I have always stood by my belief that there is flirting, and there is flirting… if you know what I mean. But it seems I stand corrected. According to a study by Dr. Dave Henningsen, Professor of Communications at Northern Illinois University, there are in fact at least five different reasons for why we flirt. I can't help but wonder if, with so many motivations, we are not only losing clarity in our communications but our integrity as well.
There is no denying that flirting is fun and, when done right, it makes both parties feel confident and desirable. Ideally, flirting occurs in a natural and effortless way when we meet someone we enjoy spending time with or with whom we have chemistry. And sometimes it's even necessary to do some conscious and premeditated flirting to let a man know when we are interested.
Unfortunately, flirting has gotten complicated by ambiguity. As Elizabeth Bernstein reports in her Wall Street Journal article The New Rules of Flirting, new research finds that people flirt for six reasons: for fun, testing romantic waters, reinforcing intimacy, boosting self-esteem, and getting what they want.
But Henningsen’s research suggests that it’s very hard to interpret intention and men are particularly prone to misinterpret women’s flirtatious cues. This confusion really isn't surprising, since flirtation is not only used as a subtle and playful way of letting a person know we find them attractive, but could be used just to test boundaries or, as one woman interviewed in Bernstein’s article puts it, to "open doors".
In fact, many women view flirting as a viable and strategic career move. One publicist interviewed in Bernstein's article admits to flirting with an attorney with the intention of gaining his business. After writing him an impassioned email complimenting his work style and his looks, she is eventually hired by the attorney. While flirtation may initially prove to be a successful tactic in the professional realm, a woman who choses to engage with her superiors or clients in a sexually ambiguous manner may be setting a standard that could be damaging to her career in the long run. If it's difficult to interpret which of those six reasons are motivating your flirting, how are you really supposed to know when someone is flirting because they are truly interested or just using you as a step ladder?
As a woman who expects to be treated with respect and intention, it is important for me to be taken at my word, both in my personal life and my career. We should certainly be friendly people, but using kindness to mask instrumentalism undermines my integrity and misuses my femininity. Perhaps, if we spent a bit more time worrying about the feelings of others and less time trying to manipulate them, we could get back to the days when eye contact and an inviting smile always meant "I want to talk to you" and not possibly "I want to use you".
Photo via Shannon Lee Miller