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Decoding the Art of Flirtation

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To mark Valentine’s Day, I’m posting an early piece that originally appeared on the old home of Anthropology in Practice. Hope your connections are everything you hope for today.

A lingering look. A coy smile. Standing just a bit too close. An accidental brush.

Flirtation is an art. It is also a deftly employed social tool. It marks an exploratory, transformative stage—in a first meeting or an existing relationship—when interested parties look toward a tantalizingly unknown future. We flirt to establish a connection, and to gauge the interest of others in reciprocating that connection. While not all flirting is done with the aim of establishing a romantic or sexual encounter, it does help us determine the social investment potential for romantic relationships.

However, flirtation is not without challenges. Communicating and determining romantic interest in social-sexual encounters are often masked by uncertainty—which is actually a key component of flirtation. Both the message and the interpretation are intentionally vague: uncertainty serves to protect the interests and reputations of participants, and adds an element of anticipation that makes the act seem more like a game, prolonging the excitement and extending the mystery of the encounter.

Despite this uncertainty, are there universals to flirting strategies? Does a lingering glance mean the same in all social-sexual encounters? So much of flirting is dependent on non-verbal cues: a glance, a touch, a seemingly casual movement—can these actions really be interpreted differently across cultures and contexts?

Researchers have identified five distinct styles of communicating romantic interest, arguing that the ways a message is communicated is key to the way that message is interpreted (1). The styles are as follows:

  • Traditional: In this style, women can signal responsiveness, but men initiate contact and next steps, thereby maintaining gender roles. For example, men are expected to make the first verbal move (e.g., men request the date or offer to buy a drink). Men are expected to lead the interaction once engaged, and make requests for future engagements (2).

Women who are traditional flirts tend to be less likely to flirt with partners and to be flattered by flirting, and may report having trouble getting men to notice them in social-sexual settings. It is a bit of a cyclic effect: Women who are traditional flirts have a limited role in flirtatious encounters, and often have fewer options for attracting a partner (3). Men who fit this category tend to know their partners for longer periods of time before approaching them romantically. They often proceed slowly, developing non-romantic relationships before acting on desires. Overall, individuals who are traditional flirts are introverted and uncomfortable in social settings.

  • Physical: The physical style hints at sexual contact through verbal messages. This style often involves suggestive banter, and individuals are more comfortable expressing their desire and sexual interest to potential partners.

Individuals who fit this style claim to be able to detect the interest of others. They engage in private and personal conversation, which they use to establish the possibility of a relationship. Relationships generated by this style tend to develop at a faster rate, and are characterized by more sexual chemistry and emotional connection than the other styles (4).

  • Sincere: The sincere style is marked by a desire to create an emotional connection with a potential romantic partner. These individuals look to develop intimacy by eliciting self-disclosure and showing personal interest in a partner, however, this style is not an effective means of communicating sexual interest.

Sincere communicators view the emotional connection as tantamount to the relationship. They are more likely to approach potential partners, find flirting flattering, and to believe others are flirting with them.

  • Playful: These communicators view flirting as fun and not tied to relationship development. They enjoy the act itself, and will flirt even in the absence of long-term romantic prospects. Flirting is a self-esteem booster for this group.
  • Polite: Individuals who practice the polite style take a rule-governed and cautious approach, exhibiting no overtly sexual behaviors. Individuals characterized by this style are more likely to seek an emotional and sincere connection and less likely to be playful. The challenge of this style is that often the individual’s partner may not think he or she is interested in pursuing a romantic encounter.

These communicator styles provide some insights into how people flirt, but determining meaning, or decoding flirting is a bit more challenging. Flirting is really a context dependent event. Even with these handy communication style charted, researchers are quick to note that humans adopt the strategies that are best suited to their situation and desired level of engagement (5). As a result, the meaning behind flirtatious gestures is personal. For example:

A kiss does not have any primary meaning beyond what the lovers create together, even though an outside observer might ad secondarily to those meanings on the basis of empathy, social knowledge, or memory (6).

Flirtation cannot be defined in any concrete way. Meaning is derived from the sequences in the act—and every response matters. The casually draped arm along the back of the sofa can lie there meaningless until the recipient reclines into that arm. Participants have to continuously indicate interest.

Naturally, these responses may be interpreted differently in social-sexual encounters. Non-verbal cues are most effective when there is a social understanding regarding meaning, however men and women tend to interpret flirtatious behaviors differently. For example, sixty-seven percent of individuals have reported that friendly behavior on their part has been wrongly viewed as a sexual invitation, with women reporting having experienced this misperception more frequently than men (7). It seems that men, more so than women, perceive partners as being more flirtatious, more seductive, and more promiscuous. They impart greater meaning to the act of flirtation. Why?

One possible explanation may be rooted in the evolutionary history of sexual selection. It would be beneficial, and minimally costly, for a man to overestimate a woman’s sexual interest and intent. If he incorrectly deduces that she interested, he doesn’t stand to lose much. However, if he misreads her signs and misses a mating opportunity, he pays a large evolutionary price (8). I find it curious though that women don’t impart as great a meaning to flirting, however. One could argue, in counterpoint to the discussion above, that women might find meaning in flirtatious acts as frequently as men do because it could hint at greater investment from a partner in the long run.

As with so much involving socialness and relationships, there are no hard and fast rules. Flirtation cannot be defined in a permanent way—its fluidity allows partners to create combinations of variation and uncertainty that are meaningful to the context. And that is really part of the appeal:

If the essence of flirtation is being unsure if she will or she won’t then that uncertainty is itself a promise: “Come, play, and we shall see.” Thus understood, flirtation leans forward into an unknown future, not into a timeless eternity where Ideal Forms repeat themselves in endless identity (9).

If you’re a willing participant in a flirtatious exchange, regardless of where it ultimately leads, the meaning that you can surely take from the exchange is that you’re admired. Happy flirting.

Hall, Jeffrey A., Carter, S., Cody, M., and Albright, J. (2010). The Communication of Romantic Interest: Development of the Flirting Styles Inventory Communication Quarterly, 58 (4), 365-393 : 10.1080/01463373.2010.524.874

La France, B., Henningsen, D., Oates, A., & Shaw, C. (2009). Social-Sexual Interactions? Meta-Analyses of Sex Differences in Perceptions of Flirtatiousness, Seductiveness, and Promiscuousness Communication Monographs, 76 (3), 263-285 DOI: 10.1080/03637750903074701

Perper, T. (2009). Will She or Won’t She: The Dynamics of Flirtation in Western Philosophy Sexuality & Culture, 14 (1), 33-43 DOI: 10.1007/s12119-009-9060-3

1. Hall et. al. 2010: 366.
2. Hall, 369.
3. Hall, 385.
4. Hall, 386.
5. Hall, 367.
6. Perper 2010: 40.
7. La France et. al. 2009: 265.
8. La France, 279.
9. Perper, 39.

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. ultimobo 5:11 pm 02/14/2013

    yesterday on 2 different occasions in the supermarket females I found attractive and had gazed at, came over and lingered close to me – I knew it was an opportunity – but tired at the end of a work day, I didn’t have the energy to initiate a conversation – but in retrospect wish I had – if only – we will never know.

    females tend to wait and would never dare initiate themselves, perhaps not realising how hard it is for males to get up the moxy to actually say hello

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  2. 2. Raymond Duke 12:44 pm 02/15/2013

    Great write up :) As Interpersonal Communication is 1/2 of my major (the other half being Organizational), I have done quite a few presentations and papers on the topic of flirting. One thing that comes to mind is one study that showed that the most effective way to pick up on another person is through 3rd party introductions. The worst way to pick up on someone? The flippant remark.

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  3. 3. Rob Sánchez 2:52 am 04/1/2013

    Hey guys,

    great article, extremely good read. It actually taught me something I wasn’t aware of. Many years back when I started to get into the whole scene which is pick-up and self-development, I was the deeply rooted within the sincere group. I was convinced that the way to build a relationship was, to find a girl, befriend her and build romantic interest while spending time with her.

    No need to say that this not worked out as well as the group I’m in now (= Playful). By now I really love flirting, it’s exactly as you say. Flirting is fun, not bound to any sexual interest (e.g. I’m always flirting with cashiers at the super market etc) or relationship, it’s just fun and a huge self-esteem boost, correct!

    The Polite group however, you described it already, has problems conveying that they’re actually interested. Women do not react to logical, nice behaviour. They react to emotions, emotions that you need to trigger. Politeness does -not- trigger emotions, it’s triggering absolutely nothing and they will eventually end up being Friend Zoned, in the need to break out of the Friend Zone (I recently wrote two articles on that and have one still in mind on on how to treat women so you don’t get Friend Zoned).

    And @ultimobo:
    Don’t drag yourself down about this, I agree that this was an encounter you could have enjoyed, and I strongly believe that life is about the people you meet and the things you create together, but a missing opportunity is not the end of the world. As long as you are being aware of how things work, you’ll be fine!

    Rob Sánchez

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