The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues

Love Signals IV

Courtship. Any of several signs exchanged during the fourth or touching phase of courtship.

Usage: From verbal and nonverbal cues exchanged in the speaking phase (see LOVE SIGNALS III), men and women progress to the fourth or tactile stage of courtship. Older than words, older than Homo sapiens--older even than vertebrates--touch encodes a primordial sense of closeness (see TOUCH CUE). Among the least ambiguous and most believable of signs, touch cues are profoundly "real" to the brain. Tactile messages lead couples ahead in the courting progression, often despite reasonable objections, to one of Nonverbal World's most rewarding experiences.

Baby signs. Humans are mammals, for whom reassuring hugs, snuggles, nuzzles, and kisses evolved as nurturing cues in the mother-infant bond. That we touch lovers softly, as parents caress babies, happens for sound evolutionary reasons. Just as enamored elephants intertwine their trunks and wooing whales nuzzle, so couples touch a. to stimulate the caring and b. to simulate the harmlessness, of infancy. Through the tactile channel, men and women "become each other's baby."

Culture1. "KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia--Islamic police turned Valentine's Day into a fright night for 208 Malaysian couples, raiding hotel rooms and lovers' lanes to enforce rules against illicit sex and cuddling [Islamic law forbids unchaperoned touching between unmarried couples]" (Anonymous 2001C:A5). 2. "'Adults would call it [the full-contact "freak dance" style sweeping U.S. high schools] the Kama Sutra with clothes on. That's what one of my chaperones calls it,' says East Valley High [Spokane, Wash.] Principal Jeff Miller" (Lalley 2001:F1).

First touch. The first touch--a milestone in courtship--is likely to seem casual, unpremeditated, and "accidental" rather than "serious." An eager hand reaches out to a neutral body part (e.g., to a forearm or shoulder) which reacts by accepting the contact or by pulling away. Sensitive tactile pads of our fingertips used as tactile antennae gauge the slightest startle (see STARTLE REFLEX), tenseness (see FREEZE REACTION), or hesitation of response. Negative replies include angling away (see ANGULAR DISTANCE), leaning away, and no reaction. Positive responses include a. lifting the shoulders (see SHOULDER-SHRUG), b. sideward head-tilt, and c. returning the touch with a touch. Thus, partners learn a great deal from the first manual contact, which deftly probes beneath words to feelings. Touching another's body, which captures full attention, is the evolutionary true test of where a partner stands.

Hugging. Primate holding in the arms, a natural mothering response, is met with clinging, an infantile sign of needing to be mothered. Thus,embracing is the evolutionary correct way to say "I love you," and the proper primate way to say "I need you" as well. As humans embrace, a gentle rocking motion from side to side occurs. Swaying, a positive sign, stimulates pleasure centers linked to the inner ear's vestibular sense. Thus, not only do we rock babies but also those adults we love as well.

Intention to touch. An unacquainted couple may telegraph unconscious wishes to touch by extending their arms and reaching their hands toward the partner across a table top. In courtship, the hand-reach is a commonly used intention cue.

Kissing. Locked in an embrace, ever so slowly the couple's heads may loom closer and closer, like docking spacecraft. Three inches away and closing, their faces roll several degrees right or left, in synchrony, so the noses will clear, and the lips begin a cautious link-up. The pair seals the fourth stage of courtship with a kiss (see also HOMUNCULUS).

RESEARCH REPORTS1. "Nuzzling, licking, sucking, playful biting, kissing, and so on, which appear to have a broad geographical distribution as sexually meaningful signs, can be used to communicate the emotional intimacy that is prerequisite to sexual intercourse" (Givens 1978:352). 2. "In courtship, only the ancient language of touch can convince and reassure us that the ultimate closeness, sexual intercourse, will be OK" (Givens 1983:83). 3. In the fourth stage, "The expressions of affection that appear match those between caregiver and child" (Burgoon et al. 1989:328).

E-Commentary I: "How can I distinguish when a relation is a courtship or only a friendship per nonverbals posture? Do you have some indication I can follow?" --Danilo S., Brazil (7/14/01 5:18:49 PM Pacific Daylight Time)

E-Commentary II: "Hi, Danilo--Thanks for your e-mail. Yes, courtship and friendship look very much alike, nonverbally. With courtship, though, you begin to see more and more touching. Other than that, like I say, the two are essentially alike. Good luck!" --David Givens (7/16/01 10:50:23 AM Pacific Daylight Time)

Neuro-notes I. Touch cues to the face travel through the trigeminal nerve (cranial V), which carries impulses received from the skin of the face, lips, and frontal scalp. Reflecting its importance, trigeminal is served by three sensory nuclei, extending from the upper spinal cord through the brain stem to the amphibian midbrain. Pleasurable "light" (i.e., protopathic) touch sensations travel from the principal and spinalnuclei through evolutionary-old pathways to the thalamus, then to primary sensory areas of the parietal cortex (i.e., the homunculus). In other mammals, trigeminal is connected to whiskers used to explore the world immediately about the head. Though we do not have specialized whiskers (or vibrissae), our upper-lip hairs are extremely sensitive to pleasurable "light" touches.

Neuro-notes II. The most sensitive area of our face is the perioral area (which includes the lips and nose). The perioral area receives "serious" touches in courtship. Gently blowing in a partner's ear is pleasurable, as well, through stimulation of cranial nerves VIIIX, and X. Soft, touching cues are pleasurable because the thalamus routes information received from them to areas of the mammalian brain (including thecingulate gyrusprefrontal cortex, and basal forebrain).


Love Signals, by David Givens