How to understand the difference between flirting and social interaction

How to understand the difference between flirting and social interaction

Some people are naturally friendly, no matter who they’re talking to. They laugh at jokes, have great eye contact, and make you feel appreciated. Talk to them long enough, and it might even seem like they’re flirting. But if you often can’t tell if someone is interested in you or just being friendly, you’re not alone.

It’s often difficult to know when someone is flirting or simply being nice, David Bennett, a certified counselor and relationship expert, tells Bustle. In fact, a 2014 study from the University of Kansas showed just how bad people are at realizing when someone is flirting with them, with only 18% of women picking up the hint.

It might be extra difficult because friendly conversations and flirting share quite a few common characteristics. (Think smiling, laughing, etc.) “Without knowing someone’s intentions, flirting and friendly behaviors are often nearly identical, and this makes knowing the difference extremely frustrating for everyone involved,” Bennett says.

This can also lead to awkwardness and even misunderstandings, according to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Sex Research, which is why being able to spot the difference between flirting and friendliness is key. Here are a few ways to tell, according to relationship experts.

They’ll Make Prolonged Eye Contact

There’s a subtle but noticeable difference between average, run of the mill eye contact — like the kind you have during conversations with friends and family — and prolonged or lingering eye contact.

If someone is romantically interested in you, Bennett says, their eye contact will seem more intense. They might couple good conversation with that “I want to stare deeply into your eyes” type of look, he says, at which point you can reasonably assume they’re flirting.

They’ll Make Physical Contact

Another big giveaway is if the person makes physical contact, “like touching your arm or tapping you,” Antonia Hall, a psychologist and relationship expert, tells Bustle. In the social distancing age, this might look like standing a bit closer or angling their body in your direction.

That said, if someone’s physical proximity or touchy gestures make you feel uncomfortable, there are plenty of ways to turn them down or ask for more space.

They’ll Ask More In-Depth Questions

Both people who are being friendly and those who are flirting will pick your brain and ask questions. But if someone is truly flirting, you might be notice a deeper “agenda” that seems to suggest they want to know you better, Tina B. Tessina, PhD, psychotherapist and author, tells Bustle.

A friendly person will ask casual questions, like “How are you?” or “What brings you to this picnic?” while someone who is more-than-friendly will get personal, ask about your past, your thoughts on a certain subject, etc. They might even imply that they’re single or ask about your dating life.

How to understand the difference between flirting and social interaction

Whether you’re on the lookout for love or just want to avoid giving the wrong impression, it’s important to be able to recognize the signs of flirting.

Here are a few subtle clues that someone might actually be flirting with you and not just being friendly.

They make prolonged eye contact.

Eye contact can be a powerful flirting technique. In a study published in the Journal of Research in Personality, researchers found that participants who gazed into each other’s eyes for prolonged periods were more likely to report feelings of affection for the other person.

Though someone may not be consciously trying to woo you with endless gazes, eye contact is a good indicator that someone finds you interesting and potentially attractive.

They shoot you a lot of brief glances.

It’s not just prolonged eye contact that can give away someone’s romantic interest. According to Pamela Regan’s book “Close Relationships,” men, in particular, tend to direct many brief glances at the intended target of their flirtation.

This might mean that constantly catching the eye of someone across the room might be subtle flirtation rather than pure coincidence.

They play with their clothing.

According to research on nonverbal signs of romantic interest, toying with a sleeve or fidgeting with a button could actually be flirting.

The study recorded the interactions of unacquainted participants and then asked them about their level of romantic interest in each other. Female participants were noted to be more likely to play with their clothing if they were interested in another participant.

They tease you or give you awkward compliments.

Though there are definitely better ways to express attraction, being jokingly picked on might be a subtle sign that someone is into you.

“Backhanded compliments allow someone to test the waters and see if you respond in a favorable manner,” life coach Jaya Jaya Myra told Bustle.

Of course, there’s a difference between light teasing and being made to feel uncomfortable or bullied. Someone who repeatedly puts you down or makes you unhappy isn’t worth your time, even if they are trying to flirt.

They touch you while you talk.

Being on the receiving end of an “accidental” arm graze or food bump might mean you’re being flirted with.

“Often the person will touch your arm or try to brush hands or feet if you are seated at a table or bar,” dating and communication coach Sarah Curnoles told Bustle.

Curnoles also revealed that a light touch on these areas actually sends signals to the brain about attraction.

Their eyebrows raise up when they see you.

Though you probably wouldn’t think to track someone’s eyebrows for hints of attraction, sex expert and author of “Superflirt” Tracy Cox revealed to TODAY that a slight lifting of the brows is an unconscious way that people signal romantic interest.

This brow lifting can last less than a second, so keep your eyes peeled for this subtle flirtation clue.

They let you catch them checking you out.

Have you ever caught someone checking out your body during a conversation? According to Cox, this is a pretty big indicator that someone is into you and wants you to know it.

Though there are usually plenty of low-key opportunities to size up a potential mate, allowing themselves to be caught in the act might mean that they’re trying to send a flirty message.

They have open body language.

In an article for Penguin, social anthropologist Jean Smith encouraged readers to take note of a potential flirter’s body language.

“If they’re squared up, facing you, with their feet pointed in your direction, it’s all looking good . If their feet are angled away, simulating a quick exit, or their arms are folded, forget it,” she wrote.

Paying attention to how open and relaxed someone’s body language can help you decipher their intentions.

They're always the first one to react to your social media posts.

Digital flirting can be just as revealing as the in-person variety. If someone is constantly commenting or liking your social media posts, it’s safe to say you’re on their mind.

“With all the content flying around nowadays, if someone takes the time to check out everything you post, you know there is more to it than meets the eye,” Myra told Bustle.

Though liking a post could just be a friendly move rather than a declaration of love, reacting to everything you post online might indicate attraction.

They move their body closer to yours.

When you like someone, it’s natural to want to be near them. Close physical proximity is a good indicator of romantic intention, according to Smith.

“If they’re moving in closer, it’s a good sign that they are getting ready to flirt,” Smith wrote.

Research finds that we’re surprisingly bad at recognizing flirtation.

You’ve got beautiful eyes. Can I buy you a drink?

How to understand the difference between flirting and social interaction

Sometimes flirting is completely obvious, but often it’s more indirect and tentative. How accurately can you decipher flirting from non-flirting? Are you likely to misinterpret attempts just to be friendly as flirting? (“He’s always flirting with me!” “Um, no he’s not.”) Or are you the kind of person who thinks real attempts at flirtation are just basic conversation? (“No one flirts with me.” “I’m trying to flirt with you right now.” “That’s sweet, but seriously, no one flirts with me”).

Flirting is more complicated than you might think.

By definition, flirting is communicating in a way that signals attraction (Hall, Carter, Cody, and Albright, 2010). Here’s the thing though: Most people aren’t eager to experience direct rejection, so if they want to communicate interest, they might use indirect flirting strategies, those that resemble other, non-flirting conversation (teasing, joking, being friendly).

Recent research offers new insights into how accurately people detect real flirting behavior (Hall, Xing, and Brooks, 2014). The researchers brought strangers into the lab, had them talk to each other for 10 or so minutes in a “first impressions” task, then (in private) asked them questions about the interaction.

How accurately do people decipher flirting and non-flirting?

  1. Physical attraction is part of the equation. The more physically attracted individuals are to strangers, the more they are apt to flirt (as you might expect). Being physically attracted to someone, however, has no relation to the perception of flirting: Just because you think someone is cute doesn’t mean you’ll automatically interpret neutral comments as flirtation.
  2. Men and women are both bad at detecting flirting. When chatting with a stranger, research suggests most people actually don’t know flirting when they see it. In this study, women were only 18% accurate in recognizing men’s flirting as flirting. Men did better, but with only a 36% accuracy rate, they still are operating way below chance. Most of the time flirts just aren’t perceived as flirting.
  3. People recognize non-flirting more accurately than flirting. In this study, women were 83% accurate in seeing non-flirting as non-flirting, and men performed about the same, 84%. It seems both men and women are much better at recognizing the absence of flirting than recognizing real flirting. The default, it seems, is to infer no romantic interest.

Overall, these are rather disappointing results. With so many people mistaking real flirting for neutral conversation, a lot of people might be missing out on romance. At the same time, though, people tend not to overestimate flirting, which could be socially useful. After all, the consequences of misinterpreting casual chatter for flirtation could be serious. We’re still left with the puzzle of how to accurately detect flirting, a puzzle that seems even more important now that we know how poorly people do at the task, in general.

Clues that help you spot real flirting

  1. Look for non-verbal signals.Body language can speak volumes. Research suggests that people observe certain behaviors that together can communicate romantic interest. In certain contexts, smiling, leaning forward and touching someone, and making eye contact can suggest romantic interest (Henningsen, Kartch, Orr, and Brown, 2009).
  2. Listen for verbal flirting. Both men and women are equally good at recognizing certain verbal communications as flirting (Henningsen et al., 2009). Specifically, they interpret sexual interest from compliments; overt references to being single/available to date someone else; and using mild sexual innuendos as signs of interest.
  3. Consider the context. Evidence suggests that flirting is more apt to occur in places that have the following features (Fox, 2004): sociability (people can easily talk to one another); alcohol (the classic social lubricant); and common interests (it’s a gathering place for like-minded individuals).
  4. Flirting styles predict flirting behavior. Not everyone flirts the same way, so if you know a person’s style, you can use setting cues to help figure out if they’re flirting. Recent research (McBain et al., 2013) revealed that:
  • Traditional flirts, who tend to be introverted, are cautious and polite when flirting at a party, bar, or educational setting. They are not the folks chatting it up at the supermarket.
  • Physical flirts, who use a lot of body language, like to playfully flirt across many contexts.
  • Playful flirts are less polite than physical flirts and tend to be highly extroverted, throwing caution to the wind when flirting. They are not so sincere in their flirting when the context doesn’t match the goal (supermarkets) but are sincere when speed-dating.
  • Finally, the sincere flirt and the polite flirt both prefer to be introduced to someone, as opposed to initiating contact themselves, and are cautious in their approach.

Fox, K. (2004). SIRC guide to flirting: What social science can tell you about flirting and how to do it. Retrieved from Social Issues Research Centre website: http://www.sirc.org/publik/flirt.pdf

Hall, J. A., Carter, S., Cody, M. J., & Albright, J. M. (2010). Individual differences in the communication of romantic interest: Development of the flirting styles inventory. Communication Quarterly, 58(4), 365-393.

Hall, J. A., Xing, C., & Brooks, S. (2014). Accurately detecting flirting: Error management theory, the traditional sexual script, and flirting base rate. Communication Research, Advanced online publication. doi:093650214534972.

Henningsen, D. D., Kartch, F., Orr, N., & Brown, A. (2009). The perceptions of verbal and nonverbal flirting cues in cross-sex interactions. Human Communication, 12(4), 371-381.

Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In Nebraska symposium on motivation. University of Nebraska Press.

McBain, K. A., Hewitt, L., Maher, T., Sercombe, M., Sypher, S., & Tirendi, G. (2013). Is this seat taken? The importance of context during the initiation of romantic communication. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 3, 79-89.

How to understand the difference between flirting and social interaction

Flirting is an essential aspect of human interaction. It often opens a portal for intimate relationships between two people. Both men and women flirt, and many people find innocent flirting fun and satisfying.

Flirting may often point to different things: one-night stands, serious intent for a long-term relationship, destressing routine, habitual flirting, making business, and so on.

According to psychologists, below are a few common examples of flirting:

Social media posts:

  • Digital flirting is also a factor to consider. People who flirt are always the first ones to react to your social media posts.
  • If someone is constantly commenting or liking your social media posts, it is safe to say you are on their mind.
  • Though liking a post could just be a friendly move rather than a declaration of love, reacting to everything you post online might indicate attraction.

Eyebrows:

  • As per studies, their eyebrows raise when they see you.
  • A slight lifting of the brows is an unconscious way that people signal romantic interest.

Prolonged eye contact:

  • As per studies, if someone is gazing into your eyes, there is a high chance they have affection towards you.
  • Eye contact is a good indicator that someone finds a person interesting and potentially attractive.

Brief glances:

  • Many brief glances may sometimes be subtle flirtation.
  • In close relationships, people tend to direct many brief glances at the intended target of their flirtation.
  • This might mean that constantly catching the eye of someone across the room might be subtle flirtation rather than pure coincidence.

Fidgeting:

  • According to research on nonverbal signs of romantic interest, toying with a sleeve or fidgeting with a button could be flirting.
  • Females are noted to be more likely to play with their clothing if they were interested in a person.

Teasing and awkward compliments:

  • Being jokingly picked on might be a subtle sign that someone is into you.
  • However, there is a difference between light teasing and being made to feel uncomfortable or bullied.
  • Someone who repeatedly puts you down or makes you unhappy isn't worth your time, even if they are trying to flirt.

Possibly touching:

  • People who flirt possibly touch the one they like while they talk.
  • As per research, light touches can be their way of getting closer.
  • An accidental arm graze or bumping into might mean you are being flirted with.
  • Often the person will touch your arm or try to brush hands or feet against you if you are seated at a table or bar. A light touch on these areas sends signals to the brain about attraction.

They might want you to notice:

  • They let you catch them checking you out. This is a pretty big indicator that someone is into you and wants you to know it.
  • Though there are usually plenty of low-key opportunities to size up a potential mate, allowing themselves to be caught in the act might mean that they are trying to send a flirty message.

Open body language:

  • Paying attention to how open and relaxed someone's body language is can help you decipher their intentions.
  • For example, if they are squared up and facing you with their feet pointed in your direction, it may be a sign that they are interested in you.

Physical proximity:

  • It is a big sign of flirting. There are some situations in which being physically close to someone is inevitable (e.g., a full subway car). However, if someone scoots their chair closer to yours and leans in, there is a good chance they are trying to be flirty.
  • They try to move their body closer to yours. Close physical proximity is a good indicator of romantic intention.
  • If they're moving in closer, it's a good sign that they are getting ready to flirt.

What are the different styles of flirting?

Research shows that people use five main styles of flirting with each person displaying different levels of each style:

Physical:

  • Individuals with this flirting style feel comfortable expressing their desire through physical behavior.
  • They generally have an easy time signaling their attraction, and their behavior is often likely to be interpreted as sexual in nature.

Sincere:

  • Individuals with this flirting style focus on creating an emotional bond with their potential romantic partners.
  • They tend to develop intimacy early on in relationships by eliciting self-disclosure, providing social support, and showing personal interest, which is generally in a romantic (but not necessarily sexual) manner.

Playful:

  • Individuals with this flirting style tend to flirt in a way that is playful and light-hearted.
  • They are generally not concerned with how others may interpret their behavior. They often view flirting as an inherently satisfying behavior, even if it doesn’t lead to anything serious.

Traditional:

  • Individuals with this flirting style attempt to behave within the boundaries of traditional gender roles.
  • They expect the man to be the active initiator in the courtship process and the woman to play a more passive role.

Polite:

  • Individuals with this flirting style use a relatively cautious approach to courtship.
  • They tend to avoid behavior that could potentially be construed by others as inappropriate, aggressive, or needy.

Flirting is not serious, but it is an important thing to do because it creates a spark between two people. Unless you have somehow managed to crack any universal code of romantic bonding that has forever eluded humankind, you know that flirting can be hard. Expressing affection can be potentially mortifying, particularly if you have got a crush on the person you are flirting with.

How to understand the difference between flirting and social interaction

A compliment on your outfit, tousle of the hair, smile from across the room or playful nudge as you pass each other — all signs of flirting, right?

If you’re on the receiving end, you might be asking yourself, “Is she flirting with me?” “Is he just being friendly?”

There’s a fine line between being flirty and overly friendly, and the question of intent can weigh heavily on one’s mind, whether these niceties are warranted and reciprocated, or not.

Flirtatious behavior is common at the workplace (no matter how many policies are emphasized in employee handbooks). Between 40 and 47 percent of employees surveyed in a 2013 Psychology Today report said they had been involved in a workplace romance, and 20 percent said they were receptive to an office romance, which implies some flirting might be going on.

Flirting may lead to a workplace romance, but does it require intention?

“Flirting doesn’t have to be intentional,” says Heather Noman of Three Day Rule, a matchmaking site. “You don’t have to have a major crush before you start flirting, especially in public. We really suggest being open to the people around you, whether you’re waiting in a line or wherever, having your head up from the phone and taking advantage of that. Just keep it natural.”

“That natural banter may not be there if you’re focused on one person,” says fellow Three Day Rule matchmaker Casey McDonald. “When you have (natural banter) with someone, it’s the piece you would’ve never known if you were always flirting with intention.

McDonald says workplace relationships can be successful because many stem from friendship and mutual respect. So how do you know if “Bob” wants to get outside of the friend zone?

“If Bob comes up to you with compliments, but you never notice him complimenting anyone else, he’s probably flirting with you.”

If you are doing the flirting, Noman says to pay attention to the other person’s reaction. Both matchmakers say flirting doesn’t only involve verbal communication, but also body language.

“For a guy wondering if a woman is open to his flirting, he’s looking to see if she’s readjusting her clothes while talking with him, touching her hair or preening a little bit. If so, she’s probably interested in flirting with him,” Noman said.

If a woman is hoping a man is receptive to flirting, the matchmakers argue the dynamic is the same and suggest women take the initiative more often. A guy may also preen, but it’s most important to pay attention to his eye contact and how much he shares about his life outside of the office, they said.

Surveying office interactions, whether you’re directly involved or not, helps develop a deeper understanding of office culture and interpersonal relationships.

If Bob is complimentary or friendly with everyone — from a “you look nice today” to a high-five — then he likely doesn’t have romantic intentions.

If the flirtation is mutual, Noman and McDonald suggest a group outing such as a happy hour to engage on a more personal level. (Matchmaker tip: A group of three is ideal for going out with friends to possibly meet someone, but don’t huddle around one another — sit more openly to invite potential matches)

But what crosses the line from flirting to harassment?

“It’s all about setting boundaries,” says Valeh Nazemoff, strategic business technology adviser and author of “The Dance of the Business Mind.” Nazemoff draws parallels between acceptable office behavior and what she’s observed of professional dancers.

“Despite close physical contact, professional dancers don’t become inappropriate. It’s a fine line, but when done right, you’re in tune and part of a strong team.

“Mutual office flirting means it is shared — both ways, like the cha-cha-cha dance, where it goes back and forth and creates a continuous dialogue,” she explains. “Sexual harassment is not an ongoing interaction, but one way, meaning it makes the receiver feel uncomfortable, and within themselves, they carry a negative emotional feeling. It becomes sexual harassment when a ‘not interested’ communicated expression is ignored and the pursuit continues.”

Nazemoff and the matchmakers agree it’s best to be direct when rejecting a come-on, in or out of the office, through verbal and nonverbal cues.

“You can set boundaries without embarrassing or creating an awkward work environment by using the words ‘I feel,'” Nazemoff says. “When you use the words ‘You make me feel,’ it creates tension and bitterness. However, when you use I feel,’ it creates a softer tone and less discomfort to the situation,” she said. And, remain calm, but firm.

If you consider yourself naturally flirty, then you might want to rein in your behavior, so that it is not misunderstood.

“Pay particular attention to the other person’s facial expression, and notice if they tend to want to take a step or two back,” says Nazemoff. “In order to tune into the other person’s feeling, you need to be connected and conscious of your own emotions first.”

If you worry that people today are using social media as a crutch for a real social life, a University of Kansas study will set you at ease.

Jeffrey Hall, associate professor of communication studies, found that people are actually quite adept at discerning the difference between using social media and having an honest-to-goodness social interaction. The results of his studies appear in the journal New Media & Society.

“There is a tendency to equate what we do on social media as if it is social interaction, but that does not reflect people’s actual experience using it,” Hall said. “All of this worry that we’re seeking out more and more social interaction on Facebook is not true. Most interactions are face to face, and most of what we consider social interaction is face to face.”

According to Hall, social media is more like old-fashioned people-watching. “Liking” something is similar to a head nod. It’s not social interaction, but it’s acknowledging you are sharing space with someone else.

“Keeping tabs on other people sharing our social spaces is normal and part of what it means to be human,” Hall said.

Hall is no stranger to research on social media. New Media & Society published an earlier study of his that found people can accurately detect the personality traits of strangers through Facebook activity.

In his current paper in the journal, Hall details three studies. The first demonstrates that when using social media, most of us are engaged in passive behaviors that we don’t consider social interaction, like browsing others’ profiles and reading news articles.

The second diary study demonstrates that most of what we consider social interaction with people in our close circle of friends happens face to face. When interaction with these close others is through social media, it’s not something passive like browsing or “liking” but rather using chat or instant message functions.

Here’s where it gets interesting, Hall said. The first study found that chatting and commenting — things that we would even consider social interaction — are but 3.5 percent of our time on social media.

The third study had participants contacted at random times throughout the day. This study drives home how adept we are at separating social media use with social interaction. People reported 98 percent of their social interactions took some other way than through social media.

“Although people often socially interact and use social media in the same time period, people understand they are different things,” Hall said. “People feel a sense of relatedness when they’re interacting face to face, but using social media does not make them feel connected.”

All three studies, Hall said, circle around the idea that we still value face-to-face time with close others for the purpose of talking.

“If we want to have a conversation, we’re not using social media to do it,” he said.

The findings speak to a broader anxiety that many still have regarding social media.

“There’s a worry that people are seeking out more and more social interactions on Facebook and that social media is taking over our face-to-face time,” Hall said. “I’m saying, ‘Not so fast.’ People use social media to people-watch and still seem to enjoy a good face-to-face conversation.”

Research shows flirting is difficult to detect, but there are ways to improve.

How to understand the difference between flirting and social interaction

Have you ever wondered to yourself, “Was that person just flirting with me?” It could be a suggestive glance, a playful remark, an ambiguous emoji, or a simple text or DM. “Hi.” Oh geez, what does that mean?! True, the line between friendly and more than friends can be difficult to discern. You want to get it right, to avoid potential embarrassment from misreading signals but also, more importantly, you don’t want to miss out on a great new relationship if someone really is interested.

Seeing What They Want to See

First off, it is important to realize that when men and women look at the same behavior, men are likely to see behaviors as more flirtatious and seductive. 1 Whether it is wishful thinking on their part or a failure to properly identify cues, men seem to have a harder time knowing if a woman is actually flirting or merely being friendly. That isn’t a recipe for success.

But perhaps men’s misperceptions aren’t entirely their fault. After all, flirting is intentionally subtle and difficult to decode. Though that may seem counterproductive for relationship formation, it’s strategic. 2 Often the person doing the flirting isn’t sure whether the person they like is interested or not. By cloaking their intentions with a bit of sly and subtle flirting, the flirter can “test the waters” without being too vulnerable.

That’s what makes reading the signals so hard. In fact, when Jeffrey Hall and colleagues at the University of Kansas looked at how accurately people perceive flirting by having over 100 heterosexual strangers engage in conversation with another participant. 3 Afterward, the researchers asked each person if they flirted during their interaction and whether they thought their partner flirted with them. Participants accurately detected flirting only 28% of the time. A follow-up study found that outside observers who were not in the actual interaction were even less accurate. The observers’ objectivity didn’t help and only made things worse. That’s a little reassuring. It’s not like outsiders have some grand insight that you don’t have. It’s just confusing.

Seeing the Signals

If you want your flirtation detection meter to do better than 28% accuracy, research could help. To determine what people do to show romantic interest in others, a researcher had two opposite-sex strangers meet, and videotaped their interaction for 10 minutes. 4 Afterward, the researcher asked each person about their romantic interest and matched it up with their behaviors during the interaction. The focus was on laughter, but the amount of laughter itself did not indicate romantic interest. However, during laughter, males who were more interested gave off more dominance signals, e.g., taking up space, while “females communicated interest via numerous signals of bodily self-presentation and submission,” and in both, “a lack of interest was communicated through closed postures.”

A similar study gave participants the opportunity to flirt, videotaped it, and then asked participants to indicate whether certain behaviors were indeed flirting. 5 Early in the interaction, behaviors weren’t related to actual interest. This suggests that the initial glances you exchange with someone probably do not hold much meaning. It’s too early to know anything for sure. Real interest was only discernable if women kept giving signals over time. Later in the conversation, women who were interested tended to tilt their heads, used more hand gestures, and played with their clothing more. Men who were interested spent more time talking.

Those are just a few signs of women’s interest. Other researchers wanted to create a catalog of women’s flirting behavior by observing over 200 women in a singles bar. 6 They identified 52 flirting behaviors. Some of the most common behaviors included smiling, glancing around the room, solitary dancing, and laughing. Here’s the problem. These are common flirting behaviors, but they aren’t clear-cut signs of actual romantic interest. Women could simply be smiling, looking around the room, and laughing for completely non-flirtatious reasons. Subtlety reigns.

What You Want vs. What You Get

It would be a lot easier to accurately pick up on flirting if the flirters of the world were simply more direct and obvious about their intentions. Incidentally, research shows that most people prefer direct flirting. 7 But would you commit to doing that yourself? Doubtful. It ruins the intrigue, the mystery, and if you’re honest, some of the fun. If you’re not willing to be more direct, it isn’t fair to expect the same of others. In fact, research finds that how people would flirt themselves didn’t match how they hoped others would try to flirt with them. 8

Alas, detecting flirtation with 100% accuracy is likely impossible. But, by learning a little more about the science of flirting, you may be a little more effective at sending and interpreting the subtle signals.

To learn more about flirting, see “How to Spot a Flirt”

For more on the psychology of relationships, see my book, Stronger Than You Think: The 10 Blind Spots That Undermine Your Relationship. and How to See Past Them.

Facebook image: bokan/Shutterstock

1 La France, B. H., Henningsen, D. D., Oates, A., & Shaw, C. M. (2009). Social-sexual interactions? Meta-analyses of sex differences in perceptions of flirtatiousness, seductiveness, and promiscuousness. Communication Monographs, 76(3), 263-285. doi:10.1080/03637750903074701

2 Whitty, M. T. (2004). Cyber-flirting: An examination of men’s and women’s flirting behaviour both offline and on the internet. Behaviour Change, 21, 115-126.

3 Hall, J. A., Xing, C., & Brooks, S. (2014). Accurately detecting flirting: Error management theory, the traditional sexual script, and flirting base rate. Communication Research, 42, 939-958. doi: 10.1177/0093650214534972

4 Grammer, K. (1990). Strangers meet: Laughter and nonverbal signs of interest in opposite-sex encounters. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 14(4), 209-236. doi:10.1007/BF00989317

5 Grammer, K., Kruck, K., Juette, A., & Fink, B. (2000). Non-verbal behavior as courtship signals: The role of control and choice in selecting partners. Evolution and Human Behavior, 21, 371-390.

6 Moore, M. M. (1985). Nonverbal courtship patterns in women: Context and consequences. Ethology & Sociobiology, 6(4), 237-247. doi:10.1016/0162-3095(85)90016-0

7 Wade, J., Butrie, L., Hoffman, K. (2009). Women’s direct opening lines are perceived as most effective. Personality and Individual Differences, 47, 145-149.

8 White, J., Lorenz, H., Perilloux, C., & Lee, A. (2018). Creative Casanovas: Mating strategy predicts using—but not preferring—atypical flirting tactics. Evolutionary Psychological Science, 4(4), 443–455.

You might dress well, have a cool job, and be blessed with beauty, but flirting is where the real magic of attraction is, especially when it comes to first impressions. In fact, good flirting is often more effective than good looks, and it’s something anybody can learn how to do.

Make Friendly, Lasting Eye Contact With a Smile

Eye contact is pivotal when flirting, and Marin suggests it’s the best way to indicate your interest. It means the difference between a friendly “how-do-ya-do” conversation and a “I’d really like to get to know you” conversation. Whether you’re across the room or already talking, eye contact has been shown to boost feelings of attraction. In one study, published in the Journal of Research and Personality , strangers were asked to stare into the eyes of other strangers. After holding a mutual, friendly gaze for two minutes, most participants reported increased feelings of passionate love toward the stranger.

Marin says the trick to flirtatious eye contact is to maintain your gaze longer than usual. If you spot someone across the way, try to meet their gaze, hold it for a few seconds, and look away. Repeat this a couple times and, if they aren’t giving you weird looks, then make your approach. Be cautious, though. While a kind gaze does wonders, an unbroken, wide-eyed stare is creepy. If you’re worried you’ll go overboard, use the triangle technique and smile. Nothing says “I like you” like a big ol’ smile .

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Approach From the Front

The wrong kind of approach will end things before they even start. When you see someone who piques your interest, Vanessa Marin , licensed marriage and family therapist and Lifehacker contributor , recommends you always approach from the front. Nobody likes being snuck up on by a stranger, and Marin notes this is especially true for men trying to approach women.

If they’re facing away, either make your way around, or wait for them to move. And if they’re at the bar, at least grab a seat next to them instead of rudely tapping them on the shoulder. Approaching them from the front also gives you both a chance to catch each other’s glance and gauge interest.

Give Compliments That Go Beyond Looks

Compliments are great for flirting, but they’re also a dime a dozen. Dr. Nerdlove , dating columnist and Kotaku contributor , suggests you step things up and compliment them on something they had a conscious hand in:

Complimenting somebody’s looks is both unoriginal and not terribly interesting. Letting someone know that you appreciate, say, their fashion sense or their insight, on the other hand, shows that you get them on a personal level.

“You’re cute” and “you have pretty eyes” aren’t going to cut it. If you can’t think of something that appeals to their choices, Marin says you should at least try and give them an unusual compliment. Say something like “you have a very confident-sounding voice,” or “you seem like someone who knows how to get the best out of people,” or “you have a delightfully offbeat personality.” Leave them with a compliment that will stick with them and make you unique.

Also, ditch the pickup lines and cheesy one-liners. One study, published in the journal Sex Roles , suggests that both men and women hate “cute-flippant” opening lines. Overall, participants in the study preferred openers that were more innocuous or direct. So skip the “Are you wearing space pants?” lines and try to strike up an actual conversation about the venue, music, or a mutual friend. Otherwise, just go for it and offer to buy them a drink or make a unique compliment.

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Use Appropriate Touch to Show Interest

A light touch, done carefully, is an extremely effective form of flirting for both men and women. Light touching shows interest beyond a doubt. Additionally, your flirting may not be as obvious as you think it is, so it’s a great for being more direct, as long as the situation allows and the atmosphere is appropriate. When someone is certain that you’re interested, it’s easier for them to respond in kind.

In the book Close Relationships , Dr. Pamela Regan , a professor of psychology at California State University, suggests there are three main types of social touch. The first is “friendly,” which is like a light shoulder push, shoulder tap, or handshake—not ideal for flirting, but good for testing the waters. The third type, “nuclear,” is the super obvious types of romantic touch, like a soft face touch or brushing someone’s hair out of their face, and is far too abrupt and forward for flirting. “Plausible deniability,” the second type of touch, is right in the middle and it’s where you want to be. It involves gentle and informal touching around the shoulder or waist, and the almost-always effective touch on the forearm. One study, published in Social Influence , found that a light touch on the forearm increased the chance participants would give out their phone number or go on a date. Just be sure the atmosphere is right when you try it, or you might make them feel uncomfortable.

Use Playful Teasing to Your Advantage

People want what they can’t have, and a little playful teasing shows that you’re interested, but also draws people in. Nerdlove recommends a simple technique called “pushing and pulling,” where, like a kitten with a string, you dangle a compliment within reach, then pull it back. Here are some of Nerdlove’s examples:

“You’re the coolest person I’ve met… at this bar, anyway.” “Holy crap, you really are such a nerd, it’s adorable!” “It’s a shame you seem like a nice person, you’re giving me the most inappropriate ideas.” “You’re awesome, I never meet people like you; get away from me, I just can’t talk to you.” “We’re never going to get along, we’re too similar.”

The key here is to absolutely avoid negging or backhanded compliments, like “you’ve got a great smile, even with those teeth.” Keep it playful, friendly, and make it abundantly clear that you’re teasing. Do it with a big smile, have fun (and be self-deprecating when it’s right) and while you’re at it, use your teasing as an opportunity to do some flirty touching.

Nerdlove says good flirting is about riffing and playing off what one another says. Don’t force a change in the conversation, and keep things light. Also keep in mind that some people don’t like teasing or witty banter, so be ready to switch gears. If you say something unfunny or upsetting, apologize and change the topic. Don’t make it about you, and don’t shift the blame on them, like “I’m sorry you were offended.” Acknowledge that you messed up and move on to a happier subject. When in doubt, Nerdlove suggests you just be a great listener . It gives people a chance to open up about themselves, and gives you a chance to relax.