Science of People - Logo

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

Imagine standing outside a popular bar on a Saturday night with a clipboard and pen. As each drunken patron stumbles out the door, you ask them:

“Did anyone hit on you?”

That’s exactly what 140 trained researchers from the University of Toronto did. They wanted to know how successful sexual advances are on the average night.

And they learned all about the Art of Rejection. Bottom Line:

Men have a really hard time noticing when someone is not interested.

Nope, not all that shocking. What is surprising is that most rejection comes from miscommunication and misunderstandings that happen during flirting.

So, if you want to avoid that awkward did-he-just-touch-my-butt moment, here are some subtle body language tips you can use in bars to thwart unwanted advances:

By the way, are you a natural at body language?

Vanessa Van Edwards Research Lab

Can You Read Body Language? (Quiz)

How good are your body language skills? Take our free body language quiz to find out!

Infographic showing how to reject someone in 10 steps

Rejection Tip #1: Torso Turn

If you want to show someone you are not interested, the easiest thing you can do right away is turn your torso away from them. When we’re engaged with someone, we aim our torso toward them as a sign of respect. So if you’re not feeling it, an easy way you can show it is by aiming your torso away. This not only makes the distance between the two of you bigger, it also nonverbally says to them, “Step away.”

Rejection Tip #2: Shake Your Head No

If the torso turn doesn’t work, the second thing you can try is shaking your head “no.” We shake our head from left to right when we don’t want something. You can do this while you’re speaking, as a way to nonverbally emphasize or bold your verbal no. You can also nod negatively while they’re speaking. So if they say, “Hey, you want to dance?” or “I’d love to get your number,” you can start shaking your head no right away, and that already tells them, “Ah, I’ve crossed a line.”

Rejection Tip #3: Blocking

Blocking is especially useful for close talkers:

  • You can hold your drink in front of you so that they can’t lean forward. The drink blocks them.
  • You can also do this with your purse by holding it in front with both hands.
  • A more subtle way of blocking is to layer up—zip up your jacket, wrap your scarf around, or add on new layers. This signals you are closing rather than opening up.

Blocking is a nonverbal sign of taking a step back, like saying, “I need more space!” And women, especially, get very uncomfortable when someone comes into their physical space.

Rejection Tip #4: Say It Like You Mean It

Sometimes when women are nervous, they use the question inflection. This inflection is when the voice goes up at the end of a sentence.

Instead of saying, “I don’t want to dance!” they say, “I don’t want to dance?”

The question inflection tells a man: I’m not sure about that “no.” Men hear “maybe” and are more likely to keep pushing. If you’re going to say no, say it like you mean it and use the authoritative tone.

Rejection Tip #5: Cross Your Limbs

You want to tell them, “No,” instead of, “Go!” and this means closing your body off-limits. An open body, with relaxed arms and legs, invites them closer, so I want you to think of a  closed door versus an open one. It’s much harder to get through a closed door because of the barriers–and that’s exactly what you need to create:

  • Cross your legs. Point your knees and toes away from them if you’re sitting. Make sure not to become unbalanced—you want to stand on firm ground and show them you really mean it.
  • Cross your arms. Create a barrier of no entry by closing your torso off.
  • Stop gesturing. Hand gestures are a fantastic way to invite attention and look more expressive. When you’re trying to reject someone, you want the opposite. Keep your arms and hands close to your body and refrain from creating unwanted movement.

Rejection Tip #6: Clench Your Fists

In the world of body language, open palms signal 3 things:

  • you have nothing to hide
  • you are being honest
  • you’re inviting the other person in

Turn that around, and you’ve got closed palms. Clenching your fists when rejecting someone is a useful cue because you’re effectively showing them your primitive weapons.

A graphic showing closed and open palms. Closed palms creates fear in others, while an open palm signals trust.

Clenched fists can be an angry cue, show hostility, and signal closing off. Couple your crossed arms with clenched fists, and you’ve effectively doubled your barrier to entry.

Rejection Tip #7: Negative Microexpressions

Some people have this one problem: they are too darn happy all the time.

  • Got fired from the job? Happy as a bee.
  • Neighbor yells at you for stepping on the grass? Happy x100.
  • Creepy, smelly guy at the bar keeps flirting with you? Nothing but happy.

If you really want to reject someone, avoid the smile at all costs. The smile is a flattering way of inviting someone closer—it’s like you’re giving him the green light that you like his approach.

Couples who are attracted to each other will smile around each other, but if you’re trying to push someone away, you wouldn’t be smiling, right? And if you’ve already got the stone-face body language or resting bitch face going on, why not add in the pursed lip?

This is the stern mother’s way of saying, “Don’t you dare take another step.” Add in other negative facial microexpressions like disgust, contempt, or anger for that extra oomph.

He gets it. You get it. Everyone gets it. Win-win!

Rejection Tip #8: Ditch The Eye Contact

Never underestimate the power of a sustained gaze in a relationship. In an oft-cited 1970 study, social psychologist Zick Rubin attempted to measure romantic love by tracking the eye contact of couples left in a room alone together. Couples who reported a stronger love connection when surveyed also held eye contact for longer periods of time than couples who reported feeling less in love.

When there’s a dip in loving gazes, it’s worrisome, said Traci Brown, a body language expert and author of Persuasion Point: Body Language and Speech for Influence.

“Eye contact takes some level of intimacy,” she said. “People look at things they like! If it diminishes, you know you’ve got trouble.”

Rejection Tip #9: Spread Your Legs

Manspreading might seem like something only men do, but you’ve gotta spread ’em to claim your territory. It might not scream “sexy,” but spreading your legs is a way to claim territory and stop someone from encroaching on it.

If we do the opposite and bring our legs closer, making ourselves appear smaller, we actually look more like an easy target and much more approachable. Most women will bring their legs inward when they feel insecure or uncomfortable—especially when they’re trying to reject someone.

But ignore your instincts and go bold. When you point your toes outward and take a wide stance, you are showing you’re not someone to be messed with.

Rejection Tip #10: The Cold Stare

If you’ve tried everything on this list so far, and nothing has worked…

Sometimes you’ve got to fight fire with fire. My red-button cue is the cold stare.

Furrow your eyebrows as if you just realized someone stole your favorite pair of pajamas, and remain in silence. Whatever you do, don’t break eye contact first.

99% of the time, this works. Whoever wins this battle of cold, hard stares will be the victor. Your friends will be impressed. You will be, too. And most importantly, nobody will mess with you again because you’re a cold, ruthless rejecter.

Way to go!

How to Friend-Zone Someone in 3 Steps

Are you looking for a one-size-fits-all formula for friend-zoning someone? First of all, there is NO single formula that works for every situation. Rejecting is harsh. Feelings are hurt. Nobody likes it.

But there are some steps you can take to minimize hurting others’ feelings. How do you reject someone nicely? Here are the 3 key steps to take:

Friend Zone Step #1: The Early Bird Catches The Worm… or Does It?

OK, you might feel like waiting and waiting might cue to them that you’re not interested. But in my experience, it’s best to friend-zone a guy quickly, before it becomes an ambiguous or toxic relationship. But there’s a catch:

  • Spot the signs of attraction. Usually, men will test the waters by showing one of the cues of male body language, such as tightening their muscles or taking up space. Women will also leak out female body language cues like showing a limp wrist or licking their lips. Knowing these signs can prepare yourself for when you DO have to friend-zone.
  • The Consideration Phase. If they finally ask you out, don’t wait too long to let them know—you can instantly reject someone if you want to. But if they’re a dear friend, simply telling them, “No,” might be a little too harsh. Instead, thank them, then give it some time—a day or two for some, or even a few minutes of consideration—to let them know you’re being considerate.

Friend Zone Step #2: Prepare Your Words

Remember that phrase “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” Yeah, they got it all wrong! Words DO hurt. So choose them carefully. You may even be asking yourself, “What do I say to friend-zone a guy?”

Here’s an example to step up your game. Imagine your guy friend comes up to you, and he nervously asks you out. You feel sorry for him, and you want to turn him down as lightly as possible. After you’ve taken time to consider it (or not), here’s how you can friend-zone him using one of the 3 Ss of Rejection:

  • Simple. “No, thank you.” Tell them, in simple terms, no. You don’t even need to provide a reason.
  • Subtle: “I’m really busy this week. And the next.” Subtlety is the art of misdirection. Avoid a straight answer by implying you have another obligation or commitment. Maybe you’re even committing to stay single… for the unforeseeable future.
  • Straightforward. “Hey, you’re really cool and all, but I’m just not into you. There’s just not that ‘spark’ between us that I’m looking for, and it’s best to remain friends.” Be as honest as possible and explain to him your situation. Perhaps you’re not looking for a guy. Maybe he’s coming off too strong. Or maybe you’re simply not attracted to him and want to stay friends. Be straightforward and ditch the subtlety.

Special Tip: You CAN ghost someone… even if it’s not polite. I don’t recommend ghosting your friends, or someone you’re going to see again. But if it’s a stranger, don’t feel you owe them a response.

Friend Zone Step #3: Move On

I know, the after-rejection phase can be extremely awkward and even stressful. Here’s how to survive the aftermath:

  • Embrace the awkward. Sometimes it may be so awkward that you just want to bolt and run. But remain grounded.
  • Give them time. Conjure up your sympathy here, because gathering up the courage to ask out someone is not easy. They’ll likely feel hurt and take a confidence hit. But don’t lead them on by giving them false hope—stay firm and give them time to process.
  • Consolidate. Where are your new terms? Are you friends? Coworkers? Classmates? Reaffirm that they are a “good XYZ,” and you are happy to keep it that way.

Bonus #2: How Do You Reject a Guy Over Text?

OK, so for whatever reason, you can’t show up in person. The next best option is a video call. And if you still can’t have face-to-face contact… you CAN do text. And remember:

The next rejection texts are personal and NOT generic.

Here are some text ideas to get your brain juices flowing:

#1: The Achieving Alice

“Hey, I’m really sorry to say, but I need to focus 110% on my career right now. I’ve got so many deadlines, and I can’t afford to spend my time doing anything else. I’m afraid I won’t have enough time to commit to a relationship.”

#2: The Uncertain Ursula

“Hey, you’re really amazing and all, but I’m just not sure I want to be in a relationship right now. This time in my life has been really fuzzy and uncertain lately. I hope you can understand.”

#3: The Secret Sammie

“I like you and all, but I really like someone else. He’s been on my mind SO much these days, and I really think he’s my soul mate. I’m sure you can understand.”

#4: The Break-Up Beatrice

“Maybe you don’t know, but I recently got out of a relationship. Things aren’t easy for me now, and I don’t want to dive into another relationship. I hope we can still be friends, though.”

#5: The Honest Jane

“Thanks for asking me out, but I just don’t feel a spark between us. It’s not that you’re not attractive, but I’m just not interested. I much prefer we keep our relationship as it is now—nothing more, nothing less!”

#6: The Shattered Shirley

“Oh my gosh, I appreciate you asking me out. But I just feel so shattered in my life right now. I’m just trying to rebuild my life from the ground up and don’t want to complicate things. I’m so broken and don’t want to drag you into my life. I hope you can understand.”

#7: The Friend-Zone Franny

“You know what? That took a lot of courage to ask me out. And I really appreciate that. But I think it’s best we stay friends. Our relationship is fun and amazing as we are now, and I don’t want to make it a romantic one. I’d really appreciate it if we could just stay friends!”

Why Does Rejection Hurt?

Have you ever faced a deep, dark pain whenever you’ve been rejected? Rejection is hard, but did you know our recent Twitter survey found that 76% of people would rather break an arm than be broken up with?

Rejection is a science. Find out why it hurts in our master guide here.

Some Interesting facts from the study:

  • 140 researchers were told to note every incident of aggression they saw out in the Toronto bar scene. 25% of the incidents they saw had some kind of aggression (groping, touching, blocking). And 90% of the acts were committed by men. (That means 10% of women can be sexually aggressive too!)
  • You might think men are too drunk to know any better, but that’s not what the research found! The researchers found that a man’s sexual advances did not match his level of intoxication. Instead, it matched the woman’s level of intoxication—in other words, men hit on women who were drunk.
  • Two-thirds of the aggression was physical, 17% threatened physical contact, and 9% verbally harassed their targets.

Crack The Code on Facial Expressions

The human face is constantly sending signals, and we use it to understand the person’s intentions when we speak to them.

In Decode, we dive deep into these microexpressions to teach you how to instantly pick up on them and understand the meaning behind what is said to you.

Don’t spend another day living in the dark.

Side Note: As much as possible we tried to use academic research or expert opinion for this master body language guide. Occasionally, when we could not find research we include anecdotes that are helpful. As more research comes out on nonverbal behavior we will be sure to add it!

How to Deal with Difficult People at Work

Do you have a difficult boss? Colleague? Client? Learn how to transform your difficult relationship.
I’ll show you my science-based approach to building a strong, productive relationship with even the most difficult people.

Get our latest insights and advice delivered to your inbox.

It’s a privilege to be in your inbox. We promise only to send the good stuff.

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.