Does flirting have to be subtle?

Does flirting have to be subtle?

A warm smile, a light touch, a compliment, a special look in the eyes. Do all this constitute flirting? It’s hard to tell.  According to a study lead by Jeffrey Hall of the University of Kansas, only 18% women and 36% men can accurately detect when someone is flirting with them! Surprising isn’t it?

People flirt to signal interest to the person they are attracted too. Highlighting the aspect of physical attraction, Milan Kundera says in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, that “flirting is the promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee.”

Human flirting has a parallel in the animal world. For instance, a peacock displays its plumage to signal availability and suitability. Flirting is not as easy as one thinks. It requires intelligence, appropriate body language, creativity and empathy to convey romantic/sexual interest without seeming crass.

Social setting

Flirting is more likely to happen where there is alcohol (that loosens social inhibitions) and in a place where people with common interests are gathered. But it could also happen at a supermarket, a coffee shop or a social event.

The Hall study titled ‘Accurately Detecting Flirting: Error Management Theory, the Traditional Sex Script and Flirting Base Rate’ was published in the journal Communication Research. Interestingly, it also found that 80% of people could make out when they were not being flirted with.

Explains Hall: “Behaviour that is flirtatious is hard to see. People aren’t going to do it in obvious ways because they don’t want to be embarrassed. Flirting looks a lot like being friendly.” In other words, to avoid being rejected people usually flirt in a subtle way. Such flirting would resemble non-flirting interaction – teasing, joking and simply being friendly.

According to Hall, flirting is harder to detect in a workplace than in a setting where it is more common, such as at a party. He also says that female flirtations were easier to spot as women tend to be more transparent than men.

Dr. Prashant Bhimani, Consultant Psychologist and Relationship Expert, says: “Initially, at the first meeting, flirting may be hard to detect. The reason is that men and women like being appreciated. If someone gives you what seems like a genuine compliment on your appearance, intelligence, sense of humour or career, you are likely to soften and feel pleasantly disposed towards that person. You will not think of it as flirting.”

Agniv Banerjee, 24, senior associate at a travel and adventure startup, finds it difficult to detect flirting. “It is only when a person starts appreciating me beyond what is believable do I get suspicious. For instance, if I was washing dishes and someone paid me an over-the-top compliment on my dishwashing skills (and not in jest) I would know the person was flirting with me.”

Why people flirt

Dr. David Henningsen of Northern Illinois University has identified six reasons for flirting: (i) to change a friendship into a romantic relationship; (ii) to gauge the interest of the other person; (iii) for fun – to be playful; (iv) to reinforce self-esteem or feel good about oneself; (v) to get someone to do something for you and (vi) for sex – because of physical attraction.

Dr. Henningsen found that men viewed flirting as more sexually-driven whereas women reported more fun and relationship motives.

Does flirting serve a useful social purpose? Says Anwesha Oburai, 22, student of literature and aspiring writer: “Flirting offers a test zone – it allows one to understand the other person a bit and helps in deciding whether one would like to continue the interaction. This test zone or room for play is required. But I wish people would be frank and honest while flirting instead of masking their cues.  I see many teenagers denying the fact that they were flirting in order to not ‘lose face’ in society.”

Rama Moondra, Coach and Strategic Advisor, narrates a personal experience of how a flirtatious relationship helped her. “I was going through a rough patch after a divorce. My self-confidence had taken a nosedive. That’s when I met a handsome guy who was 10 years younger than me who asked me to go out for a drive. We met each other for three months. It was an enchanting time. Nothing happened physically. And, neither of us had anything serious in mind. But the attention, flowers and compliments revived me. I felt wanted and desired again.”

The bottom line is – no one should get hurt. And, perhaps people should stop being so subtle while flirting. After all, if flirting goes undetected it could mean a missed romantic opportunity!

What do you think?

Written by Aruna Raghuram

Aruna is a journalist and freelance feature writer based in Bengaluru. Her interest areas are consumer issues, parenting, health, education, environment and women's issues.


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