Sex&theCity: Fifty shades of flirting

Evolutionary psychologists say flirting is an essential courtship device without which the human race would not have progressed

Flirting is a natural human instinct, just like hunger, thirst and the urge for sex. Not only is it universal and common across all cultures and countries, but it is also an integral part of human interaction. According to evolutionary psychologists, flirting is essential as it is a courtship device, without which the human race would not have progressed to reproduction. We are genetically programmed to flirt.

Sometimes, it is done subconsciously without the person indulging in it, realising that they are actually flirting, as research shows that 55 per cent of flirting is done through body-language, 38 per cent is through the tone of our voice and only a mere 7 per cent is through what we say. Thus an innocuous thing like ‘Pass me the butter’ can be the ultimate seduction weapon, based on how one says it and where and in what tone.

Most of us recognise flirting when we encounter it. It can be verbal with teasing, challenging someone intellectually or paying them compliments. It can be physical, like looking into the eyes, looking away and looking back again, a warm smile, a light touch on the arm, a toss of the hair or challenging the opposite sex in a sport. It can be through emails or text messages peppered liberally with emoticons. It can even be a direct declaration of an outrageous statement like ‘Oh, now that I have seen you, I know my day is going to be great.’ It would be hard to find a person who is not pleased when someone flirts with them, as it is an affirmation that the person finds you attractive, irrespective of the relationship status of the participants.

Every flirtatious activity does not mean that the person wants it to lead to sex. Studies have shown that many people flirt without any intention of having sex, simply because they enjoy it and it boosts their self-esteem, and also because flirting opens doors, sometimes leading to great friendships.

Some psychologists say that flirting may even aid in improving marriages, helping to add that extra zing to it, as long as the foundation of love is strong between both partners. A man might see another flirting with his wife, at a party and if she were to flirt back, he would see her not just as the mother of his children and his wife, but as an attractive woman in her own right, whom he should not take for granted. A woman, who has not been paying much attention to her husband, might find her interest suddenly piqued when she sees that other women want him.

In our societies, flirting sometimes gets a bad rap. If a man flirts with a woman and she’s not interested, she could perhaps raise hell about sexual harassment. If a woman flirts with a married man, exchanging racy repartees and his wife does not like it, she can be sure she will never again get invited to their home.

The thing about flirting is what is construed as crossing a line. The boundaries that you define for yourself might be different from that which the other person has in mind. Thus a remark such as ‘You look beautiful’ can be misread as it hinges on the border of being a compliment or being a pass, depending on what the person perceives as ‘okay’ or ‘not okay’.

In a study in Northern Illinois University it was found that men are worse than women when it comes to reading verbal clues and body language. Men often overestimate the woman’s interest in them and wrongly interpret flirtatious behaviour as much more sexual than intended. It was also found that when women flirted in a sexually suggestive way, men found them more attractive. But the men who flirted this way were seen as less attractive.

In the end, a relationship is between two individuals. What is okay for a couple might be taboo for another. Flirting can be fun, infectious and an inexpensive pick-me-up on a lousy day. But if either of the parties are not comfortable or cross that invisible line, then it can also spell disaster.

The trick is to be able to tell when it is okay to flirt, with whom and to what extent. What is sauce for the goose is clearly not sauce for the gander.

(Preeti Shenoy is the author of five bestselling novels, the latest being The One You Cannot Have)

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