Flirting is a fundamental fixture in humans’ sexual repertoire, a time-honored way of signaling interest and attraction, to say nothing of mutual awareness. It is a kind of silent language spoken by men and women around the world.
The ways people communicate interest are deeply rooted in human nature. All humans come equipped with the language of flirtation, from ways of glancing to movements such as licking one's lips, to meet nature's most basic command—find a good mate and multiply.
Flirting is not a trivial activity; it requires many skills: intellect, body language, creativity, empathy. At its best, flirting can be high art, whether the flirter is vying for a soul mate, manipulating a potential customer, or just being playful.
The process of flirting allows a person to signal interest in small increments, and enables both parties to gauge the interest level of the other. Flirting is driven by emotions and instinct rather than by logical thought. Yet profound information is transmitted in flirting—the gestures and movements used in flirting may provide reliable clues to a person's biological and psychological health.
People most often flirt to convey interest in someone and potentially build a relationship. But research has actually identified six specific reasons why people flirt:
1. Relational reasons — to turn an acquaintance or friend into a partner.
2. Exploring motive — to gauge if someone else is interested in you.
3. Fun — to have a playful, exciting interaction.
4. Instrumental reasons — to encourage someone to complete a task, such as a household chore.
5. Esteem motive — to reinforce one’s own self-esteem.
6. Sex — to gain a sexual partner.
Flirting can be subtle and indirect, so sometimes it’s hard to decipher whether or not someone is expressing interest. Clues to spot flirting are body language, such as smiling, leaning forward, and touching, and verbal cues such as compliments or references to being available. You can also ask yourself if the person’s behavior is consistent over time and whether they act differently with you than they do with others.
Flirting is inherently ambiguous, so it’s understandable that people aren’t perfect at perceiving subtle signs of interest. One study observed 100 heterosexual strangers engaged in conversation and found that only 38 percent of participants accurately detected when someone was flirting with them. But spending more time with the person can help hone our accuracy—or simply deciding to ask directly.
An occasional bout of flirting is generally not considered cheating. However, some instances might fall under the category of micro-cheating, a term to describe small actions that signal interest in someone outside of the relationship—such as obsessively checking another person’s social media or sharing private information with that person.
Flirting is not restricted to humans; it has many parallels in the animal world, seen in the behavioral displays many animals engage in to signal their availability and suitability. Animal courtship varies tremendously between species, ranging from subtle movements to lavish displays. For example, penguins search for pebbles to deliver to their partner of interest. Seahorses lock their tails together for a romantic swim. Bower birds use leaves, grass, and twigs to construct elaborate nests.
Our animal and human ancestors needed a way to quickly and safely judge the value of potential mates without risking pregnancy with every possible candidate they encountered. Flirting achieved that end, offering a relatively risk-free set of signals with which to sample the field, try out sexual wares and exchange vital information about candidates' general health and reproductive fitness.
The alchemy of creating connection between two people can be subtle, enthralling, warm, humorous, and even thrilling. Flirting combines body language—such as smiling, laughing, and touching—along with an engaging conversation and attentive listening, which ultimately leads to a rhythmic and playful back and forth.
The hallmarks of flirting are surprisingly universal. Women often smile, arch their eyebrows and widen their eyes, tuck their chin down and turn slightly to the side, toss their hair, put their hands near their mouth, and laugh. Men, for their part, often arch their back, stretch their chest, and laugh as well.
Flirting can take place without any words at all. Here are a few ways to tell that someone is interested in you—or ways that you can use to convey affection for someone else: lingering eye contact, smiling more than usual, nodding, lightly touching, touching the lips, licking the lips, and glancing at the person’s body.
There are four key components to a flirtatious facial expression, according to research that assessed heterosexual women flirting with men. They are: 1) Head turned to one side 2) Chin tilted down slightly 3) Slight smile 4) Eyes turned to the other person.
Although these tips may seem a bit stereotypical, research that observed women in bars and social settings bears out that the following can be successful flirting techniques for women: giving the person a short sideways glance, swaying with the music, smiling, laughing, nodding, and leaning forward toward the other person in conversation.
For men hoping to convey interest to a potential partner, research suggests that making eye contact and showing powerful, dominant body language can help. Men can take up space, move around, and be playful with the other people they’re with. Essentially, men who make eye contact and are comfortable in their own space are more likely to catch someone else’s attention.
A successful flirty encounter seems to happen in three stages. The first is “approach,” in which one person approaches the other, often with a smile and arched eyebrows, and is warmly received. The second is “swivel and synchronize,” when the two face each other and mimic the other’s gestures and postures. The third is “touch,” all while continuing an engaging conversation, listening attentively, and showing a sense of humor.
Although flirting is most often viewed through the lens of sexuality or a new fling, it’s also important in long-term relationships. Flirting serves a key role in marriage, couples say, such as showing love, enhancing self-esteem, maintaining intimacy, and reducing tension. So it’s still worth taking a moment to smile, joke, or give a loving glance to a partner in a committed relationship.
People flirt by text for many reasons: fun, relaxation, escape, connection, affection. A flirty text conversation should aim to be warm, funny, and a little thrilling. Asking creative questions, referencing inside jokes or memories, cracking a few jokes, and sending a selfie can help fuel the banter. Reaching out on social media, such as through a message or reaction on Instagram, can also lay the foundation for a flirty exchange.
Two surprising predictors that someone may want to be more than “just friends” are having conversations about the nature and future of the relationship (strictly platonic friends don’t seem to engage in those discussions) and, perhaps surprisingly, being uncomfortable when mistaken for a couple in public (platonic friends don’t seem to be bothered by that).