How Flirting Works

Flirting Through the Ages

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 below­.

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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.