BY ERIN MCANALLY
Human attraction works in mysterious ways. How and why we are attracted to each other can be incredibly intricate and complicated. From seasoned anthropologists to burgeoning bloggers to love-themed reality television stars, tons of people dedicate their time and energy attempting to suss out some universal truths about what human beings find attractive. Though Charles Darwin waxed poetic about how he believed mate selection was entirely dependent on looks, we now know that there is much more to the story of what makes us interested in a potential partner.
First of all, standards of beauty can be merely trends that are susceptible to cultural shifts. Practices that were once considered gorgeous like footbinding or tweezing eyebrows into oblivion proved to be passing fads. According to Psychology Today, the reasons behind why we want who we want can be super complex and include a mixture of looks, behavior, and chemistry. And, of course, there are some behaviors that seem to be considered attractive to most everyone on the planet, like being kind and being a good listener.
Keeping all that in mind, it starts to get really interesting when we take a deep dive into all the unique and surprising behaviors that people around the world find attractive.
Singing your heart out
It might come as a surprise to know that in some cultures if you pull out the microphone and belt out some of your favorite tunes you might attract special someone. According to a recent study from the University of Oxford, singing has great ice-breaking power in social situations and participating in sing-alongs “can get groups of people to bond together more quickly than other activities can.”
Amongst the Miao ethnic minority in China, singing is a courtship signal. According to NPR, “Legend has it that the Miao’s distinctive piercing tones carry far in order to attract distant partners outside their own kin.” According to village boss Old Gao, Han Chinese people look at a prospective partner’s abilities, physical looks, family wealth, and more, but “find a partner through singing.” Gao explained, “Even if someone is very ugly, the main thing is if they can sing, then they might be able to show love.”
All over the world, sites like KaraokeDating.com bring the concept into the modern dating era and connect singles who love to karaoke through an online dating platform, as they seem to know the power of a good sing-along.
Speaking multiple languages
Some humans find it super sexy to be able to speak in multiple languages. In 2018, Babbel released findings from a survey of 6,000 folks from around the world that showed that 75 percent of responders find being multilingual attractive.
What may come as even more of a surprise is that it appears that speaking multiple languages beats out appearances in terms of what people find more attractive in a mate. According to Babbel blog post, “Nearly all (93%) of the respondents agreed that a partner with language skills was much more appealing than a partner with a 6-pack/athletic build.”
In addition to upping the romantic game, multiple languages can have cognitive and career benefits. But according to a 2001 Gallop poll, only about one in four Americans can hold a conversation in another language. Fortunately, as Babbel reported, “If you’re lacking the skills, it’s never too late to learn.” So, just what language should you learn to get ahead in romance? According to Babbel, French got the top spot “as the most attractive language,” while Spanish and Italian were “neck and neck for second.”
Spending a year in service to potential in-laws
Possessing a volunteer spirit is pretty universally known to be attractive (though scientists are still working to figure out exactly why). More specifically, according to a 2015 study in Evolutionary Psychology, “the desirability of low attractive men who displayed high altruism was higher than that of high attractive men who displayed low altruism.”
While we know that service can be attractive (particularly to women), there is a courtship practice found in parts of Asia that may be surprising. In the Philippines, when a man is courting a woman, to prove his love and attractiveness to his potential partner he will perform the practice of paninilbihan. According to The Freeman, paninilbihan is when the man “does various household chores at the girl’s home in order to show her and her family his sincere intentions and love for her.” Such tasks may include cutting wood for a fire, bringing them well water, and helping to maintain the property. The Freeman reports, “It is a way of saying, ‘I will do anything to prove my love to you.'”
Dancing for love
Moving to the beat is known to spark love connections on dance floors all over the world. But in some cultures, it isn’t necessarily dancing with a partner that sparks the match. Instead, performing dances is the preferred method of wooing a potential mate.
We know that the animal kingdom incorporates dance into mating rituals (like birds of paradise) and while this ad hilariously depicts humans imitating the smooth moves of our animal kin, it might come as a surprise that humans can exhibit similar behaviors on the quest for love.
According to the BBC, the Wodaabe tribe of Africa put on beauty contests called Gerewol. The celebration involves eligible bachelors performing the art of Yaake dance for the single ladies of the tribe. Danish anthropologist Mette Bovin detailed in her book Nomads Who Cultivate Beauty that the dance moves emulate that of the cattle egret, a culturally significant bird to the tribe. The dance is done to attract the attention of the ladies. As a contestant told the BBC, “You dance Gerewol to try to win a lover, even if it is stealing someone’s wife,” noting, “You can marry her, or have a fling with her.”
Bathing in cow urine
Around the world, billions of dollars are spent every year on finding the perfect scent to entice a partner. From oils to perfumes to powders, humans have put much effort into smelling appealing. While some perfumes contain shocking ingredients like castoreum (the anal secretions of a beaver) and ambergris (a waxy lump from the intestines of a sperm whale), the practice of bathing in the urine of cattle is popular in a certain African tribe.
They Do What? A Cultural Encyclopedia of Extraordinary and Exotic Customs explains that cattle are of utmost importance to many East African pastoral groups. The urine of the animals is used in myriad of ways like as soap for hand washing, as a disinfectant, and as beauty products (specifically for hair bleaching). In particular, for the Dassanetch tribe, smelling like cattle is considered key to proving wealth and fertility. The practice involves men washing “themselves with cattle urine specifically to attain this odor.”
Cattle are also revered in India. India Today highlighted that the Gujarat Gauseva and Gauchar Vikas Board posted that a 15-minute facial massage of cow urine is essential for glowing skin.
Rubbing one’s body with onions
While on the subject of scents, culinary smells are known to be enticing in many cultures. But there’s one particularly wild food smell that is held in highest regard in the Dogon tribe from Mali of West Africa. According to Cultural Survival magazine, for decades, onions have grown to be a central cash crop and they play an integral role in everyday life for the tribe.
Author of The Smell Report, Kate Fox wrote that members of the Dogon tribe believe that sound and smell are interrelated as they both travel via the air. They believe that “good speech,” meaning appropriate grammar and pronunciation, smells good, and pleasant odors in this culture are considered to be cooking smell. Fox detailed the culture’s affinity for onions, noting, “For the Dogon, the scent of onion is by far the most attractive fragrance a young man or woman can wear.”
To that end, “young Dogon men and women will fry the onion plant in butter and rub it all over their bodies as a perfume,” according to Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell.
Flexing your culinary muscles
With the number of cooking shows on the rise and an abundance of singles’ cooking classes all over the world, it comes as no surprise that kitchen skills can be an attractive character trait. According to a 2017 study by Zoosk, mentioning the word “cook” on a dating profile resulted in 26 percent more incoming messages than profiles without it. Seems people like a chef.
What is surprising is the number of women who find that men who are passionate about cooking are more attractive than those who partake of other traditional “manly” hobbies. It isn’t merely the act of concocting a perfect date night meal that makes women swoon. Myndplay, brain and emotion researchers in the UK, and appliance company Sunbeam learned from a study that “a man doing his barista thing or just baking a cake scored more highly than one using a power drill or sawing wood, for example.”
When their findings were turned over to sexology expert Dr. Nikki Goldstein to interpret, she added that women “don’t always need someone who can fix things or handle power tools and that cooking or baking can be a more thoughtful gesture in today’s busy society.”
Gift giving can certainly up the ante in an attempt to woo a mate. Many ancient and modern courtship rituals involve gift giving from both sexes. Lavish presents like the bling Richard Gere presented to Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman are known to impress. Food, clothing, jewelry, livestock, you name it — it has been given as a gift in the quest for love. Psychology Today revealed that there have been many scientific studies on the matter.
But surprisingly in the South Pacific, certain cultures hold one particular handmade craft in the highest regard: mat weaving.
In the Philippines, we know that men attempt to up their profile by serving their lady’s family, but there is more to the story on Santiago Island. In the village of Salud, locals dedicate themselves to the art of mat weaving. Not only are the mats an export of the area, but their creation is key to attraction. According to the Manila Bulletin, village elders said that “every bachelor here who intends to court a woman must first know how to process the buri leaves for weaving.” They then join with their potential love to weave the mats together under the watchful eye of the woman’s mother.
Playing hard to get in the Phillippines
When it comes to dating, most people are familiar with the phrase “playing hard to get.” But in parts of the Philippines, they really up the ante on the game of love. We already know that paninilbihan is part of the courting process where the man serves the family of his potential bride to woo her. But her role in response is to pretend like she isn’t that into his displays of affection in order to further entice him.
The word pakipot is synonymous with “playing hard to get” in Filipino culture. In order to be considered attractive, women have to restrain their true feelings and hide behind shyness in order for the suitor to truly prove his sincerity to her. In fact, sometimes this takes years of back and forth for the courtship to turn into an official engagement. According to CNN, the ancient practice still exists, but, in modern times, we see the fellas getting in on the action as well. Writer Stanley Chi gave his two cents to FHM on switching up the gender roles when he said, “Yes, pagpapakipot isn’t exclusive to girls. If they can play hard to get, so can we!”
Playing the love flute
It might be a surprise to learn that the flute comes into play in the realm of alluring behaviors. Historically, in tribes like the Lakota, suitors would play intricately carved woodwinds to woo potential love interests, mimicking an elk’s whistling call. According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, for the Woodland tribes, “a young man would arrive in the evening outside of her family’s home and play a beautiful love song on his courting flute. The pleasing tones of the instrument, rising and falling in slow sliding cadences, served to entice her into falling in love with him.”
While Ed Wapp Jr, an instructor at the Institute of American Indian Arts, stated that few learned to craft and play the courting flute for some time, there looks to be a resurgence of folks picking up the hobby. According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, “Today, flute players can be heard playing traditional love songs as well as new compositions at tribal fairs and pow-wows across North America.”
Gaining weight on blood and milk
Outward appearances are certainly subject to trends that wax and wane. Throughout history, there have been times when a little excess weight was considered a status symbol and then there have been times when the goal was to have a rail-thin body. Point being that it varies from culture to culture and time period to time period.
In one culture in Africa, the Bodi people consider big bodies to be beautiful, and the men of the tribe are willing to go a long way to attract the opposite sex and gain notoriety amongst their community. According to French photographic journalist Eric Lafforgue, unmarried Bodi men are allowed to participate in a New Year celebration called Kael, in which they aim to gain weight. He explained on his Facebook, “Bodi men are overweight because they consume large amounts of blood and milk. This is a tradition that measures the body fat of a contestant.” The winner of the contest is considered a hero for life.
The Daily Mail detailed the lengths to which the men will go to fatten up for the yearly contest, and it gave a glimpse into just how much milk and blood has to be consumed for the men to achieve their desired weight.
Getting face tattoos
As reported by Psychology Today, a recent study out of Poland showed that women do not necessarily find men with tattoos more attractive. This isn’t universally true, though. The ancient art of facial tattooing has been around for thousands of years and is found in pockets of cultures around the world, even if not known for its widespread use.
In Inuit culture, a woman possessing facial tattoos was considered very attractive. According to author Ashleigh Gaul in Uphere magazine, “It was mainly a women’s art. Just like the saying goes, ‘you can’t take a wife until you’ve learned how to build an igloo’ a girl wasn’t marriageable until her face was marked…” Gaul further explained that the tattoos served to show that the woman had “learned the essential women’s skills,” such as “how to chop ice and melt it for water” and “make and repair sealskin boots.”
Tattoo artist Mike Austin told Gaul about a resurgence of the practice in the modern era after the tradition fell off due to western influence. He stated, “They’re taking the old tattoos and they’re starting to do different stuff with them. They’re not necessarily traditional designs, but they have a traditional feel.”
Caring for a pet
Animals have a way to our hearts, and pet ownership may just be a marker that someone is capable of responsibility and kindness. But just how attractive do people find pet ownership?
In 2008, French sociologists sent a man out to ask strangers on a date, as reported by Psychology Today. For one half of the experiment, he was solo and, for the other half, he had a pooch with him. He was only successful 10 percent of the time he was alone, but, with his companion, he scored 30 percent of the ladies’ digits. According to a study conducted by Anthrozoos, about 73 percent of women and 53 percent of men said they would not even date someone if they did not like pets. Furthermore, approximately 35 percent of women and 26 percent of men said they were more attracted to people because they were pet owners.
And while the ever-present dog lover vs. cat lover debate might not seem like it would come into play, according to the same study, it looks like dog owners have a leg up when it comes to attracting a human companion. Sorry, cat people!