Flirting

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

Unfortunately, flirting in LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) communities hasn’t been studied extensively yet. So we are following the lead of most of the sources we consulted and assuming heterosexual flirting situations and “traditional” (stereotypical) gender identities. We don’t intend to offend or alienate you, but the fact is that unless you actively project a different gender identity or sexual orientation (which can still be dangerous or at least very awkward in many places in the U.S.), most strangers will make the same default assumption about you, and you may receive flirting of the sort described here. It is also sadly the case that if you are LGBTQ and you try flirting with someone who is homophobic, you may find yourself in a very unpleasant or even physically dangerous situation.

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

You might think the purpose of flirting is self-evident: to show romantic or sexual interest in the other person. In fact, however, it can be very ambiguous: is the flirter looking for a one-night-stand, an ongoing sexual relationship without emotional entanglement, a date, a romantic relationship, or a lifetime commitment?

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

The social initiation page discussed ways you might strike up a casual, friendly, non-flirty conversation with a stranger (i.e. “small talk”). Some of the “recommended reading” websites listed at the end of this page give tips on how to establish an initial flirty connection, making it clear to a perfect stranger that you would like to flirt with them – but we don’t recommend this, as it can be dangerous for anyone, let alone someone who has had trouble reading others’ social signals. If you are in a context where people typically make romantic or sexual connections (e.g., a club, a bar, or a large social gathering such as a party or a wedding reception), and a stranger keeps trying to catch your eye, or initiates contact with more intensity and/or personal attention than we recommended for social initiation in general, be aware that they may be flirting with you.

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

As mentioned above, intense flirtation is highly inappropriate in the workplace. Many people do engage in casual flirtations, but even this is risky, as it may be misinterpreted. If you attempt even a casual flirtation but fail to recognize the signs that you are being discouraged, you might find yourself accused of sexual harassment. You should certainly never attempt to flirt with anyone who is subordinate to you in the workplace, as they may feel that you are applying undue pressure on them, and may bring a charge of sexual harassment against you. Make sure you are familiar with your workplace’s policy on fraternization (i.e. dating and relationships among co-workers). If you think someone is flirting with you in the workplace, and a relationship would not jeopardize your job, you might be better off directly asking the person for a date rather than attempting to flirt back.

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

People can be quite territorial about their romantic and sexual partners and can become physically violent to protect “their territory” (not just men, and not just when alcohol is involved).

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

Even if you think you’re flirting just for fun, it is likely to lead to hard feelings for your partner and trouble for your relationship, or worse. Your partner will at least feel disrespected and unvalued, and you may get a reputation for being unfaithful (even if the flirtation goes no further).

Recognizing Flirtatious Behavior

Features of Casual Flirtation

As mentioned above, many people will flirt “just for fun.” So even if you correctly recognize that someone is casually flirting with you, it is important not to assume too much about their underlying intentions.

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 is less ambiguous than casual flirtation: it is generally intended to seduce. You might observe this in a bar or club where strangers are looking for a quick one-night-stand, or after people have engaged for a while in mutual casual flirtation and wish to signal a desire to push the relationship along towards physical intimacy. Someone might flirt casually to try to get a date, and then engage in more intense flirtation on the date. Intense flirtation is seen in far fewer public settings and is inappropriate in a workplace environment.

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

Although some tone-of-voice cues were included in the features of flirting listed above, you might have noticed that nothing was mentioned about what people actually say while flirting, aside from the giving of compliments. Generally, it doesn’t much matter what is said – there is no script! – although most people trying to encourage a relationship will try to stay positive, avoiding complaints and grievances. We have seen people have perfectly successful flirtations while talking about the weather, about sports, about school, all sorts of things. In general, the better your friendly conversation skills are, the more prepared you are for 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 you are in a social situation, and you become aware that one person has begun casually flirting with another (not you), you don’t necessarily need to do anything. There’s no reason for you to show that you are aware of the flirtation, or to remove yourself from the situation. (In fact, if the target wishes to discourage the flirting, they will be glad of your continued presence.)

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 someone approaches you with a pickup line to initiate a conversation and you do not wish to interact with them, a short, flat (unexcited) answer will indicate that you are not receptive, especially if you also avoid eye contact and orient your body away from theirs. If you are a woman, you may need to send a stronger signal, or go through several rounds of exchanges before he takes the hint, as men have been shown to be less sensitive to signs of discouragement than women.

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

Whether it’s just for fun, or because you’d be interested in getting a date, the easiest way to encourage a flirtation is obviously to flirt back. If you do not actively flirt back, but do not show signs of discouraging the flirtation, you are being ambiguous in your response. Depending on their own level of self-confidence, some people will find the lack of discouragement encouraging, and will continue, while others will find the lack of overt encouragement discouraging and will stop.

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

Think carefully (preferably when sober) about whether you’re sure both of you understand that it’s just for fun, or if you’d really be interested in a romantic and sexual relationship with this person. If yes, great. If not, think about the potential consequences: it’s a lot easier (and less face-threatening) to stop a casual flirtation before it’s begun. If you begin with casual flirtation and the other person feels encouraged enough to attempt seduction, and you then turn them down, you can do permanent damage to the relationship. If this is a friendship you value, is it worth the risk? If it is a workplace relationship that will need to continue, no matter how awkward it may become for both of you, do you really want to take the risk?

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

You’d better be sure that you are actually prepared to go to bed with the flirter. Otherwise, you will be accused of having “led them on,” and you may find yourself in an extremely awkward situation.

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.

Exercises

Scholarly Sources

  • Guerrero, Laura K. & Kory Floyd. (2006). Nonverbal Communication in Close Relationships. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Henningsen, David Dryden. (2004). Flirting with meaning: An examination of miscommunication in flirting interactions. Sex Roles 50 (7-8): 481-9.
  • Koeppel, Liana B., Montagne-Miller, Y., O’Hair, D., & Cody, M.J. (1993). Friendly? Flirting? Wrong? In Pamela J. Kalbfleisch (Ed.), Interpersonal Communication: Evolving Interpersonal Relationships. Erlbaum, 13-32.
  • Manusov, Valerie & Miles L. Patterson. (2006). The SAGE Handbook of Nonverbal Communication. Sage Publications.
  • Moore, Monica M. (2002). Courtship communication and perception. Perceptual and Motor Skills 94: 97-105.
  • Moore, Monica M. (2001). Flirting. In Charles G. Waugh (Ed.). Let’s Talk: A Cognitive Skills approach to Interpersonal Communication. Newark, DE: Kendall-Hunt.

Recommended Reading

  • Browne, Joy. (2013). Flirting tips for dating. Excerpted from Flirting For Dummies. John Wiley & Sons. http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/flirting-tips-for-dating.html
  • Clark, Elizabeth. (2013). How to flirt to show interest in someone. Excerpted from Flirting For Dummies. John Wiley & Sons. http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/how-to-flirt-to-show-interest-in-someone.html
  • Roth, Michelle. (1999-2013). How to flirt with body language. E-how.com  http://www.ehow.com/video_4438796_flirt-body-language.html
  • Social Issues Research Centre. (1997-2012). SIRC Guide to Flirting. http://www.sirc.org/publik/flirt.html [Note: this research group is based in Oxford, UK, and there may be subtle cultural differences.]
  • Therapy Today (2013). LBGT Romantic Relationships: Coming Out and Dating.  http://therapytoday.com/2011/08/31/lgbt-romantic-relationships-coming-out-and-dating-tips/

One response to “Flirting”

  1. Gay Dating says:

    Flirting is much more than just a bit of fun. It is a universal and essential aspect of human interaction so learning more about it is truly interesting. Thanks for the share!

    Gay Dating

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *