The kind of flirting that works best

May 22, 2022

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The kind of flirting that works best

Alicia and I married 38 years ago, and we’ve been together for over 40. I have spent all that time flirting with her. Successfully—she’s still with me.

Researchers say that some people are experts at flirting. Others, they say, never flirt or fail spectacularly. But what kind of flirting works best? One particular flirting technique almost always works for everyone and in every situation. More on that later, because not everything works every time.

What the researchers say: “What’s most effective depends on your gender and whether the purpose of the flirtation is a long-term or short-term relationship,” said the lead author of a new study.

He belongs to a research group that has studied flirting in Norway and the USA, looking at what people believe are effective tactics—and for whom and in what context.

“Flirting involves different signals that people send to each other. It’s done to attract potential partners. Men and women both flirt to get the attention of a desired partner, and perhaps to achieve a sexual or romantic result from it,” said the researchers, stating the obvious.

“Flirting can be done verbally as well as non-verbally,” they added. Wow! There’s a revelation! No wonder they got the funding for the study.

So what works? “Let's look first at what works sometimes, but not always and not for everyone” they proposed. “People consider signals that you’re sexually available to be the most effective for women who are looking for a short-term relationship,” they continued. Hmm.

Friendly contact like hugging or a kiss on the cheek doesn’t work in that context. Women who just want a short-lived fling from flirting need to signalize this clearly to the potential partner. How exactly? The researchers don’t go into details, which perhaps is a pity.

A completely different tactic works in another mating context, they say.

Their study shows that “signs of generosity and a willingness to commit works best for men who are looking for a long-term relationship,” they intoned. “Men who want to keep a partner for a longer period of time, perhaps for life, should not come across as stingy/ungenerous or as someone who prefers to change partners frequently.” Another of those blinding flashes of the obvious.

“But the most powerful weapon in the flirtation arsenal might come as a surprise to people who don’t have it. This weapon almost always works to some degree for everyone.” I’m waiting for it.

“Humour!” they pronounced. “People think that humour, or being able to make another person laugh, is most effective for men who are looking for a long-term relationship. It’s least effective for women who are looking for a one-night stand. But laughing or giggling at the other person's jokes is an effective flirtation tactic for both sexes.”

“It is not only effective to be funny, but for women it is very important that you show your potential partner that you think they are funny” said the study’s American co-author.

If you need to flirt, but feel unsure about how to proceed, then humour is something you should put in your toolkit. But maybe you shouldn’t start with that.

“Smiling and eye contact are important. Then you can build your flirting skills from that base, using more advanced tactics,” she informed us.

The researchers applied sexual strategies theory as a framework to their work. Variants of this theory have also been used in other contexts that deal with how men and women proceed to find partners. This is the first time the theory has been used to examine flirting effectiveness.

“The findings fit perfectly with what we know from the literature on self-promotion. It also seems that flirting is largely the same in the US and Norway,” said the Norwegian researchers.

“This indicates that effective flirting is largely universal which is not surprising since the motivations for finding a mate are partly biological,” they said. “However, this also shows that people fine tune their flirting techniques depending on what is emphasized in their culture, which is a smart, flexible strategy.

The researchers surveyed close to 1000 students in Norway and the USA. The participants rated how effective 40 different types of flirting were for a long-term or a short-term relationship, and whether the flirter was male or female. Participants were randomly assigned to the four versions of the questionnaire.

The researchers took into account the participants' extroversion, age, religiosity, how willing the person was to have a relationship and “mate value,” that is, how attractive you are in the dating market.

“Individual differences in age, religiosity, extroversion, personal attractiveness and preferences for short-term sexual relationships had little or no effect on how effective respondents considered the various flirting tactics to be,” they found.

So, what? What if your sense of humor is lacking? Forget about flirting, you don’t stand a chance.

A study last year in the journal Humor found that having a sense of humor was a marker of intelligence—at least in children. It could be that the students that the researchers used as guinea pigs in the present study were actually smart enough to use their humor on the researchers.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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