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Jan 29, 2008
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The Science of Romance: Why We Flirt


By Belinda Luscombe Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008


Open Body Position: This come-and-get-me stance suggests the man is neither about to flee nor fight

Laura Kleinhenz for TIME

Contrary to widespread belief, only two very specific types of people flirt: those who are single and those who are married. Single people flirt because, well, they're single and therefore nobody is really contractually obliged to talk to them, sleep with them or scratch that difficult-to-reach part of the back. But married people, they're a tougher puzzle. They've found themselves a suitable--maybe even superior--mate, had a bit of productive fun with the old gametes and ensured that at least some of their genes are carried into the next generation. They've done their duty, evolutionarily speaking. Their genome will survive. Yay them. So for Pete's sake, why do they persist with the game?

Famous Couples

Wildly in Love

And before you claim, whether single or married, that you never flirt, bear in mind that it's not just talk we're dealing with here. It's gestures, stance, eye movement. Notice how you lean forward to the person you're talking to and tip up your heels? Notice the quick little eyebrow raise you make, the sidelong glance coupled with the weak smile you give, the slightly sustained gaze you offer? If you're a woman, do you feel your head tilting to the side a bit, exposing either your soft, sensuous neck or, looking at it another way, your jugular? If you're a guy, are you keeping your body in an open, come-on-attack-me position, arms positioned to draw the eye to your impressive lower abdomen?

Scientists call all these little acts "contact-readiness" cues, because they indicate, nonverbally, that you're prepared for physical engagement. (More general body language is known as "nonverbal leakage." Deep in their souls, all scientists are poets.) These cues are a crucial part of what's known in human-ethology circles as the "heterosexual relationship initiation process" and elsewhere, often on the selfsame college campuses, as "coming on to someone." In primal terms, they're physical signals that you don't intend to dominate, nor do you intend to flee--both useful messages potential mates need to send before they can proceed to that awkward talking phase. They're the opening line, so to speak, for the opening line.

One of the reasons we flirt in this way is that we can't help it. We're programmed to do it, whether by biology or culture. The biology part has been investigated by any number of researchers. Ethologist Irenaus Eibl Eibesfeldt, then of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, filmed African tribes in the 1960s and found that the women there did the exact same prolonged stare followed by a head tilt away with a little smile that he saw in America. (The technical name for the head movement is a "cant." Except in this case it's more like "can.")

Evolutionary biologists would suggest that those individuals who executed flirting maneuvers most adeptly were more successful in swiftly finding a mate and reproducing and that the behavior therefore became widespread in all humans. "A lot of people feel flirting is part of the universal language of how we communicate, especially nonverbally," says Jeffry Simpson, director of the social psychology program at the University of Minnesota.

Simpson is currently studying the roles that attraction and flirting play during different times of a woman's ovulation cycle. His research suggests that women who are ovulating are more attracted to flirty men. "The guys they find appealing tend to have characteristics that are attractive in the short term, which include some flirtatious behaviors," he says. He's not sure why women behave this way, but it follows that men who bed ovulating women have a greater chance of procreating and passing on those flirty genes, which means those babies will have more babies, and so on. Of course, none of this is a conscious choice, just as flirting is not always intentional. "With a lot of it, especially the nonverbal stuff, people may not be fully aware that they're doing it," says Simpson. "You don't see what you look like. People may emit flirtatious cues and not be fully aware of how powerful they are."

Flirting with Intent

Well, some people anyway. But then there are the rest of you. You know who you are. You're the gentleman who delivered my groceries the other day and said we had a problem because I had to be 21 to receive alcohol. You're me when I told that same man that I liked a guy who knew his way around a dolly. (Lame, I know. I was caught off guard.) You're the fiftysomething guy behind me on the plane before Christmas telling his fortysomething seatmate how sensual her eyes were--actually, I hope you're not, because if so, you're really skeevy. My point is, once you move into the verbal phase of flirtation, it's pretty much all intentional.

And there are some schools of thought that teach there's nothing wrong with that. Flirtation is a game we play, a dance for which everyone knows the moves. "People can flirt outrageously without intending anything," says independent sex researcher Timothy Perper, who has been researching flirting for 30 years. "Flirting captures the interest of the other person and says 'Would you like to play?'" And one of the most exhilarating things about the game is that the normal rules of social interaction are rubberized. Clarity is not the point. "Flirting opens a window of potential. Not yes, not no," says Perper. "So we engage ourselves in this complex game of maybe." The game is not new. The first published guide for how to flirt was written about 2,000 years ago, Perper points out, by a bloke named Ovid. As dating books go, The Art of Love leaves more recent publications like The Layguide: How to Seduce Women More Beautiful Than You Ever Dreamed Possible No Matter What You Look Like or How Much You Make in its dust. And yes, that's a real book.

Once we've learned the game of maybe, it becomes second nature to us. Long after we need to play it, we're still in there swinging (so to speak) because we're better at it than at other games. Flirting sometimes becomes a social fallback position. "We all learn rules for how to behave in certain situations, and this makes it easier for people to know how to act, even when nervous," says Antonia Abbey, a psychology professor at Wayne State University. Just as we learn a kind of script for how to behave in a restaurant or at a business meeting, she suggests, we learn a script for talking to the opposite sex. "We often enact these scripts without even thinking," she says. "For some women and men, the script may be so well learned that flirting is a comfortable strategy for interacting with others." In other words, when in doubt, we flirt.

The thing that propels many already committed people to ply the art of woo, however, is often not doubt. It's curiosity. Flirting "is a way of testing one's mate-value and the possibility of alternatives--actually trying to see if someone might be available as an alternative," says Arthur Aron, professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. To evolutionary biologists, the advantages of this are clear: mates die, offspring die. Flirting is a little like taking out mating insurance.

If worst comes to worst and you don't still have it (and yes, I'm sure you do), the very act of flirting with someone else may bring about renewed attention from your mate, which has advantages all its own. So it's a win-win.

Flirting is also emotional capital to be expended in return for something else. Not usually for money, but for the intangibles--a better table, a juicier cut of meat, the ability to return an unwanted purchase without too many questions. It's a handy social lubricant, reducing the friction of everyday transactions, and closer to a strategically timed tip than a romantic overture. Have you ever met a male hairdresser who wasn't a flirt? Women go to him to look better. So the better they feel when they walk out of his salon, the happier they'll be to go back for a frequent blowout. Flirting's almost mandatory. And if the hairdresser is gay, so much the better, since the attention is much less likely to be taken as an untoward advance.

It's Dangerous Out There

But outside the hairdresser's chair, things are not so simple. Flirt the wrong way with the wrong person, and you run the risk of everything from a slap to a sexual-harassment lawsuit. And of course, the American virtue of plainspokenness is not an asset in an activity that is ambiguous by design. Wayne State's Abbey, whose research has focused on the dark side of flirting--when it transmogrifies into harassment, stalking or acquaintance rape--warns that flirting can be treacherous. "Most of the time flirtation desists when one partner doesn't respond positively," she says. "But some people just don't get the message that is being sent, and some ignore it because it isn't what they want to hear."

One of the most fascinating flirting laboratories is the digital world. Here's a venue that is all words and no body language; whether online or in text messages, nuance is almost impossible. And since text and e-mail flirting can be done without having to look people in the eye, and is often done with speed, it is bolder, racier and unimpeded by moments of reflection on whether the message could be misconstrued or is wise to send at all. "Flirt texting is a topic everyone finds fascinating, although not much research is out there yet," says Abbey. But one thing is clear: "People are often more willing to disclose intimate details via the Internet, so the process may escalate more quickly."

That's certainly the case on sites like Yahoo!'s Married and Flirting e-mail group, as well as on and

Most people who flirt--off-line at least--are not looking for an affair. But one of the things that sets married flirting apart from single flirting is that it has a much greater degree of danger and fantasy to it. The stakes are higher and the risk is greater, even if the likelihood of anything happening is slim. But the cocktail is in some cases much headier. It is most commonly the case with affairs, therapists say, that people who cheat are not so much dissatisfied with their spouse as with themselves and the way their lives have turned out. There is little that feels more affirming and revitalizing than having someone fall in love with you. (It follows, then, that there's little that feels less affirming than being cheated on.) Flirting is a decaf affair, a way of feeling more alive, more vital, more desirable without actually endangering the happiness of anyone you love--or the balance of your bank account. So go ahead and flirt, if you can do it responsibly. You might even try it with your spouse. "Flirting" in this sense appears to be a euphemism for talking dirty. A University of Florida study of 86 participants in a chat room published in Psychology Today in 2003 found that while nearly all those surveyed felt they were initially simply flirting with a computer, not a real person, almost a third of them eventually had a face-to-face meeting with someone they chatted with. And all but two of the couples who met went on to have an affair. Whether the people who eventually cheated went to the site with the intention of doing so or got drawn in by the fantasy of it all is unclear. Whichever, the sites sure seem like a profitable place for people like the guy behind me on the pre-Christmas flight to hang out.

Sep 25, 2007
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Interesting, I'm married and I flirt every once in awhile but it's always unintentional. I don't realize i was flirting until afterwards and 99.9% of the time the guy is hitting on me so I continue the banter a bit.

May 24, 2006
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This is an interesting article. When I flirt with a man and he only smile's back, I know he is unavailable. The ones that are on the prowl flirt up a storm right back.

Jan 29, 2008
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I remember someone i used to work with by the name of Michelle. At first she wouldn't flirt as much as make these totally rude and insulting comments. It almost became a contest to see who could insult each other better. But I used to really razz her especially about her makeup, because she wore the reddest lipstick you ever saw. So this insulting was never crude or anything but it was funny and then at one point it turned into harmless flirting (nothing more). So the flirting seemed to reach that same level, but we both knew where that limit lay.

Then she left to work somewhere else for a while. I think it was almost a year and a half as i recall.

She did get rehired and we were actually assigned as office mates then. She did get married while she was gone and had a new baby as well. We became very good friends and we would still flirt but not as much, maybe because she was always telling me about something her husband did or her son. It was always like why do guys do this? and i would always counter why girls do this? and yes i met her husband and she met my wife.

We would go out and have lattes on occasion during the day and eventually i brought in the inexpensive latte machine i have.

This is funny because we weren't supposed to have anything in our offices, no fridge or coffee maker etc. But there we were mid morning most days of the week, we would shut our office door and make a batch of lattes. She would always either bring in the milk (which we kept on the windowsill in the winter (chilly) ) or some new coffee. and the whole second floor just reeked of coffee. Unbelievable no one ever said anything! it was a lot of fun though.

So we were office mates for like 9 months and then her husband got transferred to Houston. We kept in touch for a while, and i remember her running in the Houston Marathon. and then she got sick, real sick. It turned out she had breast cancer and died within 2 years after leaving. It hit me pretty hard. I felt really sorry for her young son (~3) at the time.

Sorry about the sad story, but it was my best flirting story.

Mar 29, 2007
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I am an awful flirt... Almost always when I am drinking and out with the girls. I mean absolutely no harm by it, no plans on getting a phone number, no plans on a crazy one-nighter, and I certainly don't talk dirty to anyone... I have a hard time not letting hot guys know they are hot... Especially if they are "working" and they have to put up with my crap... you know- bartenders, waiters, sommeliers. It's like flirting with the help in a very "Karen" sort of way (from Will & Grace).

Nov 6, 2005
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I flirt when I'm drunk and that is so not cute. Other than that, I think it depends on the person married or not. I know some folks who just flirt and charm the pants off you and that's just them... sometimes they mean it, most times the don't.

Jan 29, 2008
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So is any of this true? hahha


Flirting Tips



Do you know HOW to flirt?

Do you know if you ARE flirting?

The following actions are considered to be REAL flirting indicators - check them out and see if you're sending (and receiving) the right message:

How to tell she likes you:

She gazes in your eyes with deep interest and her pupils are dilated.

Her skin tone becomes red while being around you.

She raises or lowers the volume of her voice to match yours.

She rubs her chin or touches her cheek. This indicates that she's thinking about you and her relating in some way...


Plays with her jewelry, especially with stroking and pulling motions.

She winks at you while talking to you or winks at you from a distance.

She exposes the palms of her hand facing you.

Biting of the lips or showing of the tongue, licking her lips or touching of her front teeth...

She starts sitting straight up and her muscles appear to be firm.

She puts her fingernail between her teeth.

She laughs in unison with you.

She touches your arm, shoulder, thigh, or hand while talking to you.

She twirls her hair around her fingers while she is looking at you.


Her crossed leg is pointed towards you or if that same leg is rocking back and forth towards you.

While talking to you, she rest an elbow in the palm of one hand, while holding out her other hand, palm up.

In a crowd she speaks only to you and focuses all of her undivided attention on you.

While talking to you, she blinks more than usual, fluttering her eyelashes.

Big smiles with upper and lower teeth showing with a relaxed face.

She speeds up or slows down her speaking to match yours.

Eyebrows raised and then lowered, then a smile usually indicates interest in you.

She rubs her wrists up and down

May 24, 2006
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Hey Darla, I want to know how to tell if a guy is flirting for real.

Do ya have an article about that?

By the way, I liked your story about Michelle. Thanks for sharing.

Jan 29, 2008
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Thanks Carolyn, Michelle was a really great person.

See all the stories about flirting are not so sordid.

and in response to your request here is an article about how guys flirt. Good article IMHO:


I’m sure many women out there have spent many a sleepless night over men. You toss and turn wondering if that cute guy from your office has even noticed that you exist.

Wouldn’t you like to learn how to tell if he’s really interested?

There are probably many other women who would love to know the answer to this question.

If there was a course on male flirting, I’m sure there would be long wait lists of women waiting to enroll!

Fortunately, there is help. Revealing the secrets of how men flirt can help you in the love department. Men provide many non-verbal clues that you just need to recognize.

Learning to interpret a male’s subconscious body gestures can help you determine whether you’ll be getting a second date.

Male body language will also let you know when he’s not the one. If a man doesn’t display any of the following signs, you're better off moving on to the next eligible bachelor.

He’ll attempt to improve his appearance when he’s attracted.

Just like in the animal kingdom, males tend to “preen†when they’re interested in a female. They pay extra attention to their grooming and personal appearance.

When a man spots an interesting female, he may automatically adjust his tie, smooth his collar or brush his shoulder.

Other common signs of preening involve fixing his hair or rearranging his shirt, cuff links, and clothing. He may check his teeth or automatically touch his throat.

He wants to look as good as he can before he approaches you. Therefore ladies, you should take any of the above as a very positive sign!

Signs of dominance. When he starts to act like an alpha male.

You may have heard the term “alpha maleâ€. This refers to a man who is a strong, smart leader.

The term comes from the highest ranked or most dominant individual among social animals such as dogs or wolves. The alpha leader always dominates the rest of the pack and gains priority in mating with females. Men do the very same thing!

A flirting male may place his hands on his hips to subconsciously make himself appear bigger. This gesture says “Notice me. I’m the leader and I’m ready to get involved!â€

A man may also pull in his stomach, puff up his chest or stand a little taller.

Eye contact. His eye movements will tell you all you need to know.

Eye contact is very important when you are studying how men flirt. Men who are interested will usually hold their gaze for a little longer than usual.

Their pupils may also dilate when they’re attracted to a woman. In fact, a man’s pupils can become 4 times bigger when he is interested!

Men may also perform what is called the “triangular formulation†with their eyes. This involves looking eye to eye, then down to a woman’s mouth and chin, down to the rest of her body and back up to her eyes again.

And you thought geometry was boring!

If a man throws you a few lingering glances, followed with a flirtatious grin, you definitely know he’s interested.

Touching. What does it mean if he touches your clothing or your shoulder?

There is important point to notice when you watch how men flirt. When a man is interested in a woman, he will often find an excuse to touch her. He may put a hand on her shoulder or knee, tickle her playfully or pat her on the back. Some men may even feel a woman’s blouse, jacket or shoulder.

He may come up with a quick excuse such as “your blouse looked so soft I just had to feel it†or “I was just removing a piece of lint from your dressâ€.

He may even “accidentally†bump into you while casually passing by.

Ladies, you know better! Take this as a very positive sign that things are going well.

This is his way of showing you he is attracted to you.

Men, just make sure not to grope her or get too “touchy†in the early stages. This may lead to a drink poured over your head, rather than a date!

Subconsious male body gestures. What his hands and feet will tell you.

The next time you’re watching a man and a woman interacting, take note whether the man hooks his thumbs in his belt.

If he does, what do you think it means?

That’s him trying to keep his pants from falling down? Hopefully not!

This gesture is a very important sign that he’s interested in you!

This is a subconscious way for a man to attract members of the opposite sex by framing that particular part of his body. No ladies, we are not referring to his wallet!

When a man flirts, he will also turn his entire body towards the woman. If his legs and feet remain pointed toward you, take this as a sign he is interested.

Ladies, if you are wondering whether the cute guy you are talking with is actually interested, take another look at how he is sitting. If his body or feet are turned away from you, you might want to look elsewhere for Mr. Right!

Men will tell you all you need to know with their body language and non-verbal gestures.

Watch for the following flirting gestures:

  • He focuses on improving his appearance
  • He practices signs of dominance and acts like an “alpha maleâ€
  • He maintains direct eye contact
  • He touches you directly or “accidentallyâ€
  • He hooks his thumbs into his belt loops
  • His body and feet are turned towards you
If a man starts performing the above gestures, it’s a very good sign. Hopefully he has managed to capture your attention and show you he’s interested.
After this, will come the moment of truth – when he opens his mouth and starts talking. If your conversation goes as well as his flirting, you are off to a great romantic start!



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