Old or young, homosexual or heterosexual, black or white…there's one somewhat bizarre form of social behaviour displayed by all of us, albeit in varying amounts and to varying degrees of success. Whether it be a coy glance or a toss of the head, people of all cultures (and even some animals) like to partake in the time-old ritual of flirting.
Why We Flirt
According to Dr Monica Whitty of the University of Western Sydney, there are a few different reasons why we flirt. Generally we flirt to stimulate sexual interest, but sex is not always the ultimate goal. Often people flirt to see if people find them attractive, but apparently we sometimes flirt just for the fun of it.
Evolutionary psychologists argue that we flirt in order to protect the procuration of the species: ie flirting leads to sex which leads to babies. However, this view doesn't explain why homosexual people or elderly people also like to flirt.
Dr Whitty says that flirting exists in all cultures, although the meaning may vary in one culture to another. The emphasis on the eyes stays the same, but issues such as personal distance may vary.
Why Some People Are More Naturally Flirtatious than Others
While successful flirting is largely subconscious behaviour, flirting can be learned and studies have shown that young girls learn flirtatious behaviour from older women. Flirting also relates to self-confidence and extroverts tend to be more flirtatious than introverts. The more relaxed and confident you are about your ability to attract, the more flirtatious you will be.
How To Flirt
Dr Whitty says that while a lot of women may not like to admit it, much flirting is firmly fixed in gender stereotyped sexual behaviour. Women tend to try and look friendly, submissive and approachable thereby reducing the male's fear of rejection. She identifies some common flirting signals as follows:
This relates to body movement and usually starts with eyes and lips. A flirtatious couple will hold eye contact across a crowded room. They may use an "eyebrow flash' which means raising the eyebrows up and lowering them quickly.
A meeting of eye contact, a look away and a look back is another sure sign of interest. Women may look up from beneath their eyelashes, meaning "I'm here and I'm waiting for you to approach me".
There's also a physiological reason for the interest in eyes: our pupils tend to enlarge when we look at something we like and we usually rate people as more attractive when they have large pupils. In fact, some Italian women used to use a herb to make their pupils larger. Remember though that the lighting and other factors such as drugs will have an effect on pupil size!
Lip-licking, touching or pouting the lips is a sign of sexual interest. Likewise, tossing the head and exposing the neck, a traditionally vulnerable area, is a sign that we are non-threatening and willing to submit to another's advances. It puts the other person at ease. This is one of the behaviours that is also sometimes used by other animals.
Another kinetic signal shared by animals is preening. Birds, peacocks and even cats and dogs will lick themselves or fluff up their coats/feathers in a bid to attract a member of the opposite sex. Likewise, humans will play with their hair, or adjust their clothing as part of the flirting ritual.
The next stage in flirting relates to personal space. The closer you stand to someone, the more seductive your approach. In Western society, 4ft is roughly the level at which we feel comfortable with a stranger, so if they come closer to you, they will either be perceived as seductive, or aggressive. Common steps to get closer to someone will be to offer a light for a cigarette, or to push your glass closer to their's. Leaning forward is again a sign of interest (or a very noisy environment!).
At close contact, humans might take preening a step further by actually touching or grooming the other: brushing a hair off their lapel, for example. Men are more likely to use touch than women, therefore a woman approaching a man in this way will be seen as quite forward.