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Why we flirt: NIU professor David Henningsen uncovers more reasons than just love, romance

January 31, 2013
David Henningsen

David Henningsen

NIU’s David Henningsen remembers being intrigued in graduate school by a study that found men often overestimate the romantic interest of women.

“That struck me as being really sad, because I really didn’t think women were all that interested in me to begin with,” Henningsen laughs.

It also led him to the idea that there might be more to flirting than meets the eye and ear – and he has since become an expert on the topic.

Henningsen has conducted several key studies on flirting and recently was cited for his expertise on the topic by the Wall Street Journal. With Valentine’s Day approaching, those who are looking for love might benefit from a quick lesson from the veteran NIU professor of communication on the motivations behind flirting.

It’s not always what you might think.

“You can’t assume that all or even most flirtations have underlying sexual motivations,” Henningsen says. “People often use the allure of the possibility of sexual interest to help achieve other goals.”

Henningsen defines flirting as goal-directed but says it is also ambiguous – it might or might not convey sexual interest. His research and study of a long line of academic literature has identified these six specific reasons why people flirt:

To facilitate sexual contact.

While people often associate flirting with seduction, Henningsen says sex is actually among the least common goals. Importantly, though, men are more likely to perceive flirting as sexual or to overrate a woman’s seductiveness, regardless of social context, such as being at the office or outside of work.

“Men and women can often agree that they are flirting but attribute differing levels of sexuality to the interactions,” Henningsen says. “It’s why flirting is ripe for miscommunication.”

The differences between the sexes do make sense “from an evolutionary perspective,” he adds. “Women are going to be more guarded and ambiguous because this way flirting allows them to screen out some males and find better mates.”

To advance an existing relationship.

Photo of a man whispering into a woman's ear“People who are in a relationship may use flirting to signal a desire to increase intimacy,” Henningsen says. “For instance, friends may flirt to let each other know they might be interested in letting the relationship develop into something more intimate.”

To explore the potential for a romantic relationship.

Flirting is commonly used to “test the water,” or to find out whether another person is interested in initiating a relationship.

“The beauty of flirting, in this regard, is its ambiguity,” Henningsen says. “If a flirting attempt goes awry, the ambiguity of flirting allows a person to credibly assert they hadn’t meant anything by it. In this way, information about the other person is gained without losing face.”

To encourage someone to do something for you.

Flirting can be used to persuade another person to provide goods, services or other forms of assistance.

“This type of flirtation, known as instrumental flirting, more commonly occurs in the workplace,” Henningsen says. “One college friend of mine always thought waitresses flirted with him because they were really interested in him. More likely, they wanted a bigger tip. It’s a classic example of instrumental flirting.

“Of course, when someone does misinterpret flirting as indicating sexual interest it can lead to complications,” he adds. “In the workplace, for instance, such miscommunication could be viewed as sexual harassment.”

To foster self-esteem.

Research has shown that both men and women sometimes engage in flirting behaviors to reinforce feelings about their own appeal to others.

When someone else responds to our flirting, it is an indication that he or she finds us attractive or charismatic,” Henningsen says.

“This can reinforce a person’s self-image or self-esteem. Of course, if flirting overtures are rejected, self-esteem could be hurt.”

To have fun.

Fun is the top reason people flirt, Henningsen says.

“People flirt because they enjoy it,” he adds. “So some flirting interactions may be little more than a momentary distraction.”