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3 Common and Awkward Flirting Errors

People don't notice your flirting signals, and you miss their cues too.

Key points

  • Flirting can fail when we are focused on negative cues, overreliant on words, or are not face-to-face.
  • It is more successful when we attend to positive cues from a partner and show interest through our behavior.
  • Nevertheless, flirting is often best when done face-to-face, where we can physically interact and touch too.

Flirting is difficult because it involves conflicting motivations. On the one hand, we want to show interest in someone and see whether they are interested in us. On the other hand, we don't want to seem too obvious and get rejected. As a result, we play a balancing act game, where everything becomes vague and confusing.

Within this blurry situation, however, communication breaks down in predictable ways. There are a few specific errors that cause flirting to fail. Those errors result in your conversation partner not knowing whether you like them, you not knowing whether they like you, or both. Therefore, these types of flirting errors can make your love life pretty frustrating.

Fortunately, research has identified and explained three major types of flirting problems.

Research on Flirting Failures

Fichten and associates (1992) explored verbal and nonverbal cues in daily conversation and dating scenarios. They discovered cues to identify when someone was flirting or disinterested in their conversation partner. Furthermore, they also determined why flirting became confusing for partners. Specifically, the researchers identified three main tendencies people had around communicating interest and disinterest, which confused themselves and others.

Fichten and associates (1992) found that individuals focused on negative cues. Participants were more likely to look for signs that a potential partner was disinterested in them rather than identifying positive signs of flirting. Their conversation partner was doing the same thing, too. Therefore, even when individuals were interested and flirting with each other, they often missed each other's positive cues due to their negative focus.

Fichten and associates (1992) also found a discrepancy between verbal versus nonverbal communication. On one hand, individuals tended to flirt through words. On the other hand, they paid more attention to nonverbal and behavioral cues to determine whether a partner was interested in them back. This caused another mismatch in communication—as both partners expressed their interest in words but focused on each other's behaviors to judge reciprocal interest instead.

As a final point, Fichten and associates (1992) looked at the difference between phone conversations and face-to-face interactions. They found individuals compensated in phone conversations by relying more on what they said to each other. Nevertheless, flirting information is communicated through body language and touch. As a result—without seeing or touching a conversation partner—communicating interest and flirting over the phone became more difficult and confusing.

Flirting Better

Given the above, it is easier to see how flirting can become confusing. Sometimes, we miss important positive information by focusing on negative signals. Other times, we mix up verbal and nonverbal communication. Finally, we can miss some information entirely—especially when not flirting face-to-face. So, let's look at these issues in more detail and see what we can do about them.

1. Being too focused on disinterest and rejection: It is natural to want to avoid negative experiences. Some research even says we have a general loss aversion. Nevertheless, flirting signals are often mixed—positive, negative, and ambiguous. Therefore, bias toward only seeing the negative (or the positive) can cause significant errors in judging romantic interest.

Fortunately, it is possible to manage pessimism and anxiety around romantic interactions by focusing on being curious about a conversation partner instead. Specifically, curiosity allows us to keep an open mind and notice all of a partner's cues. It also lets us learn more about them in general, which can help decide whether you like them, too.

2. Relying too much on words: Using words is often the standard way we communicate what we think and feel. Nevertheless, as noted above, we evaluate the behavior of others to see what they truly think and feel instead. That is because words are often vague and ambiguous, and people can lie pretty easily with them. Thus, we're right to focus on the body language and nonverbal communication of others to decipher their interest in us.

Where we fail at flirting, however, is relying on words alone to communicate our interest in them. Our actions speak louder than words, too. Therefore, to flirt well, we also need to consider things like our body language and how we mirror and match a partner's behavior. Furthermore, when these behaviors match our actual words, it helps to clearly communicate our interest in them—without blurting things out too directly.

3. Not flirting face-to-face: In the modern world, we often date online and communicate through texting. Nevertheless, some of the most important ways we flirt are nonverbal. As a result, communication over the phone or computer can be especially tricky to interpret.

Things like emojis and video calls can provide some of this nonverbal information. Even so, a significant indication of romantic interest is flirting through touch and proximity. It is hard to truly know whether someone likes you romantically until you see how they touch and interact with you physically. To do so, however, requires meeting them face-to-face. That's when the real flirting starts.

Addressing these three issues can go a long way toward improving your flirting and dating experience. Beyond that, as I discuss in my book Attraction Psychology and other posts, you can begin to build your flirting style. At that point, flirting gets fun—and helps you attract the type of partner you desire.

© 2024 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.

Facebook image: NDAB Creativity/Shutterstock


Fichten, C. S., Tagalakis, V., Judd, D., Wright, J., & Amsel, R. (1992). Verbal and nonverbal communication cues in daily conversations and dating. The Journal of Social Psychology, 132(6), 751–769.

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