What's the Deal with Flirting?

Girls, should you flirt with guys? What will they think of you if you do? And how are you supposed to let a guy know you're interested in him?

What is flirting?

I'm sure you know what flirting is, but it might be worth just clarifying a few things before we start. This is because, although we might recognise obvious flirting when we see it, what about all the shades in between obvious flirtation and simply showing some interest? How are you supposed to tell the difference?

In the eye of the beholder

To some extent whether something is flirting or not is in the eye of the beholder. You might feel you are just being your usual feisty self, but someone thinks you are flirting. In another case, you might be only trying to signal some light degree of interest, but a guy thinks you are being too pushy. To some extent this kind of mixed messaging is inevitable. Clarity will only come with experience. Not much comfort perhaps, but relationship is an art, not a science.

A matter of degree

How would you define the difference between 'flirting' and 'showing some interest'? What are some behaviours that would represent each end of the scale? At the extreme ends of the scale it's easier to describe, but most girls are not usually going all out to be obvious. But if you try and define somewhere in the middle it's not so easy, is it?

A matter of intention

People are also looking for signs of intention to decide whether you're flirting or not. It can be as subtle as a slight change in the look in your eye, or your smile. But when subtlety is involved there is a lot more scope for mixed messages. Which is a bit of a problem, because on the one hand you don't want to be too obvious, but on the other hand you don't want to be so subtle that it goes completely unnoticed.

Mixed messages

And over and above all that there are the actual mixed messages that come from not even knowing yourself what you feel towards the other person - and vice versa. There are messages that are mixed right from their origin in mixed feelings, and messages that get mixed in the transmission. Talk about complicated!

Do guys like it when girls flirt?

Do guys like it when girls flirt? In order to answer this question we need to make a key distinction. In principle guys are attracted to flirtatious behaviour. That is, the male psyche responds positively to flirtation. But in practice, whether flirtatious behaviour is welcome or not depends on circumstances. So let's look at these two factors.

Flirtation in principle

We asked above - what is flirting? It is the kinds of things a woman can do to attract distinctively male interest. It involves accentuating the kind of signals that men interpret as being aimed specifically at them. At the more sexual end of the scale it involves things like wearing more revealing clothing and contriving to make sure that a man notices. At the less sexual end of the scale it involves things like showing accentuated interest, making a point of standing closer, perhaps touching him on the arm, smiling and laughing in response to the things he says. In both cases it involves more direct and continuous eye contact.

All this kind of thing signals to a man that a woman is trying to treat him as special, to single him out for special attention. So in trying to interpret such behaviour a man is keen to notice whether it is directed only towards him or whether she gives this kind of attention to other men as well. If he sees that she is reserving this kind of behaviour only for him then he will recognise that she is trying to signal to him that she thinks he is special.

Now this kind of behaviour communicates a clear kind of meaning, and in the right circumstances a man will feel flattered, and be inclined to respond positively.

Flirtation in practice

How does flirting work out in practice? If a wife treated her husband like that he would be very happy. He could accept her attentions in a simple, wholehearted way, including her more sexual signals. He already knows that she loves him, but by being a bit flirtatious she signals to him that she hasn't forgotten he is special, or more importantly, that he is a man. And if, having gotten his favourable attention, they wanted to go on to sexual intimacy that would be all well and good.

In other situations it is more complicated. For a start, a woman would have to be careful about giving overtly sexual signals. If she accentuated this kind of behaviour men would judge her unfavourably. This would be accentuated if this was perceived as her usual tactic, because if it didn't work with one man, and she went on to the next, it would give the impression that her sexuality was not that precious to her. Soon the men would feel that she is a bit uncomfortable to be around.

But even at the non-sexual end of the scale flirting involves some ambiguity. Why is this? It is mainly because a man feels it is his role to take the lead, and if he feels he is being rushed or pressured he is likely to react unfavourably. He will likely back away. He doesn't want to have to make such a decision in public, or to have all and sundry being privy to what is going on. Men are usually sensitive to this kind of thing. A man doesn't want other men thinking he has been the one pursued and caught, and he doesn't want women talking about it all behind his back. They might, of course, but it is best if he doesn't know that.

So what is a girl to do?

To be honest, what's required is a difficult balancing act. It involves being able to show some interest, but not too obvious and not too subtle. It's hard to know how best to describe this, but you could think of it as learning the difference between 'passive waiting', and 'active waiting'.

Passive waiting

Sometimes it can seem as though girls are being given the advice to be passive. This could happen inadvertently if men's active role is emphasised too much. By contrast it could seem that girls are being counselled to simply be patient and wait. In some ways that would be easier, because it would mean you wouldn't have to work out how to develop a more fine-tuned awareness of what men are like. You could just put it all down to a mystery and hope for the best. But in other ways it's harder, because it's frustrating to think you don't have any influence in a situation. However, a girl has an important role to play, and one that guys are hoping she will take. We'll look at that in a minute.

Active waiting

What is needed is 'active waiting'. I know, that might sound like a contradiction, but is it really? What if you were playing tennis and waiting for the other player to serve? You wouldn't just stand there like a dummy, as if you'd never seen anyone serve a tennis ball before. No, you'd be alert for the signals that might give a clue as to whereabouts in the court the ball would be served. You would be poised to go in that direction, even while staying balanced enough to move the other way if your early sense of things turned out to be wrong. You would have called to mind what you'd seen of this player before, and whether he had any patterns to his play that could allow you to anticipate his next move. You would already have practiced a range of shots you could adopt to return serve. In short, although you'd be waiting you'd be anything but passive.

If we could extend the analogy a bit further, if a man is like a tennis player about to serve, he doesn't want to look up and find no one at the other end of the court. But what if there are a few women waiting round at the other end, but just standing there, maybe only chatting to each other? What is he supposed to do? Just lob the ball over slowly and hope one of them might notice and volley it back? What he is really hoping for is signs that at least one of the women is poised and ready to receive. He wants to see who is 'up for a game'.

So that's what you're trying to do. You're paying attention to guys, learning what you can about them, and giving signs that you're 'ready to play', so to speak. You show a greater alertness in your responses. You pay closer attention. You 'lean forward' as if already in motion to receive what a guy has to offer. Guys are usually quite alert to this kind of vibrancy in a girl's quality of presence. There is a common stereotype that guys are unaware of subtlety, but that is quite misleading. They are very alert to some kinds of subtlety. The challenge is to try and work out what that is.

Let's talk again

I know these things are confusing, so we'll take up the topic of flirting again. In the meantime, talk it over with some of your girlfriends and see what sense you can make of what's been said here.

You might also like to read the next article in this series, "Flirting for Beginners".