Sean M. Horan Ph.D.
It’s not always about sex.
Posted Aug 16, 2012
How much does a polar bear weigh? … Enough to break the ice.”
The quote above describes a typically awkward opening line, and one that is not recommended. Unfortunately, we have all been either the recipient or sender of such cliché, trite, and potentially terrible flirtatious messages. Sometimes you actually hear yourself saying the line, and are then immediately filled with regret.
Despite the pitfalls, flirting can be a key step toward initiating a date. It’s equally important in maintaining a romantic relationship. Although we have all flirted and been flirted with, have you ever thought about why we actually flirt? I am guessing most people have not had moments of deep reflection on the question, but Dr. David Henningsen has. Aristotle argued that all communication was goal-oriented, and Henningsen’s research has identified six goal-oriented reasons why we flirt:
- We may flirt for relational reasons. When driven by this motive, individuals flirt because they want to alter the closeness of their relationship. It’s likely that many people flirt because they want to change a friendship to a romantic relationship, or a casually dating scenario to a more serious dating relationship.
- Flirters are sometimes driven by the exploring motive. Here, a person flirts to gauge the interest of the person he or she is flirting with. You may be romantically interested in another person and flirt to gauge his or her reaction. Does he or she flirt back? Laugh? Mace you?
- Our flirtatious messages are sometimes driven by fun motivations. Sometimes we may flirt simply because it is fun or the interaction is playful.
- At times we flirt for instrumental reasons. When flirtatious messages are driven by this motive, we are flirting to achieve a goal. Perhaps you want someone to do you a favor, buy you a drink, or complete a household chore? Flirting in order to get someone to complete those tasks describes this motive.
- Flirting can also be driven by the esteem motive. This motive encompasses those times when individuals flirt to increase or reinforce their own self-esteem. Namely, flirting with people, and being flirted with, can make us feel good about ourselves (unless the person is a creep).
- Flirting can, of course, be driven by sex. Flirtatious messages born out of this motive are based on a physical attraction to someone and/or the desire to engage in sexual activity with that person. It is important to note, though, that flirting can occur without physical or sexual attraction. This may seem counter-intuitive, but individuals frequently flirt with people they are not attracted to. Consider a time when you flirted with a bartender to get a free drink, or when a 20-something jokingly flirted with the bride’s grandfather at a wedding.
In his study of flirting motives, Henningsen had participants describe a standard flirting interaction. Not surprisingly, he found that many of the interactions were driven by more than one motive. He also examined gender differences in flirting descriptions, finding that men viewed flirting as more sexually-driven whereas women reported more fun and relational motives. The remaining motives (exploring, esteem, and instrumental) did not significantly differ between the sexes.
Collectively, though, the most frequently noted motive was relational, suggesting that flirting messages are fundamentally driven by the desire to build a relationship. This finding may make readers feel more optimistic about flirting the next time they are hit on. In the interim, work on those opening lines— make sure they are practiced, polished, and well-rehearsed (while making it appear like they are not at all practiced or rehearsed…).
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