The Attractor Factor: Why We Flirt and What It Means

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bigstock--147070274Imagine this scene: two people walk into a room and immediately notice each other (cue the romantic music). They hesitantly take a few steps forward, smiling shyly. One runs fingers through tousled hair, while the other straightens a piece of clothing. One laughs nervously while the other coughs. Once they are within speaking distance, a conversation begins. The words, “Do you believe in love at first sight, or should I walk by again?” issues forth from one, which causes eye rolls from the other and a screeching needle on record sound.

Is this the beginning of a beautiful friendship or a potential disaster? Will they laugh about this when they tell the story of their initial encounter at their wedding or will they be grateful that it didn’t progress beyond that first awkward interaction?

Flirting is something people learn in childhood as a means of charming others or getting something they want without asking directly. It offers the opportunity to test the waters without diving in head first. How easy is it to say no the innocent look of a toddler who wants ice cream before dinner, especially if they say “Please.” in a tiny voice?  There are some who adamantly insist that young children aren’t engaging in flirtatious behavior since they contend that it sexualizes the child or the act of simply being friendly. Flirting may indeed be just that, a way of reaching out to get to know another.

As we mature, flirting carries with it a more intimate vibe. Body language takes the place of or is an embellishment for verbal communication. The ways we sit, stand, carry ourselves, the proximity and angle with which we approach another we find attractive either physically or emotionally, speaks volumes about our feelings.

There are numerous reasons why people flirt. According to Northern Illinois University professor David Dryden Henningsen, there are six different motivations for flirting and he characterized them in this way: 

  • Sex: trying to get into bed  
    • Fun: treating it like a sport 
    • Exploring:  trying to see what it would be like to be in a relationship
    • Relational: trying to increase the intimacy of a relationship
    • Esteem: increasing one’s own self esteem
    • Instrumental: trying to get something from the other person

The last one reveals a darker and more manipulative aspect of playful behavior as is indicated in  a 2007 survey of 500 professional women, in which 86% said they “would happily flirt with a male colleague if it meant they got their own way.

Innocent flirting took place at the end of the life of a happily married, 84 year old man. He was placed on hospice for end stage Parkinsons’ Disease that took its toll on this formerly robust athlete. Whenever he would meet a new female nurse, he would tell them how beautiful they were and asked them to kiss him on the cheek when they tucked him in for the night. Both he and his wife of nearly 52 years knew it was a harmless request and it put a smile on the face of the caregivers.

Jeffrey A. Hall, Ph.D has studied the art of flirting and it culminated in a book entitled The Five Styles of Flirting: Use the Science of Flirting to Attract the Love You Really Want. He identifies them as

  • Physical-Body language is a core aspect and those who score high in this realm connect quickly and have commensurate sexual chemistry.
  • Polite-Being mannerly and with an eye for ‘appropriate’ behaviors, these people tend to be more romantic with sustained partnerships.
  • Playful- There is little interest in romance or long term connection. People who score high are in it for fun and to enhance self esteem.
  • Sincere- Those who exhibit this style of flirting are interesting in developing deep bonds and emotional connection.
  • Traditional- This category is populated by those who view men as the persuers and women as the subject of their interest.

Hall’s original study, entitled Individual Differences in the Communication of Romantic Interest: Development of the Flirting Styles Inventory opened the door to deeper understanding of the various communication styles people posses.

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