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A poster by Henri Gerbault depicting flirting between a man and a woman

Flirting or coquetry is a social and sexual behavior involving body language, or spoken or written communication between humans. 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.

A study in body language: Haynes King's Jealousy and Flirtation
Laurel (played by Marilyn Monroe) flirting with Dr. Fulton (played by Cary Grant) in the film Monkey Business (1952)


The origin of the word "flirt" is unknown. The first use of the word dates to 1580—with the intransitive "flit" and the noun form—ca 1590—with the transitive "flick".[1]

Flirt has been attributed to the French conter fleurette, meaning to woo. Fleurette, meaning small flower, was used in the 16th century in some sonnets[2] and texts, and has since fallen out of use.[3][4][5] This expression is still used in French, often mockingly, however the English loanword, "to flirt" is in the common vernacular.[6]

Historical context[edit]

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,[7][8] delivering speeches and writing articles to help American soldiers better understand British civilians,[9] and vice versa.[10] Mead found a pattern of misunderstandings in the flirtations between American soldiers and British women regarding who was 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.[7]

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.[11]


A woman flirts with a soldier by tickling him with a feather.

According to social anthropologist Kate Fox, there are two main types of flirting: flirting for fun, and flirting with further intent.[12]

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.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15] A study by Messman and colleagues demonstrated that the more one was physically attracted to a person, the higher the chances one would flirt with them.[15]

Misinterpretation and consequences[edit]

Flirting is often performed subtly, and evidence shows that people are often mistaken in how they interpret flirting behaviors.[15] If the main purpose of flirting is to signal interest to another person, then one might expect that the signaling would be done clearly and explicitly. An explanation for the ambiguous nature of human flirting lies in the costs associated with courtship.[14] Indeed, according to Gersick and colleagues, signaling interest can be costly as it can lead to the disturbance of the nature of a relationship.[16]

The costs associated with interest signaling may be magnified in humans compared to the animal world, as the existence of language means information can circulate much faster. For instance, in the case of eavesdropping, information overheard by an eavesdropper can be spread to large social networks, thereby magnifying the social costs.[16]

Other motivations[edit]

People may engage in flirting to consolidate or maintain a romantic relationship with their partner. People may also flirt with the goal of 'exploring', for example to assess whether another person might be interested in reciprocating. Henningsen and Fox showed that flirting can sometimes be used just for fun, for example in the workplace.[13]

Gender differences in motivations[edit]

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.[13] Henningsen also found that women may engage in "practice flirting," that is, behavior to evaluate potential partners.[13]

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.[17]

Cultural variations[edit]

Flirting behavior varies between cultures 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.[18] Nonetheless, some behaviors may be universal. Ethologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt discovered that 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.[19]

The Flirtation by Eugene de Blaas. A study of body language: a man flirting

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.[20]

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 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".[21]

In Spain, ladies used fans 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.[22] In Japan, flirting in the street or public places is known as nanpa.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "flirt". Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved 6 May 2023. The first known use of flirt was in 1580
  2. ^ La Taille, Jean de; Arioste, L'; La Taille, Jacques de (9 August 1573). La famine, ou Les Gabéonites, tragédie prise de la Bible et suivant celle de Saül, ensemble plusieurs autres oeuvres poëtiques de Jehan de La Taille de Bondaroy... – via Gallica.
  3. ^ Tabourot, Étienne; Tabourot, Étienne (9 August 2018). Les bigarrures et touches du seigneur des Accords . Avec les Apophtegmes du sieur Gaulard et les Escraignes dijonnoises. Dernière édition, reveue et de beaucoup augmentée – via Gallica.
  4. ^ Guy de Tours; Berthelot; Béroalde de Verville, François; Gauchet, Claude (9 August 2018). Les muses incognues ou La seille aux bourriers plaine de désirs et imaginations d'amour : réimprimé textuellement et collationné sur l'exemplaire existant à la Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal à Paris ([Reprod. en fac-sim.]) / recueil de poésies satyriques de Béroalde de Verville, de Guy de Tours, de Gauchet, de Berthelot, de Motin, etc – via Gallica.
  5. ^ Larivey, Pierre de (9 August 2018). Les comédies facécieuses de Pierre de Larivey, champenois . A l'imitation des anciens Grecs, Latins, & modernes Italiens. A sçavoir, le Laquais, la Veuve, les Esprits, le Morfondu, les Escolliers – via Gallica.
  6. ^ Académie de Nîmes (9 August 1876). "Mémoires de l'Académie royale du Gard" – via Gallica.[verification needed]
  7. ^ a b 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.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ e.g. Mead, Margaret (1944). The American troops and the British community. London: Hutchinson. OCLC 43965908.
  10. ^ e.g. Mead, Margaret (June 1944). "What Is a Date?". Transatlantic. Vol. 10, no. June 1944. OCLC 9091671.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ Fox, Kate. "SRIC Guide to Flirting". Sirc.org. Retrieved 2019-03-21.
  13. ^ a b c d 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.
  14. ^ a b Moore, Monica M. (1995). "Courtship Signaling and Adolescents: "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun"?". The Journal of Sex Research. 32 (4): 319–328 – via JSTOR.
  15. ^ a b c 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.
  16. ^ a b 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. PMC 10480930. PMID 25299992.
  17. ^ Campbell, Bernard (1972). Sexual selection and the descent of man. Aldine. pp. 1871–1971.
  18. ^ "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.
  19. ^ 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.
  20. ^ "SIRC Guide to Flirting". Sirc.org. Retrieved 2010-06-23.
  21. ^ "Ladies and their Fans". Avictorian.com. Retrieved 2010-06-23.
  22. ^ "The Language of the Fan". Spainforvisitors.com. Archived from the original on 2010-06-26. Retrieved 2010-06-23.