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Flirting or coquetry is a social and sexual behavior involving body language, or spoken or written communication. It is used to suggest interest in a deeper relationship with another person and for amusement.
A person might flirt with another by speaking or behaving in such a way that suggests their desire to increase intimacy in their current relationship with that person. The approach may include communicating a sense of playfulness, irony, or by using double entendres.
The origin of the word "flirt" is unknown. The Oxford English Dictionary (first edition) associates the verb form—first used in 1580—with the intransitive "flit" and the noun form—ca 1590—with the transitive "flick".
Flirt has been attributed to the French conter fleurette, which has fallen out of common use. The French word "fleurette" (small flower) was used in the 16th century in some sonnets and texts. While this term is now seen as outdated, this expression is still used in French, often mockingly, however the English gallicism, "to flirt" is in the common vernacular and has now become an anglicism.
During World War II, anthropologist Margaret Mead was working in Britain for the British Ministry of Information and later for the U.S. Office of War Information, delivering speeches and writing articles to help the American soldiers better understand the British civilians, and vice versa. She observed in the flirtations between the American soldiers and British women a pattern of misunderstandings regarding who is supposed to take which initiative. She wrote of the Americans, "The boy learns to make advances and rely upon the girl to repulse them whenever they are inappropriate to the state of feeling between the pair", as contrasted to the British, where "the girl is reared to depend upon a slight barrier of chilliness... which the boys learn to respect, and for the rest to rely upon the men to approach or advance, as warranted by the situation." When flirting with each other, British women could interpret an American soldier's gregariousness as something more intimate or serious than he had intended.
Communications theorist Paul Watzlawick researched courtship behaviors between English women and North American servicemen in late- to post-WWII, finding common misunderstandings of intent. The simple act of kissing during the 'wrong stage' of the courtship often led both parties to believe the other was being too forward, too soon.
In a 2014 review, sociologist David Henningsen identified six main motivations for flirting: sex, relational development, exploration, fun, self-esteem, and as a means to an end. Henningsen found that many flirting interactions involve more than one of these motives. There also appear to be gender differences in flirting motivation.
Many people flirt as a courtship initiation method, with the aim of engaging in a sexual relationship with another person. In this sense, flirting plays a role in the mate-selection process. The person flirting will send out signals of sexual availability to another, and expects to see the interest returned in order to continue flirting. Flirting can involve non-verbal signs, such as an exchange of glances, hand-touching, and hair-touching; or verbal signs, such as chatting, giving flattering comments, and exchanging telephone numbers in order to initiate further contact.
Many studies have confirmed that sex is a motivation for flirting. Additionally, Messman and colleagues' study provided support for this hypothesis; it demonstrated that, the more one was physically attracted to a person, the higher the chances one would flirt with them.
Misinterpretation and consequences
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Flirting with the goal of signaling interest appears as a puzzling phenomenon[according to whom?] when considering that flirting is often performed very subtly. In fact, evidence shows that people are often mistaken in how they interpret flirting behaviors. Logically, if the main purpose of flirting is to signal interest to the other person, then the signaling would be done clearly and explicitly. A possible explanation for the ambiguous nature of human flirting lies in the costs associated with courtship signals. Indeed, according to Gersick and colleagues, signaling interest can be costly as it can lead to the disturbance of the nature of a relationship.
Third parties can impose costs on individuals expressing sexual interest.[clarification needed] Expressing sexual interest to somebody else's romantic partner is a highly punishable act.[according to whom?] This often leads to jealousy from the person's partner which can trigger anger and (possible) physical punishment, especially in men.[dubious ] Third parties can also impose costs through the act of eavesdropping.[original research?] These can lead to damage to one's reputation leading to possible social, economic and legal costs.
The costs associated with interest signaling are magnified in the case of humans when compared to the animal world,[original research?] as the existence of language means information can circulate much faster. For instance, in the case of eavesdropping, the information overheard by the eavesdropper can be spread to very large social networks, thereby magnifying the social costs.
Another reason people engage in flirting is to consolidate or maintain a romantic relationship with their partner. They will engage in flirting behaviors to promote the flourishing of their relationship with their partner. People will also flirt with the goal of 'exploring'. In this sense, the aim is not necessarily to express sexual or romantic interest but simply to assess whether the other might be interested in them before making any decision about what they would want from that individual.
Henningsen and Fox also demonstrated that flirting can sometimes be employed just for fun. For instance, studies have shown that flirting in the workplace was used mostly for fun purposes.
Another motive that drives flirting is developing one's own self-esteem by encouraging reciprocation.
Gender differences in motivations
Certain types of flirting seem to vary by gender. Henningsen and colleagues' study demonstrated that flirting with sexual intent was found to be more prominent amongst men while flirting for relationship development purposes was more often employed by women. Additionally, Henningsen found that women may engage in what he calls "practice flirting," that is, using the behavior to evaluate potential partners.
In evolutionary biology, the parental investment theory states that females are more selective and males are more competitive, therefore predicting that flirting as courtship initiation will be more commonly used by males. The theory also predicts that females provide more resources to their offspring, which causes them to invest in a mate that can contribute to their offspring's survival.
Flirting behavior varies culture to culture due to different modes of social etiquette, such as how closely people should stand, how long to hold eye contact, how much touching is appropriate and so forth. Nonetheless, some behaviors may be more universal. Ethologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt discovered women from different continents (Africa and North America) behave similarly in some ways when flirting, such as nonchalantly breaking their gaze and smiling after first staring for a prolonged period of time.
In "contact cultures," such as those in the Mediterranean or Latin America, closer proximity is common, compared with cultures such as those in Britain or Northern Europe. The variation in social norms may lead to different interpretations of what is considered to be flirting.
Japanese courtesans had another form of flirting, emphasizing non-verbal relationships by hiding the lips and showing the eyes, as depicted in much Shunga art, the most popular print media at the time, until the late 19th century.
The fan was extensively used as a means of communication and therefore a way of flirting from the 16th century onwards in some European societies, especially England and Spain. A whole sign language was developed with the use of the fan, and even etiquette books and magazines were published. Charles Francis Badini created the Original Fanology or Ladies' Conversation Fan, which was published by William Cock in London in 1797. The use of the fan was not limited to women, as men also carried fans and learned how to convey messages with them. For instance, placing the fan near the heart meant "I love you", while opening a fan wide meant "Wait for me".
In Spain, where the use of fans (called "abanicos") is still very popular today,[when?] ladies used them to communicate with suitors or prospective suitors without attracting the notice of their families or chaperons. This use was highly popular during the 19th and early 20th centuries. In Japan, flirting in the street or public places is known as nanpa.
- "flirt". Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved 6 May 2023.
The first known use of flirt was in 1580
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- Mead, Margaret (2004). William O. Beeman (ed.). Studying Contemporary Western Society: Method and Theory. New York: Berghahn Books. pp. 145, 149. ISBN 978-1-57181-816-4.
- Mead's article, A Case History in Cross-National Communications, was originally published in Bryson, Lyman (1948). The Communication of Ideas. New York: Institute for Religious and Social Studies, dist. by Harper and Brothers. OCLC 1488507.
- e.g. Mead, Margaret (1944). The American troops and the British community. London: Hutchinson. OCLC 43965908.
- e.g. Mead, Margaret. "What Is a Date?". Transatlantic. 10 (June 1944). OCLC 9091671.
- Watzlawick, Paul (1983). How Real Is Real? (1st illustrated reprint ed.). London: Souvenir Press. pp. 63–64. ISBN 978-0-285-62573-0.
One interesting aspect was a comparison of courtship patterns. Both American soldiers and British girls accused one another of being sexually brash. Investigation of this curious double charge brought to light an interesting punctuation problem. In both cultures, courtship behavior from the first eye contact to the ultimate consummation went through approximately thirty setps, but the sequence of these steps was different. Kissing, for instance, comes relatively early in the North American pattern (occupying, let us say, step 5) and relatively late in the English pattern (at step 25, let us assume), where it is considered highly erotic behavior. So when the U.S., soldier somehow felt that the time was right for a harmless kiss, not only did the girl feel cheated out of twenty steps of what for her would have been proper behavior on his part, she also felt she had to make a quick decision: break off the realtionship and run, or get ready for intercourse. If she chose the latter, the soldier was confronted with behavior that according to _his_ cultural rules could only be called shameless at this early state of the relationship.
- Fox, Kate. "SRIC Guide to Flirting". Sirc.org. Retrieved 2019-03-21.
- Henningsen, David (2004). "Flirting with meaning: an examination of miscommunication in flirting interactions". Sex Roles. 50 (7–8): 481–489. doi:10.1023/B:SERS.0000023068.49352.4b. S2CID 143077407.
- Messman, Susan J; Canary, Daniel J; Hause, Kimberly (2000). "Motives to Remain Platonic, Equity, and the Use of Maintenance Strategies in Opposite-Sex Friendships". Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 16 (67–94): 67–94. doi:10.1177/0265407500171004. S2CID 145745343.
- Gersick, Andrew; Kurzban, Robert (2014). "Covert Sexual Signaling: Human Flirtation and Implications for other Social Species". Evolutionary Psychology. 12 (3): 549–69. doi:10.1177/147470491401200305. PMID 25299992.
- Buss, David; Schmitt, David (1993). "Sexual strategies theory: An evolutionary perspective on human mating". Psychological Review. 100 (2): 204–32. doi:10.1037/0033-295x.100.2.204. PMID 8483982. (subscription required)
- Campbell, Bernard (1972). Sexual selection and the descent of man. Aldine. pp. 1871–1971.
- "Scoring a German: Flirting with Fräuleins, Hunting for Herren". Spiegel International. 5 June 2006. Retrieved 6 May 2023.
HE SAYS: ... German women, though, have become conditioned to a much more subtle style of coquetry. Interest is indicated by way of a studied, concentrated look on the part of the man -- a gaze which may, but often doesn't, include a smile. Rather than a stare, though, the look should be brief and fleeting -- and the man's job is done. In a German-on-German flirt, the power rests solidly with the Fräulein. [....] SHE SAYS: ... The bottom line, though, is that it is often up to the foreign woman to break the ice in a way the German man understands: heavy on the warm-yet-serious discussion and lighter on the flippant-friendly-sexy thing. Flirting in Germany is not nearly as fun, meaningless or flattering as it is elsewhere. But the sometimes awkward but also deliciously subtle dance between the genders here might just grow on you.
- Matthews, Maureen (29 Nov 2016). "About Last Night: Where do I draw the line with flirting?". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 6 May 2023.
Q: I'm a guy who loves to flirt but it can get me into trouble. How do you judge the line between harmless flirting, seduction, sexual harassment, leading someone on, being inappropriate, and so on? It feels like a social minefield. A: It seems that some form of flirting is universal in social intercourse.
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