Perhaps the most ambiguous or uncertain part of being in a romantic relationship is understanding signals of attraction. One of the questions I’m asked the most is, “how do I know if someone likes me?” Nonverbal clues that a person is romantically or sexually interested in you can be difficult to parse out from just general friendly behaviors. With that, we can misinterpret those cues as being something more than friendly when the other person didn’t mean for it to be.
A behavior that signals that someone is attracted to you or is interested in you in a sexual way is called flirting. Flirting behaviors are important both in early-stage relationships as well as in more mature relationships such as marriages.
For people not in mature relationships, flirting helps to signal interest in something more from them. You may be interested in starting a sexual relationship with someone or escalating from a friendship to a more serious romantic relationship. You may flirt because it makes you feel good about yourself, or to get someone to do something for you.
In more established relationships, particularly in marriage, flirting can perhaps serve an even greater purpose than in dating relationships. Flirting in long-term relationships helps to maintain interest in the relationship, signal a continued attraction to one another, and improve relationship satisfaction. One study asked married participants about their flirting behaviors with their partners. A consistent theme in the findings of this study was that people stopped seeing flirting as purely a way to show sexual attraction and moved toward other motivations like feeling good about yourself and making their partner feel good about themselves, having fun with their partner, to create intimacy, and to make their partner feel loved and valued.
What are the five flirting styles?
Researchers have identified five flirting styles, or ways to display interest and attraction, that people may prefer or adhere to when attempting to court a potential romantic partner.
Traditional: This style of flirting adheres to gender norms. People who approach flirting in a traditional way feel that women should act uninterested while a man should be the active pursuer. This means that they value men making the first move and feel that men should take control in initiating relationships. Women who score high in this style are not likely to flirt with potential romantic partners and may feel like they have a hard time getting men to notice them, while men who score high on this flirting style are more likely to take relationships slow and flirt with people they already have a non-romantic connection with. Generally, traditional flirters are more introverted.
Physical: In this style of flirting, people rely on body language to signal interest. People who identify with this style feel that they are accurately able to decode others’ body language, particularly when the other person may be signaling romantic or sexual interest. People who score high on this style of flirting are more likely to have rapidly escalating romantic relationships with more sexual and emotional chemistry. They are also more likely to be extroverted, open, and agreeable.
Playful: Those who identify with this style of flirting feel that engaging in flirtatious interactions is meant to be fun. Even if they aren’t actually interested in pursuing anything romantic or sexual, they view engaging in these behaviors as relatively harmless. They may also flirt because it makes them feel good about themselves, so they may unintentionally lead someone on. People who score high on this style of flirting are less likely to have important and meaningful romantic relationships. For men, in particular, they are more likely to have casual, highly sexual relationships. Playful flirters are also more likely to be extroverted, and less likely to be conscientious of others.
Sincere: For people who identify with this style of flirting, they engage in these behaviors to make a connection with someone else. They want to learn about that person and find out about their interests. They feel that showing sincere interest is the best way to let someone know they are interested in them. Similar to the physical flirting style, people who score high on this style of flirting are more likely to have rapidly escalating romantic relationships with more sexual and emotional chemistry and are more likely to be extroverted, open, and agreeable.
Polite: Finally, people who identify with this style of flirting believe that you should only engage in these behaviors with caution. They feel like there are rules to how you interact with others, particularly when you are interested in pursuing a relationship with them. They feel like it is important to be polite and well-mannered in interactions with those they are interested in, and in particular, that they shouldn’t be overly sexual when expressing interest with those people.
One caveat to this research is that it is largely studied in heterosexual relationships with the perspective that flirting is largely a means to reproductive ends for human beings—which we know isn’t perfectly true. One study examined the utility of this flirting styles index for non-heterosexual people and found that non-heterosexual individuals were less likely to identify with the traditional or sincere flirting stylers than heterosexual individuals. This makes sense; non-heterosexual individuals are less likely to conform to traditional gender roles and expectations.
Flirting is not only a fun process but an important one! If you are in a romantic relationship, don’t allow that to prevent you from flirting with your partner. If you are looking to start a relationship and want to signal your attraction to that person, consider how your flirting style may affect that process or create challenges for you.
Brandi Frisby, Qualitative Research Reports in Communication. 2009
Jeffrey Hall, Steve Carter, Michael Cody, and Julie Albright., Individual differences in the communication of romantic interest: Development of the flirting styles inventory Communication Quarterly. 2010
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