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The Art, and Crucial Importance, of Flirting

In humans and other species flirting can't be ignored.

There is a great quote from Cybill Shepherd, one of my favorite actresses: “I was born and bred to be a great flirt."

Not everyone feels that way, though, and for some of us, flirting feels like walking over hot coals while juggling knives. Or maybe you think flirting just doesn’t matter. You're wrong, and we’ll get to that in a moment. First, though, let's debunk a myth:

A recent post on "Seriously Science" at Discover titled, "Why are humans the only animals that flirt?" caught my attention. My first thought was, "What?" which prompted me to explore the article further. The first sentence read, “As far as scientists can tell, humans are the only animals with covert sexual signaling.” ("Covert sexual signaling" is code for flirting.) There are two problems with this statement: First, the assumption that animals don’t engage in cautious seduction and, second, that all flirting is some kind of secret behavior.

I assure you that, like us, animals flirt secretly, openly, and in as many varied ways you could imagine. Furtive glances? That’s just how a gelada baboon signals interest in another, especially for a clandestine rendezvous right under another male’s nose. And, yes, people often do employ subtle gestures that only hint at interest. For women, these might include arching or pointing our feet toward someone. This is not unlike the greater flamingo, which stretches out its leg in a come-hither fashion, while simultaneously offering a little wave of encouragement using its wing. Another classic: playing with our hair the way a scarlet macaw preens its feathers.

Men can also surreptitiously reveal their interest by trying to move closer, not unlike emperor penguins who often lean in close to each other. A man may also reach over and touch the arm or leg of a woman as a sign of interest, like a macaque male that tries to groom a female he is interested in. (When it comes to touching, of course, caution is recommended: Mutual interest should be established; otherwise it could be offensive and intrusive.)

But not all flirting in humans is discrete. Men may huff and puff about, expand their chests, talk extra loudly, or take up a lot of space. Women may sway their hips back and forth, sashaying blatantly past a man—not unlike the crocodile does, though to be fair, female crocodiles are a bit less delicate about this display. When they fancy a male, they arch their backs straight out of the water to get his attention.

And sometimes, both men and women unabashedly gaze at a romantic interest from across the room. And guess what? When they aren't trying to hide their love, amorous staring is also the way of baboons.

Source: By Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia (Male Gelada Baboon, Ethiopia Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativec

Hopefully, by the time we’re adults we’ve outgrown grade-school flirting rituals of throwing things or pulling hair. But bearded capuchin females stick with using these methods as their primary flirting tactics. For example, they'll throw rocks at a promising male. If that doesn’t work, they'll run up to him, pull his fur, then run away. When all else fails, they'll sit, stare at their love interest, and pout (see journal article here; video here). Not exactly subtle! And not recommended for us.

Which brings us to how we can improve our own flirting techniques. As I said above, for some the art of flirting doesn’t come quite as naturally as we would like. As with many other species, males often wait for a cue that a female is interested. How can females get a message across without being as brazen as a crocodile? One suggestion is to mix a little baboon gaze with a flamingo wave. Or, orient your body flamingo-style and lean in close like a penguin. By combining multiple signals, we can avoid missed opportunities.

Males, for their part, not only need to pay attention to the signals being sent their way, but to initiate things sometimes as well. If flirting is hard for you, you're far from alone. Long-tailed manakin males take years to hone their skills. Since they have to dance in pairs, older males will take a young male under their wing as an "apprentice," teaching him how to be a smooth, charming, and desirable manakin.

Because we see flirting, covert and overt, in both humans and animals, it suggests that it may be a vital part of courtship. Certainly, it’s often critical for initiating contact with a potential romantic interest. And while flirting serves to establish a connection, it can also be critical to maintaining a relationship over time. Flirting lets us know we are (still) desired and attractive—and who better to do that than the partner you already have? So don’t stop flirting your lover even after you've committed to each other.

For more, check out "Science News You Can Use Radio" with Amy Alkon and Dr. Jennifer Verdolin: A Scientific Look on How to Flirt Like a Master, in which Advice Goddess @AmyAlkon and I chat about the art of flirting.