Flirting is a playful type of interpersonal social behavior that indicates interest in or attraction to another person and is often considered a sexual activity. It can be both verbal and nonverbal and is largely common to all cultures and genders. Because of globalization, cultural differences are decreasing as most cultures adapt to the more overt, Western style of flirting. Nevertheless, flirting is often context-specific and tends to be played out at the boundaries of acceptable social behavior. In sexually repressive cultures, flirting may be as simple as a woman showing her unveiled face, whereas in sexually permissive cultures it may be as overt as grabbing someone's buttocks. Casual flirting generally abounds in areas with warmer climates, such as Latin America and Italy (where men are notorious for overt flirtation), whereas colder areas, such as Canada and northern Europe, feature less public flirtation because people tend to make less eye contact with one another in such climates. In Japan, geishas and hostesses act as professional flirts and entertainers for men. While still part of the culture, these women were most common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Flirting ranges from simple friendly behavior to sexually charged conversations and activity. While some flirting is done as a social game that is fun in itself and has no clear goal, other flirting is clearly motivated. It can be seen as a precursor to sexual activity or dating, and thus is often considered the first step of courtship, when the players discover if attraction is mutual. Flirting can also be social, intended to flatter another person and win their preference, if not their affections. Thus, people flirt with friends, employers, and others whom it may be important to keep happy for one's career or social status.
Although both men and women actively flirt, it is typically considered a female activity, and women are arguably more adept at subtle flirtation. Women's stereotyped flirtation can often be condemned as teasing, because woman are more likely than men to see flirting as non-goal-oriented behavior. This negative connotation is linked to the notion of the coquette, a woman who flirts or seduces in a teasing manner and who is often thought to use her sexual charms maliciously or to exploit men. While men may also be guilty of such behavior, they are less likely to be criticized for it. The twentieth-century books and movies based on the fictional British spy James Bond provide an excellent example of a man who uses sex appeal to achieve his many missions, getting more respect than disapproval for these actions.
While most research on flirting is focused on heterosexual activity (linking to courtship and marriage), gay men and lesbians flirt with each other in much the same way as heterosexuals. For these individuals, however, there is an added component: They first must ascertain whether the object of their interest is sexually attracted to the same sex, before moving on to see if the person is personally attracted to them.
In addition to playful conversation marked by banter and innuendo, flirtatious behavior includes many nonverbal cues. The first step of flirting is often making eye contact and may include winking or raising the eyebrows. Often, women who are flirting tilt their heads to the side and lower their eyes after maintaining eye contact for a few seconds. Flirtatious touching includes light brushing of the arm in conversation, hugging, kissing, hand holding, or engaging in other means of contact. In a field all its own, dancing is a prominent type of physical flirtation that allows partners to be close to each other and interact in a playful and responsive way, all under the guise of a socially acceptable tradition.
Flirtatious body posture includes leaning toward one's conversation partner, mirroring the other's body language, turning the palms out or up, and keeping the body open, not closed (as achieved by crossing arms and/or legs). Men tend to stand or sit tall, making themselves look bigger or more imposing. They often point their elbows away from their body to do so, often by putting their hands in their pockets or behind their heads. Women tend to diminish their physical size by drawing their knees in when sitting; they also may emphasize their figures by swaying their hips when walking, tightening their stomachs, and pushing out their breasts. Other movements common to all include smiling, nodding the head, laughing, and speaking softly or more dynamically than usual.
HISTORICAL VARIATIONS OF FLIRTING
Beginning in the twentieth century, flirting started changing in some dramatic ways in response to cultural shifts. The success of feminist movements led to the questioning of traditional gender roles, so that women may be sexual instigators as easily as men; they are no longer expected to play the role of passive women waiting to be courted. Prior to the twentieth century, women of all cultures would subtly indicate their interest in a potential sexual partner by, for example, batting their eyelashes or dropping a handkerchief; men, on the other hand, were more assertive and overt in their intentions and spoke directly or touched the other's body. Beginning in the 1970s, women in European and North American cultures became more direct in their flirting, and this change has left both some men and some women in confusion about how to play the flirting game when both genders are equal. In areas that have maintained traditional gender roles, such as the southern United States and most African countries, flirting has continued as a chivalric interaction between polite men and appreciative women. Some people argue that in this situation, women in fact have more power to choose a mate than when both genders are in active pursuit of each other.
Following the technology boom of the 1990s, cyber-flirting and other high-tech means of flirtation have arisen. E-mail, instant messaging, and text messaging via cell phones or other handheld devices have become tools for exchanging flirtatious or suggestive messages. This trend is particularly prevalent in such tech-savvy countries as India, China, and the United States. In Saudi Arabia, where coed talking or socializing is a punishable offense, people use Bluetooth technologies in their cell phones or computers to send flirtatious messages to other nearby users.
see also Seduction.
Lott, Deborah A. 1999. "The New Flirting Game." Psychology Today 32(1): 42-45.
Morris, Desmond. 1971. Intimate Behaviour. London: Cape.
Rodgers, Joann Ellison. 1999. "Flirting Fascination." Psychology Today 32(1): 36-41.
Stepp, Laura Sessions. 2003. "Modern Flirting: Girls Find Old Ways Did Have Their Charms." Washington Post, October 16, C1.