I was talking to one of my friends recently, and she said something that really surprised me.
“Oh god, I don’t know how to flirt or be a flirt with women.”
What shocked me wasn’t the sentiment—lots of us feel this way—it’s that this friend is a HUGE FLIRT. It’s her default state of being. She is always touching people; her eye contract is deep and steady; she gushes and knows how to compliment sincerely; she’s excitable, friendly, and magnanimous; she also plays with her hair constantly and is incredibly curious about even the most mundane topics. One time she even picked a flower for me! A flower from the earth! It was adorable.
And yet, she thinks she doesn’t know how to flirt.
I thought, if she’s “bad” at it, we’re all doomed.
Then I remembered that so many of us feel clueless, confused, unsure of what we’re doing, and scared to offend people, especially those we find attractive.
How do we change this? How do we reverse these untrue beliefs about ourselves that act as barriers to getting to know people? What makes someone a “good” or “bad” flirt, anyway? Why do we do it at all? What are some ways people show interest, physically and verbally, and how we can get better at recognizing it?
These are the questions we’ll focus on in this post. Let’s break it down.
What Is Flirting, Actually?
At its core, “flirting” is interacting with someone in a playful manner. This can be demonstrated with verbal or physical cues, it can be a form of teasing, it can be silly, it can be subtle, or it can be wildly obvious and direct.
Women tend to be more subtle
Studies show that women underestimate how much people are flirting with them, while men, perhaps unsurprisingly, overestimate. People flirt for fun, for sex, for exploration, and even for transactional reasons (i.e. to get something from someone). We’ll talk more about this below, but for now, all you need to know is this: flirting is playful interaction.
On a physical level, this can take a few different forms. It can be:
- Playful touching: The shoulder, elbow, and forearm are considered the safest areas to touch a stranger. A brief, well-timed knee touch can also work, especially for stories where you’re at the “you won’t believe what happened next” part. And never underestimate the power of the high-five.
- Eye contact: The all-powerful gesture returns! Looking at someone—including gazing, lingering, glancing, looking-then-looking-away—is probably the most underrated (yet most obvious) sign that someone is into you. In fact, a study showed that two minutes of eye gazing—looking each other in the eye—led research participants, who were strangers, to report increased feelings of affection. Have you been practicing your eye contact? If not, get on it!
- Mirroring: This is when we adopt the postures and mannerisms of the person we’re speaking to. We do this unconsciously, but if you want to ramp up connection, try to subtly mimic the person you’re flirting with. The key is subtlety. If your partner feels like you’re parroting her, it’ll backfire. So, for instance, when she takes a drink, wait 15 seconds, then take a drink of yours. If she crosses her legs, wait a minute, then consider crossing your legs, too. It also helps if you repeat some of the exact words and phrases that she’s said. Therapists are MASTERS at this. It can feel a little weird at first, but mirroring speech does wonders for making people feel heard and understood.
- Invade their space: According to one expert, to test the flirting waters, you should step into someone’s “personal space,” aka the invisible area that’s about 18 inches around someone’s body. Try to find a reason to enter their personal bubble briefly—say, by stepping close to let someone else pass, or to pick a piece of lint of their shirt—then step out of their bubble. “If this person is drawn to you, he or she will respond by stepping in closer after you’ve backed off.” Note: If you’re in a crowded space, this won’t really work because everyone is invading your personal space.