How Flirting Works

By: Shanna Freeman

Typical flirty behavior
Typical flirty behavior
Digital Vision/Getty Images

Imagine that you have no idea what flirting is. If you haven't flirted yourself or seen it happen (either in real life, in the movies or on TV), you might wonder exactly what those two people are doing. They're showing interest in each other, but they don't actually come out and say it. In fact, it's usually considered crass and crude to do so. Instead, they dance around the issue -- joking, complimenting each other and using physical cues to show their true intentions.

At its most basic, flirting is simply another way that two people can closely interact with each other. But when you get into the intention behind flirting and exactly what flirting entails, things get much more complicated. It doesn't have to be romantic or sexual -- sometimes, it's just friendly banter without any other intentions. Sometimes one person has romantic intentions and the other one only has sexual ones, or doesn't even realize that he's being flirted with.



­­Misunderstanding the signals can lead to some uncomfortable and embarrassing situations. The most important aspect of flirting is the intention behind it. Sometimes the words used are very innocent, but the speaker's delivery, expression or mannerisms make them appear flirtatious. It can be difficult to know when someone is flirting with you or who might be receptive to your flirting.

In this article, we'll examine the standard signs of flirting. We'll also look at the biological factors that lead to flirting and explore how flirting has changed through the years.

Flirting Signs and Signals

Someone's who close to you, smiling at you and touching you might be flirting.
Someone's who close to you, smiling at you and touching you might be flirting.
Chad Johnston/Getty Images

How do you know when someone is flirting with you? Although it's different for everybody, there are some common signs. Here are a few clues:

  • Using your name a lot in conversation
  • Complimenting you
  • Asking about your interests
  • Touching your arm or knee
  • Leaning in while talking
  • Standing closely
  • Smiling a lot

Just one of these actions or even a few of them together would probably not constitute flirting. But if someone compliments you, smiles often, leans in closely and brushes your arm as he talks to you, there's a good possibility that he's flirting.


To compound the issue, there are also some differences between how women flirt and how men flirt. For example, some women bat their eyelashes or run their fingers through their hair. Men are more likely to make bold, aggressive gestures, like intense eye contact. In addition, they are more likely to flirt out of sexual interest, while women often flirt to test men's intentions, using ambiguous gestures. The Social Institute Research Centre has coined a term for these ambiguous flirting gestures, like hair touching. They're protean signals, named for the Greek shape-shifting god Proteus [source: Social Institute Research Centre]. If a woman uses these gestures and learns that the man isn't interested, then she can always play them off as not being flirtatious.

Flirting doesn't always work.
Flirting doesn't always work.
Ulrik Tofte/Getty Images

If you want to flirt, you could try any of these methods. But you have to watch carefully for the other person's reaction. If he leans away when you lean forward, or if he doesn't engage in conversation despite your best attempts, then he might not be interested. On the other hand, he could simply be shy and taken aback by your interest. Or he could think that you're just being friendly when you're actually interested in more than just being friends. How do you know for sure? There are no definite rules when it comes to flirting, because every situation is different. Flirting is just as complex and tricky as dating in general.

So although there are some obvious signs of flirting, it can still be a very messy endeavor. In a 2006 article for the Daily Mail, reporter Danielle Gusmaroli wrote about trying a method employed by a successful flirter that she interviewed:

On leaving the bar, I spot a road cleaner across the street and smile warmly. He smiles back and I hold his gaze for an agonizing four seconds, look away and (cringe) look back. He smiles appreciatively and I scuttle off trying not to laugh.

To my horror he pegs it across the road to my side. With a penetrating stare he asks: "Sorry, do I know you?" I apologize, trying to back off.

"Sorry, my mistake. I thought you were someone else." "Give me your number," he demands. I decline. He becomes angry. "You were coming on to me, weren't you?" I panic and run.

What happened? Gusmaroli was trying to flirt, but she wasn't really interested in the road cleaner. It took him awhile to recognize the flirting, and when he did, he seemed to feel like she "owed him" her phone number.

In the next section, we'll look at the science of flirting -- what's happening in your brain and body when you flirt and how flirting works in other species.

The Science of Flirting

Male peacock displaying tail feathers.
Male peacock displaying tail feathers.
Pete Turner/Getty Images

There's a lot going on under the surface when we flirt. Yes, we're sending the message that we're interested, but why do those specific gestures say "I'm interested in you," and what do they really say about us? According to scientists, it all comes down to our inherent desire to reproduce. When we flirt, we're giving off information about how fit we are to procreate as well as our health. There are also specific aspects of our appearance that make us more attractive to others.

Some of the "female" signs of flirting, such as angling her body and sticking out her hips, are attempts to draw attention to her pelvis and its suitability for carrying a child. In addition, men tend to be more attracted to women with a certain hip-to-waist ratio (specifically, the waist must be no more than 60 to 80 percent of the hip circumference) [source: Psychology Today]. This is also an indication of fertility.


When a man makes intense eye contact and smiles often, he attempts to show that he is both virile and dependable. Women are attracted to prominent, square jaws, which are indicative of a man's power a­nd strength. Scientists point out that features like square jaws in human males have a connection to prominent features in the animal kingdom. Male peacocks attract females with their elaborate plumage, male cardinals are bright red and stags have large horns. Because these features require additional biological resources and also tend to make these animals more visible to their predators, an impressive display shows that these animals are strong.

When we're flirting with someone who fits the bill for us, the limbic system takes over (the same system responsible for our flight-or-fight response). We operate on emotion and instinct. If we only governed flirting with the most rational part of our brains, we might not ever flirt -- or get a date -- at all. In fact, according to biologist Dr. Antonio Damasio, there's a connection between brain damage and flirting. He states that "people with damage to the connection between their limbic structures and the higher brain are smart and rational -- but unable to make decisions" [source: Psychology Today].

Still, we're not just animalistic in our flirting behavior. The ability to carry a conversation and engage in the joking back-and-forth of flirting also indicates our intelligence, which is always attractive. In the next section, we'll look at how flirting has changed over the years and how technology has led to new ways of flirting.

Flirting Through the Ages

The Indiscretion, 1895(oil on panel)
The Indiscretion, 1895(oil on panel)
Constant Aime Marie Cap/Getty Images

Today, we -- meaning, most Western societies -- aren't really shocked by typical flirtatious behaviors. But if a person from the Victorian era witnessed the knee-touching, lip-licking and winking that goes on today, he or she might be extremely scandalized. Flirting has gone from very prescribed sets of behaviors to off-the-cuff text and Facebook messages.

Some elements of flirting are eternal. A recent translation of the Kama Sutra, the classic Hindu sexual instruction manual, includes several ways for men to flirt successfully with women. One includes the suggestion that when a man and woman are "playing in the water, he dives underwater at some distance from her, comes up close to her, touches her, and dives underwater again" [source: New York Times]. This sounds like typical flirty behavior between kids.


An 1881 book advising young Victorian men and women on manners and etiquette includes several guidelines for courtship. First and foremost, a "gentleman should not be introduced to a lady, unless her permission has been previously obtained." Once he is introduced, he has the freedom to call on her and accompany her to "concerts, operas, balls, etc." However, a "gentleman who does not contemplate matrimony should not pay too exclusive attention to any one lady."

A proper Victorian woman "will not too eagerly receive the attentions of a gentleman, no matter how much she admires him; nor, on the other hand, will she be so reserved as to altogether discourage him." The book goes on to describe how men should only take the hand of a woman when she offers it, and that the kiss, "the most affectionate form of salutation, and is only proper among near relations and dear friends" [source: Young].

­Overt signs of interest were generally considered unacceptable on the part of both men and women. However, Victorian women could still show interest in men through very subtle cues. One way was through floriography, or the language of flowers. Different flowers represented different feelings, and they could be very complicated. Dictionaries were published so that everyone could easily understand the meanings. Here are a few basics:

­Today's teenagers surely would not bother with something as complicated as arranging the right flowers to send the correct messages. Over the years, flirting evolved from careful, measured gestures to cutting to the chase. According to a 2006 article in Time magazine, it's completely common for a 15-year-old boy to text a line like "how far have u gone" to a girl after a few days of flirtatious texting [source: Time]. Sometimes the girl replies honestly; or she might say "how far have u gone. ill tell u if u tell me." This could lead to meeting up and making out.

Face-to-face meetings often result in exchanges of e-mail addresses, IM client usernames, or Facebook or MySpace info instead of phone numbers. It's also not uncommon for strangers to meet online and ex­change flirtatious banter. But online flirters beware: in December 2007, a manufacturer of anti-virus software discovered a Russian virus that invaded chat rooms. Once in, the virus chatted with users and flirted with them so convincingly that some women shared their photos and phone numbers.­

­­ For lots more information about flirting, love and dating, try out the links on the next page­.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • De La Vina, Mark. "A guide to flirting 4 u -- get the message?" The Daily Telegraph, August 22, 2007.
  • "Floriography - the Language of Flowers." BBC. September 22, 2005.
  • Gusmaroli, Danielle. "How to flirt with success." The Daily Mail, February 23, 2006.
  • Moore, Monica M. "Nonverbal Courtship Patterns in Women." Ethology and Sociobiology, 6: 237-247 (1985)
  • Robson, David. "It's great to tease at the office, but what's flirty and not dirty?" The Express, February 25, 2007.
  • Rodgers, Joann Ellison. "Flirting Fascination." Psychology Today Magazine, January 19, 2006.
  • "Scoring a German." Spiegel International, June 5, 2006.,1518,419712,00.html
  • Smith, Dimita. "A New Kama Sutra without Victorian Veils." The New York Times, May 4, 2002.
  • Social Research Institute Centre.
  • Stepp, Laura Sessions. "Modern Flirting." Washington Post, October 16, 2003.
  • Stevenson, Suzanne. "There's More to Her Flirt." The Evening Standard, March 17, 2003.­There%27s+more+to+her+flirt/;jsessionid=bSyDHrJP12StgVjq52X2NSGyr2YrMQlSn8BRTbJB0QtbVVyGlm1H!­-1263037535!-1407319225!7001!-1
  • Williams, Daniel. "When Fingers do the Flirting." Time, May 29, 2006.,9171,1198940,00.html
  • ­Young, John H. "Our Deportment: Or the Manners, Conduct and Dress of the Most Refined Society." F.B. Dickerson & Co., 1881. Available via Project Gutenberg.