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Flirting: Racy or Risky?

Humans are complex social beings. We use certain behaviours and rituals to communicate, compete, and find romantic partners. Flirting is a normal part of our lives as humans. We've learned these patterns from our ancestors to find a pleasing partner. But even after centuries of human evolution, we still become awkward and can be easily confused when we flirt. What are the signs of flirtatiousness, and what can we do to avoid misinterpreting them?

Navigating the complexities of flirting and its impact on relationships.

When you think about flirtatiousness, what comes to mind? Probably a romantic setting with two people enjoying each other's company. Flirting can be fun and exciting when two people share a mutual attraction. However, misinterpreted or poorly received flirtatiousness can turn into a social nightmare. In this article, we gathered information on how to recognise when someone is flirting and what to do so you can avoid uncomfortable situations.

What is flirtatious behaviour, and why do we flirt?

According to anthropologists and psychologists, the most basic function of flirting is to find a suitable mate for procreation. This type of courtship gives people time to evaluate a potential mate to decide if they are acceptable for partnership and parenting. However, we also flirt without any intention of future sexual intimacy. In fact, many people flirt to make themselves appealing, get special favours, or just boost their self-confidence.


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Flirting is a social behaviour people engage in when they are attracted to or interested in someone. People flirt regardless of gender or gender identity, and sometimes flirting has no meaning apart from playful interaction. Strangers flirt, long-term couples flirt, and friends can flirt with each other as long as both people enjoy it. Genuine flirtatiousness signals attraction and sexual or romantic interest. It is an accelerator that, if both parties engage, can lead a couple to the next stages of their relationship.

Read next: How to enjoy safe sex?

However, friendly behaviour can sometimes be mistaken for flirting and interpreted incorrectly. And some people simply have flirtatious personalities—their baseline for friendly interaction may include many signs of flirtation, but they are simply their extroverted selves.

What are the signs of flirting?

How a person flirts depends on the individual—directly or indirectly, with body language, compliments, or cheesy pickup lines. Some people flirt boldly with no filter, and you can clearly tell they are "into you", while others are more subtle or shy and leave you guessing. Some people even flirt without meaning to because they aren't fully aware of the signs of attraction their bodies are showing.

Several classic tell-tale cues let you know when someone is flirting. The main indications are playfulness, smiling, eye contact, accidental touching, and compliments. When someone is flirting, their voice becomes softer and lower, they straighten their posture, and tend to lick their lips; they will also look at their conversation partner's lips and pay undivided attention to that person. Cues of a mutual flirtation include moving closer to each other and mirroring—when two people synchronise their movements or imitate each other unconsciously.

Gender nuances in the expression of attraction through flirting

Although flirting is a universal behaviour, men and women may express their attraction slightly differently. Women tend to give short side looks, smile, and laugh while they talk to someone they are interested in; and many women touch their lips and hair unconsciously, nod as they listen, and lean in closer to the other person. Men behave similarly but their body language often becomes more dominant—they straighten their backs and raise their heads to occupy more space and joke or act playful with someone they are interested in.

Flirting can be fun and exciting when it happens with the right person in the right context. How do you respond if you notice clear signs that someone is flirting with you and you like that person too? If you aren't sure they're flirting, you can try:

  • Holding their gaze for a few moments
  • Giving a compliment (appropriately)
  • Scootching closer to see if they are comfortable with that
  • Being playful and sociable

If they respond positively, congratulations! You now have some more information but remember to consider the setting and intensity of flirting. The line between flirting and just being nice can be very thin. So, even if the other person is showing signs of attraction, don't come on strong before making sure the interest is mutual.

How can flirting be misinterpreted?

Some people are more extroverted in their social behaviour, making them seem friendlier and more charming than the average person. It can sometimes be challenging to distinguish social friendliness from indirect flirtatiousness. Here are some signs that can be misinterpreted as flirting.

  • Laughing at your jokes—just because someone enjoys your company and your sense of humour, they aren't necessarily attracted to you. However, if a person is laughing only at your jokes (even if they aren't particularly funny), it might be a sign of attraction.
  • Being nice—when someone is pleasant, helpful, accommodating, they are often just being friendly. It's important to recognise friendly behaviour and respond appropriately.
  • Giving complements—it's okay to compliment people without being attracted to them. Of course, you should make sure your compliments are received positively. For instance, praising someone's outfit or a sense of humour is often an appropriate compliment. But saying that, for example, your dress makes your legs look stunning, can be misinterpreted and inappropriate in many situations.
  • Making eye contact - eye contact can mean that the other person is genuinely interested in the conversation with you. It's considered polite to keep eye contact with the person you are conversing with.

Avoiding common pitfalls in flirting

What not to do when flirting?

Misinterpretation is common when it comes to flirting. After all, the whole point is to find out if you have a connection—it's a bit dicey; there are no guarantees. It would be hard to find someone who hasn't been disappointed to realise the other person was just being nice. Misfires are part of the game, and there is no shame in it as long as you know how to deal with it gracefully. However, misinterpreting flirting can lead to inappropriate behaviour, making another person feel uncomfortable and guilty for being nice to you.

Even if you think another person is flirting with you, never

  • touch another person inappropriately. A slight brush of the hands when you both feel the chemistry can be an exquisite rush. But an unwelcome touch of any kind can easily become scary or creepy. If you touch someone and they seem uncomfortable, apologise and stop immediately. If you aren't sure—ask.
  • have expectations of intimacy. Never pressure another person to do something they don't want to do. Trying to force a conversation with someone who is clearly not interested or even bothered by you is unacceptable behaviour; pressuring them for any kind of physical intimacy is even worse. True intimacy is always based on trust and respect.
  • get angry when you get turned down. Most of us get our wires crossed occasionally. We might miss a cue or misunderstand. But the difference between a few moments of awkwardness and inappropriate, even dangerous, behaviour is how you respond to the situation. Admitting you made a mistake can be embarrassing, but it clears the air quickly, especially when we can laugh at ourselves. If you misinterpret someone's pleasantness as flirtation and make a move before you are sure, it can quickly turn into sexual harassment. No one is entitled to another person's attention or required to suffer unwelcome attention.

Of course, the door swings both ways. If you feel uncomfortable with the way another person is treating you, if they are coming on too strong or their behaviour feels inappropriate, listen to your gut. Some people are sensitive to cues from others and will modify their behaviour once they realise it's making you uncomfortable. Others don't get it or don't care. You can call them out on their behaviour if there are people around who will support you, but it's probably best to get away from them and move to a safe environment. We show other people how we expect to be treated by the way we respond to them and by how we treat ourselves.

Final thoughts

Flirting is a fun way to test the waters if you're interested in connecting with someone romantically; it can also add spice to a long-term relationship, or just be a way of engaging socially when you're feeling confident and playful. However, like any other social interaction, flirting can be inappropriate in the wrong context or misunderstood even when you think you're sending the right signals. Therefore, it's important to notice flirting cues and know how to respond subtly and without making another person feel uncomfortable or pressured to do things they don't want to.

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