what actually IS flirting
October 11, 2019 7:43 AM   Subscribe

What is the difference between friendly conversation and flirting? Recently I was told that I am a flirt but I am not aware of being one or of going into conversations with the intention of flirting. What are some key hallmarks of flirting as opposed to regular friendly conversation?

I am youngish, female, friendly and outgoing with good social skills in general, or so I have always thought. I have been socialised through my culture and upbringing to put people at their ease so in general am a good conversationalist, remember details about people, ask questions, pay (innocuous) compliments etc. I consider this being friendly and sociable, not flirting. I understand flirting to be more about signalling romantic interest through touching and paying sexualised compliments etc - but maybe that is an unsophisticated understanding of the concept. I never do things like unnecessary touching or standing very close unless I am already emotionally intimate with the person I'm speaking with. I would not describe myself as particularly attractive. I would have said I can't flirt with someone I actually am attracted to.

The person who said I was a flirt didn't seem to be saying it as a criticism. But it piqued my curiosity. I am asking this question (1) to make sure that when I want to flirt I know what I should be doing and (2) to make sure I am not giving people the wrong idea if I am not romantically interested in them.
posted by unicorn chaser to Human Relations (32 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I think people automatically interpret openness and friendliness from others (particularly women, despite the fact that it is expected of us) to be "flirting" when in reality it isn't. So if you're being friendly, positive, complementary, joking, etc. and exuding openness via body language as opposed to IDK cold and aloof (?) you're probably being interpreted as being flirty. Which I don't agree with and is actually not the sociobiological intent of flirting. I get the same response, from men and women, when really I am just being friendly.

You note the lack of touch and sexualized compliments, which are considered to be hallmarks of actual flirting with intent, that is, to see if someone is also interested in you sexually.
posted by Young Kullervo at 7:58 AM on October 11, 2019 [17 favorites]

I'm a 42 year old woman. I was raised in California, as a valley girl, encouraged to be gregarious and friendly. When people make eye contact with me, I smile. When I meet new people, I ask them questions about themselves. When they talk to me, I nod vigorously and emphatically to show that I'm listening intently and I care about what they're saying. I laugh, freely, when anybody says anything that's not just funny, but if I can tell they're just *trying* to be funny. I share personal stories generously, and when I'm talking to people, I try to show empathy with anything they say, often relating personal stories that are similar as if to say "I get it, I'm like you!". I would say I make a major effort to be relatable and approachable, but it's actually effortless because I was raised to be this way - this is the culture I was raised in and it is the way I was socialized to behave by my peers, in my family, in my school, in my community and by the media I consumed.

None of these are flirting behaviours for me. If I wanted to flirt with someone, back when I was dating, I would turn up the friendliness a bit, but I would give much more attention. I might tease them gently. I might touch them a bit more - although I'm not sure how much. I might drop not-so-subtle hints about being single, talk more about my dating life, etc.

I like these qualities about myself! But, all throughout my teens, 20s and even my 30s, I was regularly called a flirt. Now that I'm married and in my 40s, I haven't changed, not even a little bit, but nobody has called me a flirt in a long while. So... I wonder what's changed?

If I'm totally honest, the people who called me a flirt were either people who wanted to date me, people who *were* dating me, or people who disliked me (usually men who, in retrospect, wanted to date me but the feeling wasn't returned, or women who felt they were in competition to me in our social circle).
posted by pazazygeek at 7:58 AM on October 11, 2019 [47 favorites]

Some people think that smiling and being bubbly is flirty, when in fact you are just being friendly. I, too, have been called flirty in the past -- and even had guys think I was interested when I was just being friendly. I act the same way with men who are taken when I'm in front of my husband now, and they don't take it as flirty anymore. To some extent, I assume it's just men in their 20's hoping that any friendly woman is interested in them.

When I was interested in my now husband, I made sure he knew with body language. Those little excuses to touch someone to express interest is what I would consider true flirting, the rest is just personality.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:00 AM on October 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

I forgot to add! I am from California but I live in England now - in London. Smiling at people and being extremely gregarious is not as normal. If a strange man or distant acquaintance makes eye contact with me in the course of my day, and I instinctually smile and say hello - it often makes them very uncomfortable. I sometimes see their shoulders tense up and their eyes dart side to side like they literally do not know what to do. When I remember details about people or relate to them in a friendly and familiar way, I can tell that it feels forward and so I try to be a little more reserved. So - ymmv based on where you are and who you are talking to and where they are from.
posted by pazazygeek at 8:03 AM on October 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

Perhaps the person that said you were flirting actually wanted you to be flirting and was putting the idea out there for you to consider.
posted by Sassyfras at 8:09 AM on October 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

I think flirting is generally defined on the receiving end. If someone feels like they got more attention than they're accustomed to getting in the course of their usual dealings, they perceive flirting.

As you say, there are some behaviors (standing super close, whispering in ear etc) that are usually perceived as flirtatious because they're not usually done outside of a flirty context... but if I stand close to you because we're trying to have a conversation in a loud place, or whisper in your ear instead of speaking because there's a funeral service going on, you'd know it wasn't flirting. It's not the behavior, it's the context.

This person perceived you flirting: if that wasn't your intention then it has to do with their calibration, not yours.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:12 AM on October 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

I think that there's an easy litmus test. If you're saying something to a person of your preferred gender that you wouldn't say to a person of the other gender (assuming you have a preferred gender), then that's probably flirtatious. If you would say the same thing to someone of either gender, it's friendliness.
posted by kate4914 at 8:14 AM on October 11, 2019 [6 favorites]

"I am youngish, female"

Gonna stop you there. This is the root. There's a perception that any friendly behavior from youngish females is flirtatious.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:22 AM on October 11, 2019 [41 favorites]

Writing as a middle aged woman remembering her 20s: everyone telling you that it is projection from the wannabe flirtee is correct.
Don't underestimate the chilling impact this has on a young woman's ability to be vigorous and unselfconscious in the world. Male desire is projected onto the young woman and she is essentially blamed for it. It's like a milder and more benign iteration of "well what did she expect, wearing that in public."
Don't call women flirts.
posted by nantucket at 8:27 AM on October 11, 2019 [74 favorites]

Or to put it another way: telling animated women that they are flirting is a form of policing women's self-expression. Making her wonder if her smiling is provocative is the other side of the coin of telling her on the street to "Smile!" when she's lost in thought.
posted by nantucket at 8:38 AM on October 11, 2019 [60 favorites]

Some of it is also interpreted according to people’s cultural background. As a Hispanic woman, I’ve been accused of flirting literally all my life, including ages when I 10000% was not flirting with anyone.

Don’t get too hung up on it. Be you.
posted by corb at 8:49 AM on October 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

As another outgoing person who was sometimes inadvertently perceived as flirting when most emphatically not trying to be, for me being flirtatious means singling out the person with extra attention, teasing them a little and making jokes implying romantic interest. Ironically, something I almost never actually do.
As someone said above, the same behavior is being interpreted differently depending on our age so there's that to look forward to I guess?
posted by M. at 8:51 AM on October 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

To add to nantucket’s excellent answers, if you have sorted this out for yourself to your own satisfaction after this thread and some thinking on the topic, and then someone calls you a flirt when you are not, in fact flirting, your standard answer to this should be “Oh, I’m not flirting with you. You’d know if I were.“
posted by oflinkey at 8:53 AM on October 11, 2019 [18 favorites]

I agree with many of the responses that say being told one is flirty is either a way of policing women's self-expression or with wistful intent. I remember hearing many years ago, during his impeaching hearings, that then President Bill Clinton was described as a "world-class flirt." At the time I didn't fully understand what that meant, but I have since read that he demonstrates all of the behaviors described by the OP, and does so in conversations with both men and women. He was (is?) an intensely good listener, made the person with whom he was speaking feel heard and seen, and provided enthusiastic conversational encouragers (head nodding, "uh-huh" and the like). So.

Some people are charismatic and likeable. OP, don't change unless you want to.
posted by heathergirl at 8:55 AM on October 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

I am a flirt, but because I am male I rarely get called on it. It's unfortunate but true that in our society male flirting is overlooked unless it's particularly aggressive, whereas women get immediately called on it for innocuous behavior. I agree with the other posters — ignore it, be you. You sound like a very nice person.
posted by ubiquity at 8:55 AM on October 11, 2019 [7 favorites]

I'm a man who is outgoing and enthusiastic and warm and open in conversation and I can't tell you the number of times I've been accused of flirting (which I was not). From my perspective, flirting requires intent. If I had no intent of trying to get somewhere with someone romantically, it can't by definition have been flirting. However, the older I've gotten the more I think this is probably correct:

"I think flirting is generally defined on the receiving end. If someone feels like they got more attention than they're accustomed to getting in the course of their usual dealings, they perceive flirting."

and I'll just add a "seconded" to this post here, which says everything I wanted to say about my behavior:

"As another outgoing person who was sometimes inadvertently perceived as flirting when most emphatically not trying to be, for me being flirtatious means singling out the person with extra attention, teasing them a little and making jokes implying romantic interest. Ironically, something I almost never actually do."
posted by komara at 8:56 AM on October 11, 2019

Completely agree with the folks who say it's the person who calls you a flirt who is projecting this image on to you. I worked in customer service as a young, female-perceived person and was asked out numerous times when just being customer service polite to a guy. Always threw me for a loop, because I would use those same customer service skills on all my customers.
posted by carrioncomfort at 8:57 AM on October 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thanks! This is all very interesting. FWIW, the person who said I was flirty said so after watching me interact with a man. So they weren't on the receiving end of the so-called 'flirty' behaviour but perhaps it is not a way they would behave.
posted by unicorn chaser at 9:14 AM on October 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've often been told I project a flirtatious vibe, and compared to other women in my social context. On reflection, I think this was:

1. A projection based on neutral physical features that I had that they considered sexy- I was a young woman, my face has angles that they described as mischievous (think Kate Hudson kind of vibe), I had long hair, curvy figure, etc. More than once, colleagues and even managers at work actually pressed pause on videos of me with other female coworkers in our identical uniforms, and then pointed to the screen to compare our bodies in detail! "You have a smaller waist and bigger breasts and with your f***-me eyes... you're all wearing the same outfit but it's amazing how much sexier it is on you. You look like you want to f*** everyone you see." - This was pre-#MeToo and it was my first job so I had no idea how to respond. Throat-punches would have been about right, I think.

2. Racism / Cultural mismatch. I belong to an ethnic identity that's stereotyped as sexual. Culturally it's my habit to make full eye contact when speaking, express myself directly, make jokes, and speak in a friendly, confident, informal, frank, and curious way. All of these were unusual in the context I was in, and made a certain subset of conservative white people feel uncomfortable, which they took out on me.

3. A way for people to socially punish me. Some people accused me of flirtation with rolled eyes, or in a way that was sometimes framed as a compliment but was actually overlaid with a negative vibe that was accusatory and demeaning, like they were saying "flirt" but what they meant was "slut". For the record, I was neither, and had ZERO romantic interest in any of the assholes I worked with. The one person I did like, I dated for 2 years, and nobody knew for over a year- until we told them. That alone is pretty good empirical proof of how good I am at NOT flirting in public.

Anyway all this to say, being a young woman is enough to be accused of using your "wiles". It's kind of a modern day version of calling a woman a witch- essentially, it's accusing her of having a power that she's using for evil. It's bullshit and it's quite likely unprovoked by anything you do. To change it... I guess just turn 50? Sorry it's happening to you. It's not you, it's our misogynist culture.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 9:14 AM on October 11, 2019 [23 favorites]

the person who said I was flirty said so after watching me interact with a man. So they weren't on the receiving end of the so-called 'flirty' behaviour but perhaps it is not a way they would behave.

Yeah flirting can be really culturally determined but I agree with people above who say that if someone is telling you that you're flirting it's a way of policing women's expression. I grew up in New England and am outgoing but also very conscious of not wanting to look like I am flirting when I am not (just sort of self-policing which is something I work on). It really wasn't until I was in college who I met people who were comfortable happy flirters and that was an eye-opener for me.

In many cultures stuff that I would feel is flirting (directed attention, touching, a little bit of teasing and close communication) is just friendly communication and maybe it's slightly sexualized but it's not intended to go anywhere, just a way of having friendly interactions which leave a positive feeling if both people are cool with it. I know a lot of married men, for example, who are flirty and it's just the way they are, not a threat to their marriage, as an example. My New England sensibilities have a hard time with this but generally speaking this is how it works. Before I really "got" that, I would often feel that men were flirting with me who were just being friendly. The big thing about flirting is plausible deniability, so it can almost always been construed as just-friendly too.

The big deal is, is everyone on the same page? So it might be useful for you to know that some people consider what you are doing flirting even if you don't, because that might be their way of saying "Oh hey don't send the wrong message" (ultimately this is not your responsibility but if you're not great at reading social cues it might be helpful) or "You are not acting professionally." It's good to know if the object of your communication thinks you are flirting because they may think you are interested when you are not (again, their issue, but worth being able to pick up on) but if you think you're being nice and friendly and other people are saying you're flirting, that's a LOT more about them and their issues than about you. The only thing that is worth a second thought is whether you're in a workplace because the rules are a little different and people in positions of power (even if wrong!) can sometimes be a pain about this sort of thing. Sounds like you are fine and just being you which is AOK.
posted by jessamyn at 9:24 AM on October 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

remember details about people, ask questions, pay (innocuous) compliments etc.

What you describe is extraordinary among my day to day interactions with either gender. Attention paid to me personally, by a stranger, is exceedingly rare. I usually don’t interpret as flirting but I often interpret it (optimistically) as someone reaching out and wanting to form a closer emotional bond. I am often disappointed as they were just carrying through on their social customs.

In American society men are frequently starved for positive attention. Unfortunately that means that when they receive it they can attach a lot more meaning to it than is actually there, so it is not surprising to me that your social customs could be misconstrued as flirting.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:41 AM on October 11, 2019 [5 favorites]

FWIW, the person who said I was flirty said so after watching me interact with a man. So they weren't on the receiving end of the so-called 'flirty' behaviour but perhaps it is not a way they would behave.

One thing this sometimes means from another woman you're friends with is "That guy seems to have been getting the wrong idea" — often with some helpful intent to warn you to be careful, but also often with the victim-blamey assumption that being careful means modifying your own behavior rather than watching his.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:09 AM on October 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

FWIW, the person who said I was flirty said so after watching me interact with a man. So they weren't on the receiving end of the so-called 'flirty' behaviour but perhaps it is not a way they would behave.

Presumably the person also knows how you interact with them. If it's very different from the way they saw you interacting with a man, it's not odd to think of your differing behavior as flirtation. If a stranger on the street said you were flirting, that person could safely be ignored. But if someone sees you regularly treat people of different genders very differently, it may be worth thinking about, since you do want to know. I'm a middle-aged woman, and I've seen people who are brusque or even rude with me completely turn around when they're talking to someone with whom they could have a romantic connection (though it was rude of that person to say that you're flirty).
posted by FencingGal at 10:18 AM on October 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

There may be some regional difference here. As a cis het guy who grew up in coastal US cities and now lives in the industrial midwest, nearly every interaction with strangers of all genders and apparent orientations triggers my instinct to ask, "are they about to ask me out or are they setting me up for a scam?" I'm training myself to assume good faith, which has been universally true so far. But, the way every human being behaves at the coffee shop here would count as flirting in the city where I learned how to date. It's clearly not, and misunderstanding that would make me an unobservant jerk. It's not actually a hard lesson to learn. I suggest expecting other people to stop misinterpreting your behavior rather than changing the way you act.

(But, if you genuinely want to flirt with someone, saying, "would you like to go on a date with me" is a magic strategy that always leads to a definite outcome. Nobody worth dating will be offended - unless they're your flight attendant or you're a guest at their wedding - even if they say no for some reason.)
posted by eotvos at 10:31 AM on October 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

FWIW, the person who said I was flirty said so after watching me interact with a man.

In addition to the great answers you've gotten already, women are socialized to affirm and validate men. Sometimes, as an onlooker watching another woman pay this kind of social attention to a man, flirtation is the only way I can explain it to myself; to me, it seems grotesquely pandering otherwise. Yet I'm sure she doesn't think of it that way, and (probably) neither does the man! (For what it's worth, I'm a woman from the rural south and smile at or just make eye contact with strangers on the street all the time; probably eotvos would think I was flirting with him! Because patriarchy & regional cultural differences!)
posted by tapir-whorf at 10:37 AM on October 11, 2019 [7 favorites]

>> remember details about people, ask questions, pay (innocuous) compliments etc.
>What you describe is extraordinary among my day to day interactions with either gender.

Regional differences seem really important when discussing this so I should say I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for most of my life.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:47 AM on October 11, 2019

agree with a lot of the comments in here that take a critical look at what it means when somebody is called flirtatious.

as to what flirting really is, i like to think of it as "pregnant with possibility" but with a hint of "plausible deniability." Friendly and engaged conversation is the starting point, but it's the step beyond that makes questions and possibilities thunder through somebody else's head (or your own) - did that touch linger? Was that comment the light shining through a door cracked open?
posted by entropone at 11:52 AM on October 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

there is no bright line between really engaged and interested politeness and flirting, because ambiguity in flirting with strangers is necessary in order to differentiate it from harassment and in order to leave ample space for the other person to respond in kind, or not. in order to be good flirting, which means casual and respectful and without pressure, it has to be plausibly deniable in the beginning stages.

but the thing about sophisticated flirting like that is it isn't a promise or a declaration, so even if someone mistakes your ordinary conversation for flirting, there is no excuse for them to act badly, escalate wildly, or to consider that you've done anything inappropriate. I mean you haven't anyway because you aren't flirting, but even if you were, that would all hold true. there will always be misunderstandings, but those misunderstandings should never be dangerous or reflect badly on you. you are not doing anything wrong or misleading by being a good conversationalist and a pleasant person.

modest, reasonable, and professional people assume that all friendly people are simply being friendly. if they think or hope they are being flirted with, they are always open to the possibility that they might be wrong.

there is unfortunately a profound deficit of modesty, reason, and professionalism among many straight men when they are talking to women they like (you didn't specify a demographic but this is true even if it doesn't apply.) but this makes things a little bit simpler as well as a lot more annoying and sometimes threatening: since you can be "accused" of flirting at any time for no reason, you should only police your behavior to your own standards and not worry about what other people might read in. if you are behaving reasonably, don't change. if somebody thinks you like them and is wrong about that, it is their own emotional burden to bear and they should not try to make it any of your business.

you are not giving anybody the wrong idea. their attraction to you, if they have any, is all their own creation. Calling you a flirt might be a compliment if all it means is they've noticed a lot of people like you. but if you don't like it, don't hesitate to correct them. but correct the people who misread you, not your own behavior. your behavior is fine.
posted by queenofbithynia at 1:16 PM on October 11, 2019 [8 favorites]

Something to think about when determining if an interaction may be considered flirtatious is, many men are used to people paying attention to their words and ideas, but much less used to people paying attention to them as people. Even though they may be used to "attaboys" for tasks they've accomplished, they may go days without receiving even seemingly innocuous personal compliments. Many male relationships are based entirely on gentle "humorous" insults, and direct complimenting can be completely non-existent. There are good arguments why this is a bad status quo, but if you're just interested in having positive interactions with male colleagues while reducing the chances of them picking up flirtatious vibes, you can try limiting your compliments, and discussions in general, to their actions and ideas, and avoid talking about them personally at all.
posted by array at 2:40 PM on October 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

there are way too many men who think that if a woman speaks to them it automatically means that she's romantically interested.
posted by brujita at 5:47 PM on October 11, 2019 [5 favorites]

Yeah, I'm about as flirtatious as a rock and yet if a guy wants to see that in you, he will.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:34 AM on October 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

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