What People Give Away by the Way They Flirt by Wendy Patrick J.D. Ph.D

Why It's So Important That Breakups Include a Digital Break by Wendy L. Patrick J.D. Ph.D

Research on initial approach behavior and romantic intent.



  • Flirting behavior reflects how different people are interested in pursuing different types of relationships.
  • Flirting behaviors may signal short-term or long-term mating strategy.
  • On the receiving end, there is a preference for “typical” flirtatious behavior.
Source: Nicolagiordano / Pixabay

Most people have been there—surprised at the sudden or unexpected attention bestowed by a friend, neighbor, Nicolagiordano / Pixabayor co-worker. But what does it mean? No one wants to jump to the wrong conclusion. But is there a good way of determining whether an acquaintance is flirting, or merely being friendly? And, if the former, can their intentions be interpreted? Research has some answers.

Flirting or Friendly?

Women and men flirt differently. In many cases, women accentuate their appearance; men tout their accomplishments. There are also gender differences with respect to grooming behavior, touching, and mannerisms. But there are also commonalities. Eye contact, attention, flattery, and open body posture are often indications of interest in a conversation partner. But what kind of interest? Laughter, for example, is often cited as an approachable quality. But it does not necessarily signal romantic interest. Other behaviors are similarly ambiguous.

When researchers look at flirting behavior, some have gone beyond identifying signs of interest, of which there are many. Some recognize that context counts; different people are interested in pursuing different types of relationships.

Short and Sweet or Serious?

Justin White et al. (2018). in a study entitled “Creative Casanovas,” examined how mating strategy impacts the way people flirt.1 They begin by noting that although flirting behaviors are subtle indications of romantic interest, most people can both use and interpret the signals. Their research investigated whether mating strategy would lead to a preference for typical or atypical flirting behaviors. Consistent with their predictions, they found that pursuing a short-term mating strategy, as opposed to a long-term mating strategy, was linked with flirting behaviors that were more atypical.

One of the first questions as a practical matter is, when it comes to flirting behavior, what is “typical?” We can think of myriad cultural, gender-based, and situational factors that might impact the way people flirt. The research of White et al. asked participants to rate behavior typicality for themselves—the degree to which the listed behavior would be expected in the situation—but they also recognized that flirting behaviors are often typical because they are successful.

Safe Is Successful

In their first study, White et al. found that, when it comes to flirting, ordinary behaviors were generally rated as more effective than atypical behaviors. White et al. asked participants to rank flirting behavior in several different public areas, including the gym, a park, the classroom, the workplace, and bars and restaurants.

Specific behaviors listed included telling the recipient he or she looked like a movie star or demonstrating familiarity with the recipient’s choice of subject matter, to more overt behavior such as talking in a sexy voice, talking quietly to initiate a partner having to move closer to hear, or asking the recipient to hold hands.

Other behaviors included writing the recipient a poem, texting the recipient immediately after getting his or her phone number, or asking if the recipient found them attractive or liked their perfume.

White et al. found that almost all of their participants preferred the initiator to use flirting behavior that was typical. Individuals interested in a short-term mating strategy, however, were more likely to prefer atypical flirting behaviors when they were the initiator, but not the recipient. The authors explain that this double standard apparently demonstrates a preference to flirt using “subtle or atypical cues to maintain plausible deniability or to engage the interest of their targets with creative, but difficult to decipher, approaches.” When on the receiving end, however, people tend to prefer cues that are typical and overt.

The Advantage of Average

Healthy relationship development involves more than interpreting initial signs of interest. But, apparently, signal selection might signify more than flirtatious creativity; it might also reveal the pursuit of short-term dating. So, if you are looking for a durable relationship, responding to overtures that are ordinary, as opposed to off-the-wall, appears to be a safer social strategy.

Facebook image: UfaBizPhoto/Shutterstock


1. White, Justin, Helena Lorenz, Carin Perilloux, and Aliehs Lee. 2018. “Creative Casanovas: Mating Strategy Predicts Using—but Not Preferring—atypical Flirting Tactics.” Evolutionary Psychological Science 4 (4): 443–55. doi:10.1007/s40806-018-0155-7.

Why It's So Important That Breakups Include a Digital Break by Wendy L. Patrick J.D. Ph.D

Reprinted with permission from Wendy Patrick, Why Bad Looks Good” https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/why-bad-looks-good


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