Meet, Catch, and Keep

A scientific look at the complexities of romantic relationships

How to Spot a Flirt

Research finds that we’re surprisingly bad at recognizing flirtation.

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You’ve got beautiful eyes. Can I buy you a drink?

Sometimes flirting is completely obvious, but often it's more indirect and tentative. How accurately can you decipher flirting from non-flirting? Are you likely to misinterpret attempts just to be friendly as flirting? (“He’s always flirting with me!” “Um, no he’s not.”) Or are you the kind of person who thinks real attempts at flirtation are just basic conversation? (“No one flirts with me.” “I’m trying to flirt with you right now.” “That’s sweet, but seriously, no one flirts with me”).   

Flirting is more complicated than you might first think.

By definition, flirting is communicating in a way that signals attraction (Hall, Carter, Cody, and Albright, 2010). Here’s the thing, though: Most people aren’t eager to experience direct rejection, so if they want to communicate interest, they might use indirect flirting strategies, strategies that resemble other, non-flirting conversation (teasing, joking, being friendly).  

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Recent research offers new insights into how accurately people detect real flirting behavior (Hall, Xing, and Brooks, 2014). The researchers brought strangers into the lab, had them talk to each other for 10 or so minutes in a “first impressions” task, then (in private) asked them questions about the interaction. 

How accurately do people decipher flirting and non-flirting?

  1. Physical attraction is part of the equation. The more physically attracted individuals are to strangers, the more they are apt to flirt (as you might expect). Being physically attracted to someone, however, has no relation to perception of flirting: Just because you think someone’s cute doesn’t mean you’ll automatically interpret neutral comments as flirtation.
  2. Men and women are both bad at detecting flirting. When chatting with a stranger, research suggests most people actually don’t know flirting when they see it. In this study, women were only 18% accurate in recognizing men’s flirting as flirting. Men did better, but with only a 36% accuracy rate, they still are operating way below chance. Most of the time, flirts just aren’t perceived as flirting.
  3. People recognize non-flirting more accurately than flirting. In this study, women were 83% accurate in seeing non-flirting as non-flirting, and men performed about the same, 84%. It seems both men and women are much better at recognizing the absence of flirting than recognizing real flirting. The default, it seems, is to infer no romantic interest.   

Overall, these are rather disappointing results. With so many people mistaking real flirting for neutral conversation, a lot of people might be missing out on romance. At the same time, though, people tend not to overestimate flirting, which could be socially useful. After all, the consequences of misinterpreting casual chatter for flirtation could be serious. We’re still left with the puzzle of how to accurately detect flirting, a puzzle that seems even more important now that we know how poorly people do at the task, in general. 

So what clues can help you know if someone is really flirting?

  1. Look for non-verbal signals. Body language can speak volumes. Research suggests that people observe certain behaviors that together can communicate romantic interest. In certain contexts, smiling, leaning forward and touching someone, and making eye contact can suggest romantic interest (Henningsen, Kartch, Orr, and Brown, 2009). 
  2. Listen for verbal flirting. Both men and women are equally good at recognizing certain verbal communications as flirting (Henningsen et al., 2009). Specifically, they interpret sexual interest from compliments; overt references to being single/available to date someone else; and using mild sexual innuendos as signs of interest. 
  3. Consider the context. Evidence suggests that flirting is more apt to occur in places that have the following features (Fox, 2004): sociability (people can easily talk to one another); alcohol (the classic social lubricant); and common interests (it’s a gathering place for like-minded individuals).
  4. Flirting styles predict flirting behavior. Not everyone flirts the same way, so if you know a person’s style, you can use setting cues to help figure out if they’re flirting. Recent research (McBain et al., 2013) revealed that:
  • Traditional flirts, who tend to be introverted, are cautious and polite when flirting at a party, bar, or educational setting. They are not the folks chatting it up at the supermarket.
  • Physical flirts, who use a lot of body language, like to playfully flirt across many contexts.
  • Playful flirts are less polite than physical flirts and tend to be highly extroverted, throwing caution to the wind when flirting. They are not so sincere in their flirting when the context doesn’t match the goal (supermarkets) but are sincere when speed-dating.
  • Finally, the sincere flirt and the polite flirt both prefer to be introduced to someone, as opposed to initiating contact themselves, and are cautious in their approach.
Is there consistency, distinctiveness, and consensus? Drawing on Kelly’s (1967) attribution model, decoding a potential love match (Are we flirting with each other?) can be aided by considering three features of your interactions:
  • Are your interactions consistent across time (do you seem to flirt every time you see each other)?
  • Is the person’s behavior towards you distinctive or unique (not how he or she acts toward everyone else?
  • Finally, how to behave? If there’s a general consensus that most people interact with this person the way you do, your interactions are less likely attributed to mutual attraction. However, high consistency, high distinctiveness, and low consensus might suggest that you two have a connection. Might there be love in the air?


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References

Fox, K. (2004). SIRC guide to flirting: What social science can tell you about flirting and how to do it. Retrieved from Social Issues Research Centre website: http://www.sirc.org/publik/flirt.pdf

Hall, J. A., Carter, S., Cody, M. J., & Albright, J. M. (2010). Individual differences in the communication of romantic interest: Development of the flirting styles inventory. Communication Quarterly, 58(4), 365-393.

Hall, J. A., Xing, C., & Brooks, S. (2014). Accurately detecting flirting: Error management theory, the traditional sexual script, and flirting base rate. Communication Research, Advanced online publication. doi:093650214534972.

Henningsen, D. D., Kartch, F., Orr, N., & Brown, A. (2009). The perceptions of verbal and nonverbal flirting cues in cross-sex interactions. Human Communication, 12(4), 371-381.

Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In Nebraska symposium on motivation. University of Nebraska Press.

McBain, K. A., Hewitt, L., Maher, T., Sercombe, M., Sypher, S., & Tirendi, G. (2013). Is this seat taken? The importance of context during the initiation of romantic communication.  International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 3, 79-89.

 

Image: iStock

Theresa DiDonato, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and assistant professor at Loyola University Maryland.

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