Flirtation is a game we play, a dance for which everyone knows the moves. “People can flirt outrageously without intending anything,” says independent sex researcher Timothy Perper, who has been researching flirting for 30 years. “Flirting captures the interest of the other person and says ‘Would you like to play?'” And one of the most exhilarating things about the game is that the normal rules of social interaction are rubberized. Clarity is not the point. “Flirting opens a window of potential. Not yes, not no,” says Perper. “So we engage ourselves in this complex game of maybe.” The game is not new. The first published guide for how to flirt was written about 2,000 years ago, Perper points out, by a bloke named Ovid. As dating books go, The Art of Love leaves more recent publications like The Layguide: How to Seduce Women More Beautiful Than You Ever Dreamed Possible No Matter What You Look Like or How Much You Make in its dust. And yes, that’s a real book.
Once we’ve learned the game of maybe, it becomes second nature to us. Long after we need to play it, we’re still in there swinging (so to speak) because we’re better at it than at other games. Flirting sometimes becomes a social fallback position. “We all learn rules for how to behave in certain situations, and this makes it easier for people to know how to act, even when nervous,” says Antonia Abbey, a psychology professor at Wayne State University. Just as we learn a kind of script for how to behave in a restaurant or at a business meeting, she suggests, we learn a script for talking to the opposite sex. “We often enact these scripts without even thinking,” she says. “For some women and men, the script may be so well learned that flirting is a comfortable strategy for interacting with others.” In other words, when in doubt, we flirt.