Minerva Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Minerva Studio/Shutterstock

You may regard yourself as a loyal, faithful partner who would never ever cheat. However, stop and think: Is it possible that you engage in unintentional "innocent" flirtations? Maybe you engage in occasional teasing with co-workers, neighbors, or even a sister- or brother-in-law. Are you communicating, unintentionally, that you’re sexually available? That teasing, when it involves certain nonverbal messages, can get you into trouble, even though you believe it to be harmless. Without realizing it, you’ve led the person you’ve been exchanging knowing glances with to assume that you mean business. Taken aback, you deny having sent any sexual signals, and an embarrassing silence follows.

Flirtation is a fact of life in many social interactions, even (or especially) among people who don’t know each other. A waiter offers you a glass of sparkling water and you think you spot a wink. You’re waiting in line at airport security, and a good-looking fellow traveler offers to put your shoes in the bin. As you offer your thanks, you could swear that your shoes are being handled with extra special attention. Five minutes later, you forget the whole thing ever happened, but for that fleeting moment, it seems like the chance meeting could go in any direction at all.

With a person who you see on a frequent basis, flirting is far more complicated. You’re very happy in your primary close relationship, but it’s kind of fun to play around with the idea that you could play around with this other person. It would be highly inappropriate, you know, but you can almost imagine giving this person a little pat where you shouldn’t or wouldn’t dare to. During a ceremonial hugging opportunity (such as at a birthday party or holiday) you want to linger just a little bit longer, though, again, you know this would be a wicked thing to do.

Flirting in your head could inadvertently turn to flirting for real if the other person picks up on the cues you believed to be ever so subtle. Finding yourself alone with this person (or in the adjoining seat on the plane), you’re now at that point I referred to earlier where you’re being taken far more seriously than you ever intended. Faced with the prospect of turning those mental images into reality, you’re thrown into a chaotic mental state of fear and temptation.

Jeffrey Hall and Chong Xing (2015), communications Studies at the University of Kansas, examined the verbal and nonverbal behaviors associated with what they define as the 5 basic flirting styles. According to Hall and Xing, people differ in the style of flirting they typically prefer, or what they call a “unique dispositional manner of communicating romantic interest” (p. 42). In other words, your personality in part determines how you let other people know you’re sexually attracted to them. If you’re typically comfortable in the idea of having sex outside a relationship, you’ll flirt one way; if not, you’ll flirt in other ways. Everyone flirts, but in slightly different manners.

In previous research, Hall and his associates developed a self-report measure of flirting style that correlated with other self-report measures of a person’s interest in sex outside of relationships. Hall and Xing decided it would be perhaps even more revealing to rate flirting styles not on what people said about themselves—not necessarily all that accurate—but on how they behaved in an interaction with a stranger. They asked 51 pairs of single (not in a relationship) male and female undergraduates to talk to each other in a lab setting for a 10-minute period. To make sure the conversation never reached a lull, the researchers gave participants sample questions to discuss over the course of the interaction. At the end, each participant indicated how physically attracted they were to their conversation partner.

This brief interaction gave the researchers plenty of verbal and nonverbal data which they subsequently rated (from videos) along 38 dimensions. The behavioral ratings included non-sexual bodily movements such as arm and leg crossing, moving closer or farther apart, gesturing, and head nodding. Additionally, raters assessed more sexual behaviors such as flirtatious glancing, licking the lips, and taking a suggestive pose. Conversational ratings included raising one’s vocal pitch, speaking animatedly, teasing, and engaging in self-disclosure.

After crunching the wealth of data obtained from these ratings, Hall and Xing were able to identify behavioral differences among the 5 self-acknowledged flirting types using as their basis for categorization the self-report questionnaires that participants also completed.

Here’s how your behavior might look for each of the flirting styles. (Where men and women differed, these are broken apart.)

  1. Physical. If you’re a physical type of flirt, you touch the people to whom you're physically attracted, even if only so subtly. In the Hall and Xing study, women who described themselves as physical flirters indeed tended to “open up” their bodies by moving their hands out and away from their torsos, and nodding their heads often during conversation. Surprisingly, men who described themselves as physical flirts and felt attracted to their partners looked at them less and rarely gave them compliments. 
  2. Traditional. If you’re a traditional flirt, you believe that men should make the first move. Accordingly, as shown in the study, men who saw themselves as fitting this type were more likely to lean toward their partner while traditionally flirtatious women used verbal teasing as their means of communication.
  3. Sincere. You appear to have a true interest in the other person if you’re a sincere flirt, and before long, you’ll find that other people are revealing their deepest truths to you. Behaviorally, as shown in this study, you’ll be less likely to tease (especially if you’re a man) and more likely to exchange flirtatious gazes early in your meetings with strangers.
  4. Polite. If you don’t really like flirting per se, but prefer to take your time to get to know someone, your interactions with a new person will take on a more formal or polite quality. As shown by Hall and Xing, even if you’re physically attracted to someone, you won’t make a move to get closer, you won’t engage in teasing, and (if you’re a woman) you won’t even ask too many questions.
  5. Playful. A playful flirt enjoys the game, but isn’t really in it for the relationship. If you fit this profile, you’re not really sincere about getting to know the other person and you may even be using the flirtation as the means to another end, such as getting someone to do you a favor. Without even realizing it, you may be sending physical signals such as protruding your chest (whether male or female) but if you’re a woman, you’ll flash the flirtatious gaze especially once the interaction gets going.

Some behaviors in this study emerged as related to physical attraction to the partner regardless of flirting style. If you’re really attracted to someone, as observations revealed, you’ll touch your own body less frequently, give out plenty of compliments, give more flirtatious glances (especially early in the interaction), and not do any teasing as the interaction winds down. Women smile and laugh with the people they’re interested in and open up their bodily gestures. Men look at their partners more and tend to sit still.

In summary, this study of behavioral differences revealed that people who regard themselves as one particular type of flirt do interact differently when they’re engaged in talking to a stranger who they find attractive. Because flirtations can have consequences that you might not intend, it’s helpful to know what message you’re communicating to your interaction partners, no matter how brief or seemingly random. It’s also possible for those brief encounters to turn into ones that last, allowing you to experience the fulfillment that comes from a mutually rewarding intimate relationship over the long-term.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

References

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, 365–393.

Hall, J. A., & Xing, C. (2015). The verbal and nonverbal correlates of the five flirting styles. Journal Of Nonverbal Behavior, 39(1), 41-68. doi:10.1007/s10919-014-0199-8

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016

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