is doing. We may be smiling and nodding, but unconsciously revealing our disagreement by a tense posture with tightly folded arms. This is known as 'non-verbal leakage': while we're busy controlling our words and faces, our real feelings 'leak out' in our posture.

When flirting, you should therefore watch out for signs of this 'nonverbal leakage' in your partner's posture - and try to send the right signals with your own posture.

Your partner's 'non-verbal leakage' can give you advance warning that your chat-up isn't working. If only his/her head is turned towards you, with the rest of the body oriented in another direction, this is a sign that you do not have your partner's full attention. Even just the feet starting to turn and 'point' away from you can be a sign that his/her attention is directed elsewhere, or that he/she is thinking about moving away. Leaning backwards and supporting the head on one hand are signs of boredom. 'Closed' postures with arms folded and legs tightly crossed indicate disagreement or dislike.

More positive signs to watch out for would be a partner's body oriented towards you, particularly if he/she is also leaning forward, and an 'open' posture. These are signs of attentiveness and interest or liking. Experiments have also shown that females are more likely to tilt their heads to one side when they are interested in the person they are talking to. Men should beware, however, of automatically assuming that these signs indicate sexual interest. Women should be aware of men's tendency to make such assumptions, and avoid signalling interest too obviously.

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