Alice is in love with Bob. It's very obvious. The writers make no effort to hide the fact. However, we aren't sure how Bob feels about Alice. Every once in a while, he'll do something incredibly romantic, and then turn it into a Just Friends or something similar. He may flirt with her often, but make it seem like it's playful and doesn't mean anything. Often he'll ask her out on a date, and after she accepts reveal it's a group affair, even though the conversation beforehand hinted it might be intimate one on one time.
The idea is that Bob spends the entire time straddling the line between showing genuine romantic interest and being indifferent, which is incredibly aggravating for Alice and just gives her more and more doubts because Bob won't give any signals one way or the other. Is he unaware? Does he just like playing with her? Does he consider her to be like a sister? Is he gay? She just can't tell. Every single statement he makes can be interpreted both ways, so when he gets done, Alice is left asking "Well, how am I supposed to interpret that?"
Alice can count her blessings, though. Nine times out of ten, when it's actually revealed how he feels, it will turn out that he did like her all along. Maybe he had the same doubts she did. Maybe he never thought of her that way, but once he did, realized it was true. Or sometimes he was sending mixed messages because he was genuinely confused. Either way, they'll usually end up together, unless he's the main character and she has a lot of competition.
Compare/Contrast Tsundere, whose "mixed messages" are on the far side of the emotional spectrum rather than hovering in the middle. May require Alice asking "Did You Think I Can't Feel?" If Bob drags it out. Compare I Didn't Mean to Turn You On. See also Ignored Enamored Underling, whose boss may be doing this on purpose.
For obvious reasons, she won't just ask him.
It gets worse in Takahashi's Ranma ½ series where this trope is beaten into the ground by every single member of the main teen cast towards each other in virtually every single combination possible. And a few of the adult cast too.
To a lesser extent, Gourry towards Lina in Slayers. Romance isn't played up all that much, but in the few times Gourry seems like he might be interested in Lina, something always happens to make us unsure again (it was usually some kind of spell or misunderstanding).
In the anime, the problem is usually that, while Gourry seems to be kind of affectionate, it's never clear whether or not he's intelligent enough to understand what volunteering to be Lina's "Protector for Life" implies.
In Axis Powers Hetalia, England is very strongly implied to be in love with America, but it isn't clear if America is simply oblivious and just being his usual tactless self towards him, is aware of England's feelings but only likes to lead him on before shooting him down, or does like England back but has the same personality problems as he.
One set of translated notes suggests that America is tactless on purpose, so it must be one of the latter two.
Probably Italy, as shown in Buon San Valentino. He doesn't realize that in Germany, red roses mean a confession. therefore, Germany is rather confused as to whether Italy was just showing a friendly gesture, or if he was, in fact, confessing to be in love with Germany. This is still up for debate.
In Overman King Gainer, Gainer Sanga makes no secret of his crush on his schoolmate Sara Kodama, but for pretty much half the series, it is not known if Sara feels the same towards him. Even when it does become clear that Sara reciprocates (she did get pretty jealous when Gainer was going to meet Cynthia...), she seems not to know what to do about it, and ends up sending her friend contradictory signs. In the end, though, it all ends well with Gainer and Sara heavily implied to have hooked up.
In Sasameki Koto, Ushio gives poor Sumika major headaches with this kind of behavior, although she tends to be more on the cute rather than the aloof side.
In Aoi Hana, Akira is more and more behaving this way toward Fumi, but in this case it's more an indication of Akira's confusion about having Fumi, a girl, confess to her.
Kyousuke of Ore no Imouto ga Konnani Kawaii Wake ga Nai light novels toward his childhood friend Manami, who has a crush on him. He calls her plain and unremarkable, yet says that this is his favorite thing about her since the unfamiliarity is comforting. He keeps saying how much he appreciates her, and enjoys his study sessions with her. He also tells her that every time he's with her it's like his soul is healed of his troubles. One time he offered to take her some place special, she accepts and they have a Not a Date at the park. There she hints at him to kiss her, and he misses the cue to her disappointment. He even wants to go to the same university as her to make their comfortable relationship last as long as possible. Yet, in all those instances, he always mentions (to himself and others) that he's definitely not in love with her.
His friend Kouhei even calls him out on this in one episode of the anime. Kyousuke describes his non-romantic interest in her as living with an old grandmother who then suddenly became a teenager again. Yet Kouhei asks if Kyousuke would get jealous if another guy pursued her, and he says he wouldn't approve of that. Kouhei sums it up as "Kyousuke won't pursue Manami romantically, but at the same time won't allow another guy to pursue her." Kyousuke answers "yes" to that with a straight face, which only further confuses his friend.
In Sora No Manimani Mihoshi loves Saku... but it's unclear if she loves him as a childhood friend or something else.
Holo is this to Lawrence in Spice and Wolf. The main problem is that Holo is massiveTease who engages in ungodly amounts of flirting (and is intimately comfortable with Lawrence physically) even though she knows their journey has to end and thinks a long-term relationship would only end in heartbreak. Furthermore, she intermittently a) coaches Lawrence to be more Genre Savvy about relationships and to act in a manner that she considers romantic, and b) manipulates him with those same behaviors to make fun of him and get things she wants. Throughout all this, she still has enough moments of honesty that they grow just about as close as possible without actually becoming a "couple".
It's a weird example of the trope, as she's not really being coy about the fact that she likes him, she just likes messing with his head until he has no idea how to react. And as the series progresses, he figures out how to get the better of her and starts treating her the exact same way. Which is why the series is awesome.
Miroku in Inuyasha. One moment he's doing sweet things for Sango, or groping her or telling her how she owns his heart, and the next he's trying to bed every single pretty girl that cross his path. He continues this sort of behavior right up through the episode "Miroku's Most Dangerous Confession," at the end of which he quite seriously tells Sango that he thinks of her as a comrade in arms rather than as a woman... and then asks her to marry him and have his children.
Ryo from FAKE is a master of the mixed message. Ryo says that he doesn't want his partner Dee making passes or advancements at him and scolds him for doing so. Even encouraging his adopted son to be a Moment Killer if things heat up with Dee. Yet, he lets Dee kiss him quite a bit and other times voluntarily kissing Dee himself. All the while telling Dee he's not interested in him like that....
Kyoko from Sangatsu No Lion is a rather extreme example, though unlike Tsunderes, it's not played as cute, nor is this played purely for the romantic angles. She often jumps between signs of intense dislike toward Rei, such as verbally belittling and goading Rei into failure in shogi, and showing signs of at least concern for the more general aspects of his well-being, such as recommending that he visit his adoptive father more often and checking his face for past scars.
RitsuOnodera from Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi. What better way to prove you hate your ex and don't want his advancements than constantly letting him kiss you after denying any feelings for him and even sleeping with him repeatedly?
Haiyore! Nyarko-san has a character-specific version like the Spice and Wolf example above; Nyarko is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl and Genki Girl who repeatedly tells Mahiro that she loves him...but also clings to him like a barnacle and plays around with him and his friends (like claiming she's already pregnant with their first child). In episode 7 of the first TV series, Mahiro outright tells Nyarko that because of her zany, playful nature and tendency to tell tall tales, he has a hard time believing her when she talks about love. Nyarko (who's been on better behavior this episode) explains that it's hard to say it when she's not being silly, but that she's being completely honest and will say it as many times as she needs to; then she turns around, looks Mahiro in the eyes, smiles sweetly, and simply says "I love you."
In The Dark Knight Saga, Rachel does this to Bruce, which may contribute to her Scrappiness. In the first movie she kisses him, then tells him she can't be with him unless he gives up Batman, then holds his hand as they walk through the rubble of his mansion. By the second movie, she's dating Harvey Dent, but Bruce seems to think Harvey is just a placeholder until she can be with him. He's wrong, he doesn't find that out until the third movie.
In (500) Days of Summer, it seems that every time Summer tells Tom she's not interested in something more serious, she would immediately throw a curveball in the form of hand-holding, kissing or sex. Just before they break up, she impulsively kisses him in the street. The worst has to be after a huge fight where Summer tells Tom they are Just Friends and he storms off, she goes over to his place in the morning, has sex with him and implies she was wrong and wants to stay in the relationship.
In Linnea Sinclair's Games of Command, Kel-Paten is hopelessly in love with his subordinate officer Tasha Sebastian, who's Oblivious to Love. She jokingly tells him "I think I love you," when he completes a tricky bit of navigation. Later when she needs Kel-Paten distracted, Tasha leans in close to him and speaks softly, and agrees that walking through a fairground with him sounds like a wonderful idea. She's surprised how effective her very mild flirtation turns out to be.
Simon and Derek both to a certain extent in Kelley Armstrong's Darkest Powers. Simon constantly flirts with Chloe, but in such a friendly way that she’s sure he’s completely unaware that it could be taken romantically and is just treating her as he would a little sister, and Derek goes out of his way to protect her and try to help her learn more about her powers, though has a fairly hot temper and admits that he’s been trying to push her away because he thinks he doesn’t deserve her. He’s pretty quick to give in when she kisses him though. He and Simon are both usually the ones to initiate any physical contact with her as well.
Ariana Ortega from The Dresden Files. It's outright stated that she married her current husband specifically so she could spend eternity screwing with his mind.
The Hunger Games: Katniss Everdeen towards both Gale and Peeta. Peeta eventually calls her on it.
Sense and Sensibility: Elinor Dashwood meets Edward Ferrars at the beginning of the novel, and they seem to hit it off, or at least Elinor's mother and sister think so. Elinor admits she likes him, but she says it's nothing serious because Edward never said he loved her and he never proposed to her. The reason for his mixed signals gets revealed soon, and it's not Edward's jerky relatives who think Elinor is not rich enough or genteel enough. Actually, Edward is involved in a dead-end relationship with Lucy Steele. He doesn't love her any more, but considers his engagement binding.
Live Action TV
In "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" Season 5/6/7, Buffy and Spike both do this. There's a continual cycle of Buffy deciding they're over, and then going back to Spike. He finally states
I've memorized this tune, love. I think I've got the sheet music for it.
Played with in Season 7, when, after kissing Angel, she returns home to see him.
Spike: "Well, you're not staying here. You can't buy me off with shiny beads and sweet talk. You got Angel breath. I'm not gonna just let you whack me back and forth like a rubber ball. I've got my pride, you know!"
Buffy: "I understand." (turns to go)
Spike: ""Clearly you don't, 'cause the whole "having my pride" thing was just a smokescreen."
In Doctor Who, The Doctor with Rose. He's kissed her twice, left her stranded on a space cruiser a few thousand years in her future while running off to save a French courtesan, and more.
He's even worse about the mixed messages with Martha, and actually reveals after she left that he knew all along about her fancying him.
Amy points out the Doctor's habit of doing this in a deleted scene from "Flesh and Stone".
Amy: Oh come on! You turn up in the middle of the night, get me out of my bed in my nightie - which you then don't let me change out of for ages- and take me for a spin in your time machine? No, no, you're right, no mixed signals there. That is just a signal. Like a great big Bat Signal in the sky— "Get your coat, love, the Doctor is in!"
And Amy to Rory. She once wanted to pretend they were brother and sister on what could be called the night before their wedding.
The Doctor finally gets a taste of his own medicine from River in the episode "Let's Kill Hitler", where she alternates between attempts to seduce him, assassinate him or a bit of both.
Clark Kent in Smallville sets the standard for Mixed Signals.
Ian: And Lana said you send off so many mixed signals you could scramble a radar.
A variation from a multi-part episode of Farscape had Aeryn and John, after enforced snuggling in a cramped cockpit, start to make out...but then she breaks away and stalks off, saying:
Aeryn: I will not be a slave to your hormones.
John:My hormones? I was lips; you were tongue!
Vala Mal Doran did this constantly to Daniel Jackson in Stargate SG-1, shifting between flirting and unprovoked teasing, though it was less about her figuring out her feelings and more about just messing with him. Unfortunately, the result is that Daniel took her teasing seriously and found her annoying most of the time. When he finally does learn her true feelings, he is genuinely surprised and reciprocates. Kinda...
Ziva and Tony in NCIS. Too much subtext to be completely sure about anything.
Pretty much also the case with Harm and Mac in JAG.
One of Carrie's boyfriends in Sex and the City 'teases her like a friend' and 'kisses her like a boyfriend', but they aren't sleeping together, so she's not sure where she stands with him.
In one episode of Frasier, a female coworker of the titular character asks him out to dinner on Valentine's Day, ostensibly to discuss work. Because the woman had to be reminded that it was Valentine's Day and is generally flirty in everyday conversation, Frasier has no idea whether he is on a romantic date or just having dinner with a colleague. The episode ends with Frasier climbing into bed with her without any clue as to her intentions. What happens next is never resolved.
Robin of How I Met Your Mother. There is nothing but sparks flying between her and Ted in the first two episodes, but she is adamant that she can't handle anything serious. They try being Just Friends but it doesn't fool anyone, but when Ted meets Victoria she realizes she wants him now that he is taken. They later date for a solid year before breaking up and she continues to have a complicated relationship with Ted, which gets even weirder when she and Barney get together.
iCarly: Carly is like this with Freddie. The most obvious example is when Carly is trying to combine 2 lip gloss flavors into one. Freddie asks if it's working, and she seductively replies "You wanna find out?" Freddie practically faints, closes his eyes and is expecting a kiss. She then smashes his face with her hand after rubbing the lip gloss on it.
The Office in the early seasons Pam acted this way sometimes. It's always clear that she enjoys being with Jim more than Roy and sometimes she slips briefly into more romantic behavior. When Pam left Roy, Jim had started dating someone else and got to do a little of this. However, Pam did make amends by confessing her feelings to Jim in front of everyone at an office retreat.
When trying to court Erin, Andy did his best to be clear yet inevitably landed in this trope.
Mac from Green Wing does this to Caroline, knowing that she is besotted with him. Eventually she confronts him about his behaviour, telling him "You can be very cruel sometimes".
My Name Is Earl had a girl of the week named Wendy who behaved this way with any guy she liked (the guy who was on Earl's list, then Earl himself) because she was too shy to openly admit her feelings. She would always do the goodnight cheek kiss and make a mix CD playlist that were either "Intercourse with You" and "Just Friends".
Naomi from Skins, particularly in Katie And Emily's episode. Seriously, there can't be many characters who can deliver the lines "You look nice - from the neck down!" and "I think I'm going away for the summer. Spain, Cyprus perhaps. By myself. Spend some time by myself, you know? Do some thinking. By... myself." - and even fewer who can do them consecutively.
Serena on Gossip Girl in season four. She can't seem to make up her mind if she loves Dan or Nate or both or neither and changes her mind every ten minutes or so. Leaving the guys confused, to say the least.
Chuck can be pretty good at this too when it comes to Blair.
Blair really takes the trophy on this one. She tells Chuck he's her great love, then she acts like she hates him. She asks him to raise her child by another man and tells him he's all she's ever wanted, then she ignores him completely after he nearly dies in a car accident. She tells him she loves him more and more every day, then she marries another man only moments later. She tells him to wait for her while she gets out of her marriage, then she makes out with his stepbrother in his bedroom. And the list goes on.
And that list doesn't include how Blair was with Dan towards the end of the show.
The Big Bang Theory has the first season mostly about Leonard trying to work up the nerve to ask Penny out. For the most part she treated Leonard and the other guys as good friends, hanging out with them and getting involved with their activities at times. Yet she showed signs of liking Leonard a little bit more than she let on, being both subtle (signs of interest when Leonard had a brief fling with a co-worker, which he tried and failed to analyze) and overt (she kissed him on several occasions, once when drunk and another as a sort of birthday present). Even when his feelings were made clear the majority of their relationship, either in a Romantic Upgrade or Just Friends, rested on what her feelings were at the time. Leonard otherwise has always been fairly clear about where his feelings were.
In the sixth season they were in a stable relationship that was going well, in fact Penny had managed to say "I Love You" to Leonard and they were finally quite happy together. But Penny was terrified of where they were going in the relationship and they had a blow-up on Valentines Day in large part because of her own commitment phobia. Leonard decides to circumvent the issue by saying he will not propose to her (anymore) but that he was going to leave it in her hands, she has to be the one to propose when she feels ready.
Santana to Brittany in Glee. Until she realizes she's gay.
Simon of Firefly towards Kaylee. The audience has him figured pretty early, but Kaylee has some pretty solid doubts even up 'til the climax of the Big Damn Movie. It's usually just his habit of accidentally insulting her or Serenity, but in Jaynestown he actually says that he wouldn't. He meant that he wouldn't take advantage of a drunk crewmate, but it didn't quite come out that way. Closer to "wouldn't touch her with a ten-foot-pole" with (as Cleolinda put it) "icky like a sister" overtones.
In Noah And Saskia, one of the major sources of drama is that Noah is this. Even when he's not being impersonated by well meaning relatives and friends.
Princeton from Avenue Q toward Kate Monster. In the song "Mix Tape" he makes her one, which she uses to try to interpret how he feels about her. The songs send an ambiguous message with a few songs with the word "friend" in the title, many love songs and a couple that imply he thinks she's fat. Finally, after she decides that the tape is a romantic gesture, he reveals that he's making one for the rest of the apartment. He invites her out with a bunch of his friends that night, and she asks "Like a date?" He says "Sure," as if the idea had never occurred to him.
Hamlet does this to Ophelia. Just how much depends on the interpretation (if Hamlet is not actually insane, then his behavior towards her is much more this trope). Early in the play, Ophelia tells Polonius how Hamlet has lately "made many tenders of his affection" to her. Act II, scene i has Ophelia describing how the disheveled Hamlet comes to her for comfort (just after speaking with the Ghost, though she doesn't know that). In Act III, Scene i, he tells her "I did love you once" and then immediately tells her that he never loved her. In many productions, this scene is made into more of a Mind Screw by having Hamlet passionately kiss Ophelia at some point, usually just before he begins verbally abusing her, which he famously finishes off by telling her she'd be better off as a nun (or a whore, depending on how you want to take the word "nunnery").
Cyrano de Bergerac: At Act I Scene VI, Roxane sends his Duenna to make a date with Cyrano. Both Cyrano and his best friend Le Bret think it is a romantic date. At Act II Scene X, Cyrano believes that Roxane is confessing his love for him, but Roxane is manipulating asking him to protect Christian.
Lan/Netto Hikari in regards to his canon love interest in Mega Man Battle Network. He's generally a nice guy to everyone, but goes out of his way to make her feel better several times and they even go on a couple of dates in both the show and game canons. However, it always seems as though he's totally oblivious to her affections, though one does have to wonder...especially when in the game series' ending, they end up together with a son. This doesn't seem to apply to the manga however, which contains a lot more...other interesting notes... Lan also seems to know Mayl has a crush on him in the manga, at least according to the first volume (he says that they shouldn't be seen walking home together because people 'might get ideas' in a very teasing manner).
In Tokimeki Memorial Girl's Side 2, Akagi Kazuyuki's entire route is complicated by poor communication between himself and the heroine; it hits this trope when he invites her out (claiming he "just happened" to have tickets to a concert and the friend he was going to go with couldn't make it) and subsequently completely fails to clarify whether or not it's an actual date. Matters are further complicated when he manages to bungle his attempt to explain himself to the point that the heroine concludes that he wasn't interested in her at all and begins avoiding him when he tries to talk to her. He doesn't manage to sort things out properly until nearly the end of the game.
The Shall We Date? games are romance games, so this trope is inevitable, but Emperor Kuze in Heian Love takes it to a whole new level. He sends the player character an anonymous love poem... which he later tells her he sent as a joke, not because he's in love with her... and then gets his feelings hurt when she doesn't want him to stay and talk to her. Later he makes a practice of showing up at her rooms to talk all night, but tells her she has no sexual appeal at all. Needless to say, all of this leaves the poor girl quite confused for a while.
Little Busters: Kyousuke to Riki in an optional scene where Riki chooses to stay with the guys rather than go on a sleepover with the girls and ends up being asked jokingly by Masato whether he has a crush on Kyousuke. If he chooses to lie and deny it, he then asks Kyousuke who he likes, and he responds 'right now, Riki is my number one', failing to clarify what he means by that. When Riki berates himself for interpreting the situation in an 'indecent' way, Kyousuke asks 'Wanna do it with me?', but is only referring to playing tabletop baseball. If Riki chooses to admit it, he asks Kyousuke how he'd feel if he said he liked him, and Kyousuke says that it would make him happy since he always thought Riki was cute. But Riki asks 'and Rin?' and Kyousuke agrees that she's cute, too, making Riki depressed to think Kyousuke only sees him as a cute little brother to take care of.
There was a two-girl variation that was happening in Misfile. Ash very obviously likes Emily, but Emily can't seem to make up her mind. Complicating the issue is the fact that Emily is (supposedly) straight, and Ash used to be a guy. Later on, however, Emily gave in and tried to kiss Ash . . . but Ash reluctantly walked away; s/he doesn't want to be "too happy", afraid of giving up on getting back his/her old life.
Rumsiel also calls Ash out on this about a boy interested in "her".
One arc of Wapsi Square had Shelly playing this role towards Heather. Heather eventually called her out on it. Unlike most examples of this trope, they did not end up together.
Bittersweet Candy Bowl's Lucy is terrible about this. Unfortunately, by the time she decides to admit that she actually likes Mike, its too late. Worse, she treats Paulo the same way and ends up unable to date him either.
Moloch von Zinzer of Girl Genius displays his mastery of this trope in this strip, when he nearly reduces Snaug to tears by telling her that he feels the same way about her as his other love interest, Wilhelm, in a decidedly flippant manner.
Homestuck: Jake apparently used to say some rather questionable things to Dirk before he realised he was in love with him. Rose is even worse, though - apparently she insisted for months that she and Kanayaweren't actually dating and only admitted the truth while drunk.
Not being one to enjoy having feelings, The Nostalgia Chick will either care for or abuse the people closest to her, it just all depends on her mood at that specific time. Those people in question get understandably confused.
Patti Mayonnaise from Doug. Doug likes her, but we are never sure if she likes him back or sees him as a friend. She does do a few really sweet things for him, though. It's revealed later in the series that she's not sure either.
Katara of Avatar: The Last Airbender: Even when she gets to know how Aang feels, nothing whatsoever happens for a few episodes and then she tells him she's confused. She does other things to confuse the issue, like when she suggested kissing as a way to get out of the cave of two lovers, and mixing playing his Team Mom with, for example, using the Hands-On Approach. Ah, adolescence and the emotional befuddlement it causes.
Zuko is prone to this at times. Prime example? Shouting She Is Not My Girlfriendwhile on a date. To be fair, she asked him out, and Iroh accepted for him. So it's entirely possible that he just doesn't really want to be there/have a girlfriend/have an Earth Kingdom girlfriend, but warms up to her later on in the date.
Avatar Korra gives Mako a "Shut Up" Kiss the night after she went on a date with Bolin. Fortunately, the writers restrain the strife she causes between the two brothers with her mixed signals to one episode; the same cannot be said of how Mako refuses to come clean with his girlfriend Asami after making no attempt to hide his obvious feelings for Korra. Kids...
Abe on Clone High makes this an art form, unfortunately for poor Joan. He does it so much that once she gets used to it, he then reveals his feelings.
Jimmy and Cindy of The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius to each other. Especially Jimmy, due to the whole "girls are icky" phase. They generally had a Slap-Slap-Kiss thing going on because Cindy would be the smartest kid in school if Jimmy wasn't a super-genius. Once when stranded together on an island and away from other people they got along phenominally, but of course they eventually had to go back to civilization. They got together in the end though.
Helga of Hey Arnold!. As an archetypical tsundere, she constantly bullied him for being the voice of reason, while secretly adoring him for being the Nice Guy. On several occassions she tried to get closer to him, only to back away if Arnold ever started to catch on. She confessed her feelings in The Movie and the (never made) Grand Finale movie would have Arnold finally admit to her (and himself?) that he liked her all along.
Cheetara from the new version of Thundercats is kind to Lion-o, vaguely flirtatious towards him, and kisses him on the cheek at least once. The Kittens (and many viewers) ship them, and while Lion-o and Tigra are competing for her attention, both think Lion-o has the upper hand. But they are wrong.
These are the tactics the "Seduction Community" recommends to men that want to be more successful with women, the logic goes as this: If you are a man and you are open about your feelings, the woman will take you for granted and lose interest in you, on the other hand, if you "play" by sending mixed signals (like flirting once and then Playing Hard to Get) the woman will be constantly wondering about your true feelings and intentions (ergo: thinking about you, and being intrigued) which will "open" her to be more receptive to you. It's known as the "Cat String Theory"; named after a cat's tendency to chase after string that's difficult to get, but lose interest the moment they've got it for sure.
The Rules suggests women adopt these obnoxious behaviors too. This will surely end well..