Flirting Series: The origins of flirting and why we flirt

Following the success of our recent blog: The Psychology of Flirting [], and with Valentines approaching we have written an accompanying series on the subject of Flirting, allowing us to further explore westernised flirting as an individual subject as well as its importance in developing a special connection which can progress onto a relationship.

The origins of flirting date back to the 16th Century and is one of the most important aspects in the development of the most established and mature of relationships. Known as ‘coquetry’, flirting was first defined in the Oxford Dictionary in its first edition as to ‘flit’ or ‘flick’ – demonstrating an absence of seriousness and acting with frivolity. It is now coined to ‘play at love’.

Flirt: [Verb] To Behave as though sexually attracted to someone, but playfully rather than with serious intentions[1]

Although this, and past definitions of flirting may seem like an act for young couples in lust, it is actually experienced throughout the beginning of all relationships although it is prudent to point out that as we mature we find flirting harder to act upon or recognise. This is something we will address later in our series: The Importance of Flirting.

On a simple level, flirting is described as an ‘art’, an area which we individually master in a unique way. It may be a look, a touch… it is about nonverbal sexualised communication. When looking at the history of how individuals flirt, we have to recognise that in the past individuals would meet a date through a friend or in person, immediately allowing for coy looks to be exchanged as well as non-verbal body language. We naturally play out a romantic scene of boy meets girl at a 1950’s funfair with a feeling of instant connection to one another, witnessing playful looks and bashful eyes.

If we fast forward to today, we can see that how we meet dates is evolving and, as such, flirting is developing. This means we add an additional stage to the dating process; virtual flirting, which is becoming an everyday occurrence - flirting by email, text, MMS… In a society where it is harder to meet new people, individuals are turning to Matchmakers and online introduction agencies to meet their soul mate and as such have to engage in written forms of flirtation. This poses a problem for the norms of flirtation as we cannot read body language and non-verbalise cues but instead have to develop the ability to pick up on cues in written text, small aspects of humour or wit and cheeky comments. Just as in person, virtual flirting is a skill and allows you to make a connection with someone before being presented with the opportunity to meet face-to-face.

Why we flirt

Relationship expects have suggested that flirting is primarily driven by six motivations; sexual, relational, exploring, esteem, instrumental and fun[2].

First and foremost, we flirt to become closer to individuals. This relational motivation could be maintaining relationships we are already in, or to develop new relationships. Sexual motives are also present here, allowing for greater sexual desire. Both of these motives may therefore develop a friendship into a relationship or take an already blossoming date, into a full bloom relationship.

We also use flirting to explore others emotions and feelings in a jovial and light way. This helps us avoid being hurt by pursuing individuals who are not interested in us and allows for self-protection– if the individual returns the flirtatious acts, it allows us to understand where we stand on their friendship-relationship scale and adjust our feelings or actions accordingly.

We also flirt merely for fun and instrumental motives, being playful or flirting for a cause (such as flirting for someone to buy you a drink) which can help to achieve increased feelings of self-esteem. Having flirtatious acts reciprocated allows us to feel positive about ourselves and subsequently can make us feel sexier and more desirable.

Knowing the reasons why you flirt is an important first step. However to better explore and understand what flirting actually is and how we flirt, we have to firstly appreciate individual differences and the importance social psychology plays in flirting. Our next article in the series on Flirting Communication Styles enables us to truly explore the importance of acknowledging each person to be an individual when it comes to the apparently trivial act that is flirting.