The Art of Flirting: Key Lessons from My Dissertation on Flirting

by | Oct 24, 2020 | Couples Therapy | 0 comments


Believe it or not, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on flirting. I wanted to find out based on first hand accounts, what mindset you get into when you flirt. I wanted to live the experience vicariously through what other people told me about a time when they flirted. I wanted to see if there are any common characteristics that reveal the nature of what flirting really is.

Obviously like friendship, love, grief, and betrayal, flirting is a particular kind of experience one can have with another person, but what is it that really distinguishes it? When do we call someone a flirt? When do we feel like we are being flirted with? And what mindset do we get into when we are flirting with someone?

Why should you want to know?    

Because flirting is an essential human experience. It is one of the ways we interact when we feel our most lively, our most free, our most connected, and our most wanted. In one of its forms it is a kind of mating dance or ritual characterized by a certain exuberance, much like what we see when a peacock struts its feathers, or a bird of paradise turns neon and does an elaborate dance to win over a prospective mate.

But for human beings it is something more than that.

We humans flirt not just to find a mate, but to feel alive. In fact many times flirting is not about courtship at all. We can flirt with the clerk at the grocery store when we are checking out our groceries, or at a business meeting to break down barriers of formality and appear more human. In these kinds of flirtations, we are not trying to go on a date, but simply generate play, smiles, and affirmations that we like each other. People who are good at flirting are good at generating well-being in people around them, and are typically well-liked and considered quite charming. If you are on the receiving end, you might not even know what just happened to you. Nobody necessarily slipped you their phone number, but you leave the interaction feeling good about yourself, intrigued, and smiling; like you just had a very meaningful human encounter. The flirtatious person managed to get you out of your more detached state, and back in touch with your own inner playfulness, which can be very valuable in world that can often be about simply going through the motions.So what is flirting really? I believe I can distill much of its essence in about 5 characteristics (In my dissertation I outline 11)

#1: Flirting both Conceals and Reveals a Person’s Desire 

In life we are used to things being rather dichotomous. You either like me or you don’t. You are interested in going on a date, or you are not. However, what flirting reveals is that there is a space in-between, where we can exist over and above these dichotomies. In flirting I can show interest in you, without you knowing exactly what my interest is. I can be fascinated by your words, without declaring that I want to date you. You can feel my attraction, without knowing if I have an intent to follow through on it. However, as opposed to leaving you in a space of confusion, paralysis, or anxiety, flirtation elevates this uncertainty to intrigue. You want to find out if the other person really wants to date you, you are enticed by the lack of clarity, you are drawn in by your lack of clear knowledge about the other person’s intent, interest, or desire. The result is that everything appears “open”, possibilities are there, but without any of the pressures, responsibilities, or anxieties that would follow from a clear decision or conclusion. Everything is still happening in the realm of play, fantasy, and imagination and practical decision-making is not yet needed. The world of practicality and responsibility is suspended for a moment, and everything is possible. Flirting therefore brings me into contact with a particular kind of freedom and openness that gives me a taste of the existential fact that my life is not set in stone, but that anything can happen.

#2: Flirting is a Bodily Experience 

Flirting involves sensations not just words. Like Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel”. Well, flirting is one of these felt experiences. It involves positive sensations in the body such as tingling, warmth, positive self-appraisal, feeling desired, feeling special, feeling attraction and so on. What is special about these kinds of sensations is that they arise as separate from our conscious control or ego. They are alien forces that show us something about ourselves that we did not know; we learn that we like the other person, we get in touch with a sexual desire, we find that we really enjoy the other person’s company. Flirting brings us in touch with something about ourselves that is news to us, that we did not know before we found ourselves in this particular situation. Another way to say this is that flirting teaches us something about who we are and what we want. It brings us in touch with our desire, it evokes a cherished identity, it makes our body our teacher of who we are, and there is often something very vitalizing about this. We feel more alive, we feel more connected, we feel more human; we are intrigued not just about the other person but about the unexplored unrealized potential of ourselves. Who knew we had this in us? Who knew we really wanted this? Who knew we had been missing something in our lives? Flirting brings this out, and we like it.

#3: Flirting is an Individualizing Encounter

Flirting makes me feel one-of-a-kind. The other person doesn’t like my eyes because they are just like someone else’s, or my humor because it reminds them of another person’s. The other person seems to like something about me as a unique one-of-a-kind person, incomparable to anyone else. I am unique to them and therefore irreplaceable, and this makes me feel incredibly valued and important. In this moment they only have eyes for me, I am the one they want, and the only one who has their attention. Even if this is just a casual encounter in a grocery store, the way the other person treats me makes me feel my most singular. I am not just a woman, not just a sexual object, not just a funny person. I am me, and you find me attractive or fascinating. I think we all have this longing for singularity and irreplaceability and it is very intoxicating to occupy this place in the consciousness of someone else. It brings us in touch with our most human self, not myself as an employee, a father, a daughter, a woman, but myself as a singularly unique human being on this planet. Even when we zoom out and look at the flirtatious interaction not just as something that is done to me, or that I do to another, but as a dance we are doing together, the memory of this dance often holds special significance because it feels like a unique experience we had together, just the two of us.

#4: Flirting Breaks Down Barriers between You and Me

Flirting is able to break down the clear boundaries between two people and make us feel like we are part of one and the same shared experience. Flirting is not about me asking questions, and you answering. It is not about sharing my political viewpoint, and you sharing yours. It is about two individuals having an encounter that makes both individuals feel like they are meeting in a joint or shared moment where there is a sense of we-ness that dissolves the you and the me. One of the more effective ways to accomplish this is to have a shared experience. When we laugh at something we have in common, when we both share an experience of looking at the stars, when we recognize that we are both alike in some way, we encounter ourselves in a shared world, and not as separate minds. At some level we all have a longing to experience ourselves as not being separate, as not going through this world alone, and flirting gives us this experience at least for the time being. Flirting is about sharing a moment, undoing our aloneness, dissolving the rigid boundaries of our egos, of becoming part of something rather than being apart from something. It is an inter-subjective experience, an experience with a fellow human being with whom we have something in common, even if it is just the mutual recognition that we are both bored at this party, or both laughing at the same joke.

#5: Flirting is a Social Event

Although flirting is a highly individualized encounter, it is also a social performance. Even though it is tempting to think that when we flirt we are just guided by instincts, there is typically a lot of social decorum and social comparisons that enter into the flirtatious dance. Social images of what is desirable and appropriate, what is attractive and not attractive, and what is “smooth” and what is “awkward” often play a big role in decisions about what to do and what to say. In most of the personal accounts of flirting I reviewed for my dissertation, calculations of what to say, when to say it, or what to do or not do, played a significant role. For some of the women there was an awareness of not wanting to be too forthcoming or take too much initiative since that might violate the social norm of the woman being the pursued and not the pursuer. In reverse, for some men this meant making sure they filled the shoes of their masculine role and that they came across as manly enough. In this sense flirting often ends up involving social anxieties and social comparisons that can at times make it more intentional or calculative, at least until sufficient rapport and validation has been established to make these more performative considerations recede into the background. In some ways it is like we are performing on a world stage where everyone is looking and judging and where our sense of masculinity, femininity, and social value is at stake and could be decided on the basis of whether we fall short or live up to these unspoken standards that live in the social imagination. This part of flirting is what makes many people say they really don’t like being on the dating scene. They want to skip this part and move right to acceptance so they can be themselves without having to prove their worth. However in saying this, they also inadvertently say they want to move beyond the excitement and possibilities that come with not yet having to consider the practical consequences of a real commitment, which is precisely what can make flirting so intoxicating (revisit point #1).

So there you have it, my brief 5-point summary of what creates the experience of flirting. If you are interested in learning about the other 6 characteristics I discovered through my research, I invite you to read my full dissertation on Flirting as a Liminal Experience. It gives many more examples from actual narrated accounts but in a little bit more of an academic jargon than what I presented here.



Psychologist Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D. a psychologist and EFT-certified couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I help individuals who have lost their spark or couples who want to reconnect. Visit my website for more information about how you can schedule your first therapy appointment on-line.    

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