“My vanity was flattered, and I allowed his attentions.” That’s how Emma, the protagonist of Jane Austen’s eponymous novel, explains why she dove headfirst into a public flirtation with someone who she quickly knew she wouldn’t pursue further. He was a nice man, handsome, they understood each other well, and they seemed like a good match: how could she not get carried away by an inoffensive flirtation?
Two hundred years later, we no longer have to justify ourselves for making our friends roll their eyes at a flirtation, but we still recognize its signs. When it is well-received and becomes something reciprocal, it’s natural to think that it could turn into a romantic or sexual encounter. (If there is no reciprocity, it could cross a line to harassment.) But, like Emma, often we play that game for the pure pleasure of feeling that someone likes us. If both people are looking for the same thing, “it’s a fun time,” admits 34-year-old Bea, who says that she doesn’t usually “flirt just to flirt.”
According to a review of scientific literature about flirting, published in 2004 by Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, we flirt for six main reasons: to lead to a sexual encounter, advance an existing romantic relationship, have fun, explore the potential of a new romantic relationship, increase our self-esteem and get the other person to do something for us. Of those six reasons, only three are related to a sexual or romantic goal.
“Many people use flirting without wanting a sexual encounter, simply for the tension it can generate and the adrenaline of the possibility. They enjoy flirting, but their attitude doesn’t imply wanting something more and they decide not to continue,” explains psychologist and sexologist Silvia Sanz, author of the book Sexamor. Of course, to prevent that low-intensity flirting from having collateral victims or misunderstandings, “the ideal is for both parties to want the same thing. They can play at mutually seducing each other and decide where they want to go or stop. Respect for the other is fundamental, even in flirting,” she adds.
36-year-old Deborah finds flirting fun. “I’ve always thought of it as part of my personality, like I have a side that likes flirting and sometimes I allow it,” she says. She has only had misunderstandings when dancing salsa: “there were some confusions, and I didn’t have any other option besides saying ‘sorry, I just want to dance.’” But on other occasions, the other person has always understood that she had no further intentions.
Even so, she concedes that part of the fun of flirting is that its motives are hard to pin down. “Flirting is an intention, an intention of conquest, and it can be super elusive to say, ‘oh, in that gesture, word, joke, they’re flirting.’ That’s also why it’s so fun. It’s fun because it’s elusive, because it’s not something concrete like if I tell you ‘I like you,’” she explains.
In addition to that simple fun, the other main reason that leads us to flirt without looking for sex is the one that Emma mentioned: it flatters our vanity and self-esteem. “The ego inflates a little when it feels flattery. And with the awareness that it is just that, it can even be positive for self-esteem,” reflects Tina, 45.
Perhaps that is why most people admit to having flirted with or without the intention of going further. According to a study carried out in the United Kingdom in 2004, only 1% of those surveyed, who were between 18 and 40 years old, claimed to never flirt. A third of the remaining 99% had flirted with someone in the last seven days. That same survey found that men flirted more often than women (albeit only slightly), those under 24 more than those who were too old to date Leonardo DiCaprio, and that the wealthier classes were more likely to flirt than groups with less economic affluence.
Silvia Congost, a psychologist specializing in emotional dependency and self-esteem, agrees that “all human beings like to be liked”, although she warns that when this flirting is constant it can be a sign of low self-esteem. “If I feel like I’m not good enough, that I’m not attractive or that no one will like me and I adopt this attitude of trying to flirt and get other people’s attention, this will make me feel a little better. It’s very superficial, and deep down my self-esteem will still be just as bad, but temporarily it will make me feel good,” she says. In addition, she adds that many people use flirting “to feel the taste of triumph, to feel that they are capable of controlling and dominating others, achieving what they set out to do.”
Partners and misunderstandings
That ambiguity that makes flirting so exciting is also the main reason why it can lead to misunderstandings, when one of the parties believes that the other is looking for something sexual or romantic. Considering that men tend to interpret flirting as a sign of sexual interest to a greater extent than women, who more often cite fun, flirting can also be a breeding ground for awkward situations. “It is common for confusing situations to occur, since it is difficult to identify and differentiate the game of seduction with friendliness or kindness. The risk does not disappear until what each one wants is clearly expressed,” says psychologist Silvia Sanz. All the interviewees agree that the way to avoid it is to only flirt with people you know very well or make it clear from the beginning that there is no intention to go further.
“You don’t normally flirt totally randomly,” says Eva, 46. “You already know things, like that the person loves their partner very much, that you both respect each other in all areas, you don’t do it with just anyone,” she says, although she clarifies that even those flirtations have their limitations: “Totally forbidden to do it with partners of friends or friends. That is sacred.”
The issue of partners is another delicate point. Although a few years ago a study concluded that flirting in the office was beneficial for couples, since it reinforces self-esteem and we take the passion home, not everyone understands those flirtations that are only looking for fun in the same way. “In our culture, if you have a partner and you see how he or she flirts with other people, creating false expectations in them, or making them feel that they have an interest beyond mere conversation, that is not very pleasant for the other person,” Silvia Congost points out.
Still, it all depends on the relationship. “The key would be to define what a flirtation is for each member of the couple, how to express compliments, brushes, physical contact, interest in the other. If for one of the members of the couple this type of behavior is harmless and for the other a lack of respect, it is necessary to reach a point of consensus to define an intermediate point where both feel that the needs of both are respected, to feel respect and freedom in the way of behaving with others,” adds Silvia Sanz. After all, the perceptions about what is and isn’t infidelity also vary widely.
Absent confusing situations, couples who disapprove of flirting and non-reciprocal relationships, flirting for its own sake can be very pleasant. As Eva concludes, “it is like exercising your muscles: you have them there and they allow you to walk, but if you exercise them you feel much better. It’s the same with emotions. When you’re in that game it makes you feel better.”
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition