It is not the goal of this website to facilitate hook-ups, but you can get into a great deal of social trouble with a lot of hurt feelings if you appear to be flirting when you have no such intention, if you fail to recognize signs that someone is flirting with you, or if you attempt to interrupt two people who are busy flirting with each other. You can even get into legal trouble if you appear to be flirting in an inappropriate way (i.e. sexual harassment).
While the ability to recognize flirting is therefore an important social skill, it is far from the most vital. Flirting is not a social interaction that you will encounter every day or see in your conversations with most people.
Assumption of Heterosexuality and Cisgender
Heterosexual flirting does typically involve the heightening of gender cues across the board (in terms of physical self-presentation, as well as nonverbal communication, linguistic, and paralinguistic features). Women who might typically come across as less feminine will attempt to turn up the femininity or “girliness,” giggling and hedging, and engaging in all sorts of stereotypes, while men will likewise turn up the masculinity dial. Before you tackle this module, then, you might want to check out the section on gender.
The Purpose(s) of Flirting
Worse still, many people flirt “just for fun,” to practice their flirting skills and get a confidence boost at the same time. If they can get you to show reciprocal interest, they feel good about themselves. It is not necessarily their intention to mock you, mislead you, or be cruel. It may even be their intention to give you a confidence boost. (That is, you should take the flirting as a compliment, but nothing more.)
So even if you correctly recognize that someone is flirting with you, it is important not to assume too much about their underlying intentions. You are being invited to flirt back, but that may be as far as the invitation goes. According to Henningsen (2004), “men tend to view flirting as more sexual than women do, and women attribute more relational and fun motivations to flirting interactions than do men.” Attempting to interpret the flirting too early on (when you don’t have enough information to make reasonable inferences about the other person) is likely to lead to misunderstandings and hard feelings.
Initial Flirty Contact with a Stranger
Times When Flirting Should be Especially Avoided
Flirting is always risky, as you may always be rejected. There are times, however, when it becomes downright dangerous, whether you’re actively flirting or simply allowing someone else to flirt with you.
In the Workplace
Someone is Already Flirting with the Other
If someone else has been trying to establish a relationship, and you start flirting with the person they’re expressing interest in, they will get angry for you attempting to “steal” their potential partner. This may result in an aggravated sense of competition between you, or worse. Even if it is their target who starts flirting with you, they are likely to blame you. (It’s easier for us to blame someone else for “stealing” the object of our affections than to admit to ourselves that we just weren’t attractive enough to “win” them.)
the Other has a Romantic Partner
If you flirt with someone whose partner is present, you will be seen as threatening their relationship and/or challenging the partner. Even if this does not result in an immediate confrontation, it is likely to cause hard feelings that could affect the interactions between all parties in the future.
If someone flirts with you while their partner is present, they may in fact be attempting to make their partner jealous, and you really don’t want to get involved in that situation!
If you flirt with someone whose partner is not present, there are still potential dangers: word of the flirting could get back to the partner, resulting in anger and aggression in the future; you could actually do damage to their relationship, for which either or both of them might end up blaming you; you could offend the target of your flirtation, who may feel it is inappropriate, given the pre-existing relationship. If you end up wooing the target of your flirting away from their current partner, you gain a partner of your own, but you may also gain social censure for your method of doing so (i.e. “stealing” the partner or “cheating” with them).
You Already Have a Romantic Partner
Recognizing Flirtatious Behavior
Features of Casual Flirtation
Casual flirting may be identified by the following features:
- a playful and casual tone (to stay “off-record” about flirting; the flirter could deny it later, and claim to have just been joking or being friendly); speech is animated, but not intense
- medium to large amount of smiles (vs. a moderate amount for just-friendly interactions)
- moderate amounts of laughter (more than “normal” conversation), though this is typically not symmetrical: even when both parties are flirting, the woman laughs more than the man.
- somewhat increased eye-contact from the speaker who is flirting accompanied by eyebrow raises (remember that listeners typically keep their gaze on the speaker, but a speaker who is not flirting or angry does not make extended eye contact.)
- relaxed “open” posture (no crossed arms, e.g.)
- a gentle touch or two may occur on the arm (but not on the hand or leg)
- increased active listening cues (to show interest when the target of flirting speaks)
- the giving of compliments
- increased appeal to traditional gender stereotypes
Features of Intense Flirtation (Seduction)
Intense flirtation features:
- all of the features of casual flirting (except that the tone of voice is deeper (for both sexes) and more serious, more intimate, and laughter is less frequent and throatier)
- constant smiling accompanied by intense maintained eye contact
- even more relaxed posture, with bodies oriented towards each other and mirroring each other. (Note that crossed legs do not make one appear tense; women will frequently cross and uncross their legs to draw attention to them, and people engaged in intense flirtation will sometimes sit with legs crossed, knees pointing towards each other and touching, or close to touching.)
- standing or sitting close, with the flirter leaning into the other’s personal space (< 1.5 feet).
- quieter voice (to reflect greater intimacy, encouraging the listener to move closer)
- “preening” movements to adjust one’s appearance, e.g., playing with buttons, wiping away specks on the clothing). Some of these are more sex-specific: a woman is more likely to flick her hair (with a head toss or with her hands) or adjust her clothes or makeup, while a man is more likely to wipe/stroke his beard or mustache, or check the closeness of his shave, or smooth down his tie.
- For women: gestures designed to suggest or mimic sexual touches: licking the lips and leaving them slightly open, gently stroking her neck or throat, repetitively fondling an object.
- For men: gazing occasionally and briefly (with admiration) at the less-public parts of a woman’s body (breasts, legs, thighs, buttocks, even her wrists). Too much, of course, would be obnoxious, even in a seduction.
- gentle touches (including “grooming” the other – wiping away specks on the other’s clothing, e.g.) may include target’s hand and leg
- facial expressions which ones would not normally display in public, again emphasizing the intimacy of the situation: pouting, head tilts (as if preparing to kiss), mouth left slightly open.
The Content of Flirtatious Conversations
“Pick-up lines” are opening lines that have been so over-used, they seem ridiculous. The most cliched ones are male-to-female lines (e.g. “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”), although not all are sex-specific (e.g., “Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?”). Pickuplinesgalore.com has collected so many of these, they’ve divided them into 56 separate categories! When used ironically, these may be a way of introducing some humor into the conversation while still making one’s intention to flirt clear. (The message is “I really am flirting, but we can both laugh at how clumsy I am about it.”)
Some common features of flirtatious conversation include:
- Increased use of tag questions with comments (e.g., “Nice day, don’t you think?”) to ensure a response.
- Asking a lot of questions, in general, especially open questions that require more than a one-word answer, to keep the conversation going.
- Increased self-disclosure and requests for self-disclosure, in an attempt to build intimacy.
- Humor, to keep the conversation fun. This need not be particularly witty or subtle. It may take the form of simple irony (“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” when it’s pouring out, e.g.), or playful teasing (to keep the conversation focused on the other person, but still light-hearted). Sometimes, a risqué joke may be told, to obliquely introduce sexual content into the conversation – but again, in a light-hearted way.
Responding to Flirtation
How you respond depends, of course, on who is doing the flirting, whether they’re flirting with you or someone else, how you interpret the purpose of the flirtation, and your level of romantic/sexual interest in the flirter.
If you’re an Innocent Bystander
If, however, the target begins to return the flirtation, you should make a polite exit as soon as possible. Three is definitely a crowd in flirting situations; even if the people involved normally enjoy your company, they will not welcome it at this time. You probably won’t have to say more than a murmured “Excuse me,” as you move away from them, as they will be grateful that you have picked up on their vibes of mutual attraction and will not challenge why you want to leave the conversation. If you wish to be extra polite, you could add an excuse such as that you “have to get going,” or that you’re going to “visit the restroom,” or that you see someone across the room that you “should say hi to,” even if these are little white lies.
From a Stranger You Want to Discourage
If you begin talking with a stranger and don’t realize until several minutes into the conversation that they are trying to flirt with you, you can still show that you are not interested by taking several of the following steps:
- Decrease active listening signs, especially avoiding eye contact. (Of course, if you normally avoid eye contact, the other person may not be able to notice a meaningful shift in your behavior at this time.)
- Orient your body away from the other person.
- Answer direct questions as briefly as you can, and don’t ask them questions in return – especially not personal questions.
- Increase your use of deference-based politeness and avoid all solidarity-based politeness.
- Exhibit nonverbal signs of boredom (including yawns) and use a bored tone of voice.
- If you are currently involved with someone else, work into the conversation some mention of your “boyfriend,” “girlfriend,” “partner,” “husband,” “wife,” (whatever) to signal your unavailability. When discouraging overtures from strangers, many unattached people will still pretend to have such ties. This may be considered a little white lie, allowing the other person to save face and not feel so personally rejected.
We asked various people how they respond to unwanted flirting:
They Refuse to Give Up
If you were too subtle in your discouragement of the flirting, they may not have gotten the message. You may need to step up the discouraging cues (both using a wider variety of them, and making the individual cues more intense), so that they become unmistakable.
In some cases, especially if you are very attractive, someone may keep trying, even if they’ve correctly interpreted your signs of lack of interest. In the end, you may need to be very direct, e.g. “I’m sorry, I’m not really comfortable with this conversation anymore,” turning away and giving them the “cold shoulder” (refusing to engage in any more interaction), or even just saying “go away!” Remember, your safety comes before politeness, so trust your gut: if the person is so persistent that you think they could be a stalker, that the situation could be potentially dangerous or harmful, walk away and do not allow yourself to be alone with this person. Ask someone else for help (e.g. calling you a cab).
From a Friend You Want to Keep as a Friend
This is always awkward, and (unlike with a stranger) you must take extra care not to hurt their feelings. Your friend knows you, and knows how you usually speak, so even slight decreases in active listening and solidarity politeness together with even slight signs of discomfort may suffice for them to get the message.
Notice that with a stranger, you would want your body language to show boredom and/or disdain, whereas you wouldn’t want to send those messages to a friend. Likewise, with a stranger, you would avoid all solidarity-based politeness (to discourage a sense of intimacy), but if you did that with a friend, it might threaten the friendship. You might rather use solidarity here to emphasize the friendly relationship: “You’re such a good friend. I appreciate your friendship so much. I wouldn’t trade this friendship for anything in the world,” etc. If your friend does not have social communication challenges, they will understand the indirectness here, making the correct inference that you do not want to be more than friends, without having to hurt their feelings by saying so directly.
Of course, if your friend knows that you are typically very blunt, it may be okay for you to simply say directly, “Are you flirting with me? Because it feels like you’re flirting with me, and that’s making me uncomfortable. I really want to keep you as a friend.” (At this point, they may deny that they were flirting. Perhaps you did misinterpret their tone, but perhaps they are trying to save face. Certainly don’t argue about it, as that will just intensify their embarrassment and resentment.) If your friend really was flirting, their feelings are bound to be hurt by your rejection, no matter how tactful you are. Give them some time before you expect the friendship to get back to normal.
Discouraging a Casual Flirter Who Tries to Intensify
This is a lot like the previous scenario: if you’ve been mutually flirting with someone, you have a responsibility to try to avoid hurting their feelings. Again, you want to use some solidarity politeness, to show that you still like them even though you’re not ready to get physical. You want to make sure you’re expressing discomfort rather than boredom or disdain. You want to try to be indirect (at least at first) in your rejection of their bid for greater intimacy. Do your best to avoid even giving off signs of even casual flirtation at this point, while you maintain a friendly tone. In essence (if somewhat metaphorically), the other person tried to take a step forward, and you responded by taking a step back. Hopefully, they’ll get the hint.
If they don’t get the hint, you may need at this point to be explicit about how far you want the relationship to go. E.g., “I’m sorry if I’ve been sending you the wrong signals. I’ve really been enjoying our little talk(s), but I’m really not looking for anything more serious right now.”
Rejecting casual flirtation is already face-threatening, but rejecting intense flirtation can be intensely threatening. This is why you should do your best to shut people down when they start casually flirting, if you wouldn’t be interested in seeing it go any further. No matter how tactful you are about this rejection, they are likely to take it to heart. (After all, you had previously given them reason to be hopeful, by indulging the casual flirtation.) Some people will feel so embarrassed and humiliated that they’ll never want to speak to you again; others may accept an ongoing relationship of some sort, but will never want to resume the casual flirtation.
Encouraging Casual Flirtation from a Stranger
Most flirtatious conversations with strangers are short and light-hearted, so when the conversation has ended a simple “Bye, it was nice meeting/talking to you” will signal the end of the interaction, if you don’t wish to take it any further.
If you do wish to see the person again, you could say “I’ve enjoyed talking to you. Would you like to meet again sometime?” or be more specific, offering a slightly more clearly defined plan, such as “Would you like to get a drink with me later next week?” You still want to be indefinite about time and place, to gauge how interested they are in seeing you again. If they agree in theory, you can then move to figuring out the where and when. You could ask for the person’s phone number or e-mail address, or offer your own.
Encouraging Casual Flirtation from Someone You Know
As indicated above, the easiest way to encourage a flirtation is to flirt back. If you do not actively flirt back, but at the same time do nothing to discourage the flirtation, you are being ambiguous in your response. Depending on the flirter’s level of self-confidence, they may find the lack of discouragement encouraging and continue, or they may find the lack of overt encouragement discouraging and eventually stop.
Encouraging Intense Flirtation
As with casual flirtation, the easiest way to encourage is to mirror the flirting behaviors. In this case, however, if you even allow seductive touches on the hand or leg, you will be seen as encouraging the flirtation, even if you do not make reciprocal gestures.
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