I’d like you to think of the last time someone winked at you – or indeed you winked at someone else, because I’ve got some really interesting research that shows that we have to be really careful when winking at other people because it can be interpreted in so many different ways.

Winking is a strange behavioural phenomenon when you think about it – why do we choose to shut our eye and open it very quickly when we’re interacting with other people? Well, the reason I’m looking into this is because of an email I received a few weeks ago asking me whether I was aware that at the end of quite a few of these Meetology Minutes I tended to do a quick wink.

The answer is that certainly on some occasions I was, but on other occasions I definitely wasn’t, so I looked into some of the research behind this phenomenon. Now there’s not a lot out there but there’s one study I want to focus on from psychologists at New Mexico State University from 2009.

In the research they asked people to go up to random strangers on a college campus outside a shopping mall and ask them for the time and, when they’d been asked the time, those that had asked were asked just to quickly wink at the person who’d given them the time of day.

Once this had been done those who had been asked the time were grabbed by a researcher and asked how they interpreted the wink.

What’s interesting here is the range of responses. On the positive side, some of the people questioned said that when this person winked at them, it was positive, it was friendly, and it was probably a thank you to them for giving the time. Some people thought it was romantically flirtatious which might be okay if that’s your goal but if it’s not then it cause real problems. More serious were the people who thought there was definitely an ulterior motive, some people thought the person was trying to be cool and perhaps most hilariously, and probably negatively, some people thought the person who was asking the question must have an eye problem!

Winking is a behaviour that seems to be coming less common but be aware when you do as there is a real chance t could be misinterpreted!

Jonathan Bradshaw
International Speaker & Trainer on World-Class People Skills


Lindsey, A. Elizabeth, and Valerie Vigil. “The interpretation and evaluation of winking in stranger dyads.” Communication Research Reports 16.3 (1999): 256-265.