Flirting or coquetry is a social and sometimes sexual activity involving verbal or written communication as well as body language by one person to another, either to suggest interest in a deeper relationship with the other person, or if done playfully, for amusement. In most cultures, it is socially disapproved for a person to make explicit sexual advances in public, or in private to someone not romantically acquainted, but indirect or suggestive advances (i.e. flirting) may at times be considered acceptable.
Flirting usually involves speaking and behaving in a way that suggests a mildly greater intimacy than the actual relationship between the parties would justify, though within the rules of social etiquette, which generally disapproves of a direct expression of sexual interest in the given setting. This may be accomplished by communicating a sense of playfulness or irony. Double entendres, with one meaning more formally appropriate and another more suggestive, may be used. Body language can include flicking the hair, eye contact, brief touching, open stances, proximity, etc. Verbal communication of interest can include alterations in vocal tone, such as pace, volume, and intonation. Challenges (teasing, questions, qualifying, feigned disinterest) serve to increase tension and test intention and congruity.
Flirting behavior varies across cultures due to different modes of social etiquette, such as how closely people should stand (proxemics), how long to hold eye contact, how much touching is appropriate and so forth. Nonetheless, some behaviors may be more universal. For example, ethologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt found that in places as different as Africa and North America, women exhibit similar flirting behavior, such as a prolonged stare followed by a head tilt away with a little smile.
The origin of the word flirt is obscure. The Oxford English Dictionary (first edition) associates it with such onomatopoeic words as flit and flick, emphasizing a lack of seriousness; on the other hand, it has been attributed to the old French conter fleurette, which means “to (try to) seduce” by the dropping of flower petals, that is, “to speak sweet nothings”. While old-fashioned, this expression is still used in French, often mockingly, but the English gallicism to flirt has made its way and has now become an anglicism.
During World War II, anthropologist Margaret Mead was working in Britain for the British Ministry of Information and later for the U.S. Office of War Information, delivering speeches and writing articles to help the American soldiers better understand the British civilians, and vice versa. She observed in the flirtations between the American soldiers and British women a pattern of misunderstandings regarding who is supposed to take which initiative. She wrote of the Americans, “The boy learns to make advances and rely upon the girl to repulse them whenever they are inappropriate to the state of feeling between the pair”, as contrasted to the British, where “the girl is reared to depend upon a slight barrier of chilliness… which the boys learn to respect, and for the rest to rely upon the men to approach or advance, as warranted by the situation.” This resulted, for example, in British women interpreting an American soldier’s gregariousness as something more intimate or serious than he had intended.
Communications theorist Paul Watzlawick used this situation, where “both American soldiers and British girls accused one another of being sexually brash”, as an example of differences in “punctuation” in interpersonal communications. He wrote that courtship in both cultures used approximately 30 steps from “first eye contact to the ultimate consummation”, but that the sequence of the steps was different. For example, kissing might be an early step in the American pattern but a relatively intimate act in the English pattern.
Japanese courtesans had another form of flirting, emphasizing non-verbal relationships by hiding the lips and showing the eyes, as depicted in much Shunga art, the most popular print media at the time, until the late 19th century.
European hand fans
The fan was extensively used as a means of communication and therefore a way of flirting from the 16th century onwards in some European societies, especially England and Spain. A whole sign language was developed with the use of the fan, and even etiquette books and magazines were published. Charles Francis Badini created the Original Fanology or Ladies’ Conversation Fan which was published by William Cock in London in 1797. The use of the fan was not limited to women, as men also carried fans and learned how to convey messages with them. For instance, placing the fan near the heart meant “I love you”, while opening a fan wide meant “Wait for me”.
In Spain, where the use of fans (called “abanicos”) is still very popular in modern times, ladies used them to communicate with suitors or prospective suitors without their family or chaperon finding out. This use was highly popular during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
People flirt for a variety of reasons. Flirting can indicate an interest in a deeper personal relationship with another person. Some people flirt simply for amusement, with no intention of developing any further relationship. This type of flirting sometimes faces disapproval from others because it can be deemed as leading someone on if the person being flirted with misinterprets it as something more serious. In most cultures, both types of flirting may be viewed as cheating if either person is in a monogamous relationship with someone else. Some couples set up rules and boundaries for their partner so one will know what’s accepted and what’s not.
In order to bond or to express sexual interest, people flirt. According to social anthropologist Kate Fox, there are two main types of flirting: flirting just for fun and flirting with further intent. Flirting for fun can take place between friends, co-workers, or total strangers that wish to get to know each other. This type of flirting does not intend to lead to sexual intercourse or a romantic relationship, but increases the bonds between two people.
Flirting with intent plays a role in the mate-selection process. The person flirting will send out signals of sexual availability to another, and expects to see the interest returned in order to continue flirting. Flirting can involve non-verbal signs, such as an exchange of glances, hand-touching, and hair-touching; or verbal signs, such as chatting, giving flattering comments, and exchanging telephone numbers in order to initiate further contact. In the 21st century flirting is increasingly taking place in instant messaging and other social media.
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- Blowing a kiss
- Casual touches; such as a woman gently touching a man’s arm during conversation
- Conversation (e.g. banter, small talk, pickup lines)
- Coyness, marked by cute, coquettish shyness or modesty
- Eye contact, batting eyelashes, or staring
- Eyebrow raising
- Flattery (e.g. regarding beauty, sexual attractiveness)
- Footsie, a form of flirtation in which one uses their feet to play with another’s
- Giggling, or laughing encouragingly at any slight hint of intimacy in the other’s behavior
- Imitating or mirroring another’s behavior (e.g. taking a drink when the other person takes a drink, changing posture as the other does, etc.)
- Maintaining close proximity, such as during casual talking
- Chatting online, texting, and using other one-on-one and direct messaging services, while hinting affection
- Protean signals, such as touching one’s hair
- Sending notes, poems, or small gifts
- Singing specially selected love songs in presence of the person
- Staging of “chance” encounters
Flirting varies a great deal from culture to culture. For example, for many western cultures one very common flirting strategy includes eye contact. However, eye contact can have a very different meaning in some Asian countries, where women might get in trouble if they return a glance to men who stare at them. Furthermore, Chinese and Japanese women are sometimes not expected to initiate eye contact as it could be considered rude and disrespectful.
The distance between two people is also important when flirting. People from the “contact cultures”, such as those in the Mediterranean or Latin America, may feel comfortable with closer proximity, whereas a British or Northern European person may typically need more space. Although touching, especially of the hand or arm, can constitute flirting, touching is also often done without intentions of flirting, particularly in the contact cultures where it forms a natural part of communication.
- “Scoring a German: Flirting with Fräuleins, Hunting for Herren – SPIEGEL ONLINE”. Spiegel.de. Retrieved 2012-10-03.
- Mead, Margaret (2004). William O. Beeman, ed. Studying Contemporary Western Society: Method and Theory. New York: Berghahn Books. pp. 145, 149. ISBN 1-57181-816-2.
- Mead’s article, A Case History in Cross-National Communications, was originally published in Bryson, Lyman (1948). The Communication of Ideas. New York: Institute for Religious and Social Studies, dist. by Harper and Brothers. OCLC 1488507.
- e.g. Mead, Margaret (1944). The American troops and the British community. London: Hutchinson. OCLC 43965908.
- e.g. Mead, Margaret. “What Is a Date?”. Transatlantic. 10 (June 1944). OCLC 9091671.
- Watzlawick, Paul (1983). How Real Is Real?. London: Souvenir Press. pp. 63–64. ISBN 0-285-62573-X.
- “Ladies and their Fans”. Avictorian.com. Retrieved 2010-06-23.
- “The Language of the Fan”. Spainforvisitors.com. Retrieved 2010-06-23.
- “SIRC Guide to flirting”. Sirc.org. Retrieved 2011-08-14.
- “Pittsburgh is the ‘flirtiest’ city in the country – Timesonline.com: Local News”. Timesonline.com. 2011-09-15. Retrieved 2012-10-03.
- Flirting. Sexplanations. 2014-03-25.
- “Covert glances and eye contact”. Brighthub.com. Retrieved 2010-06-23.