One way or another, flirting is how nearly all of us form our romantic relationships. And we've known for most of human history that we all go about this process in slightly different ways: some of us prefer to flirt by telling jokes or being sarcastic; some of us are completely open and earnest with others; and some of us lean heavily on physical touch to make our interest known. A style mismatch can lead to misunderstanding and fraught relationships, so it's surprisingly important to be able to identify each of these in other people (and perhaps adjust our own behaviour accordingly).
In 2010, some US researchers, including a director at eHarmony, put together a list of the five different flirting "styles," following it up in 2015 with what they called behavioural correlates of these styles – i.e. the way those styles work in practice. We've digested both papers, plus a bit of surrounding research, and share the results below. Each style is favoured by a slightly different kind of person, and how you flirt can reveal a surprising amount about your personality. Go ahead and tag yourself.
Traditional flirting is not, as we might think, sending coy letters and pursuing chaperoned visits at a lady's parents' house. But it does have its roots in old-fashioned gender norms: for those who favour this style, men are expected to make the first move, to lead the relationship's development, and to make the important decisions about things such as date activities and venues. Women take a passive role, receiving attentions warmly but without taking on any risk of rejection or making a bad impression. Their flirting is limited to indulgences like prolonged eye-contact, and "other nonverbal behaviours" (think twirling your hair and pretending to laugh).
As a result, the researchers suggest, women are likely to prefer this style: it demands very little of them in terms of risk or effort. Men, meanwhile, are usually prepared to sacrifice the leadership role in relationships if it means sacrificing some of the work that comes with it – preferring relationships in which women open themselves to the possibility of rejection or failure.
Physical attraction is a cornerstone of romantic love (or, as psychologists like to put it, "mate selection"), so it's no surprise that some of us want not only to be attracted to a prospective partner, but also to know that they're attracted to us. How we behave is a pretty reliable indicator of whether or not we're physically attracted to someone, and those who opt for this style of flirting tend to be open about their interest. In practice, physical flirting doesn't just mean touching someone; it can be as simple as adjusting our posture, crossing or uncrossing our legs, tilting our heads, or leaning forwards. Even tiny indications like these are interpreted by those around us as signals or counter-signals of sexual interest, often on a level far below conscious thought.
According to the co-authors, those who are happy to flirt physically are often more confident generally, more comfortable with their own sexuality, and (perhaps as a result) more fluent in conversation. Interestingly, they're also less likely to use compliments or questions about the other person in their flirting endeavours.
No behaviour is safe from the analytic lens of the behaviouralists, and that includes straightforward sincerity. This, we learn, is communication aimed at creating an emotional bond between two people, and it's the style most of us would prefer prospective partners to use.
Unfortunately, it's also the most easily misinterpreted style, because it's the same behaviour we exhibit when we're just trying to make friends: it's all about getting to know the other person and finding things you have in common. It's non-threatening and not explicitly sexual, and as a result women (being generally slower to escalate romantic relationships into sexual ones) are hypothesised to prefer it more than men do. It's also less associated with teasing your partner.
Not all flirting is a means to an end: sometimes, it's just really fun. Those who adopt a playful style of flirting embody this principle, in which flirting isn't necessarily tied to relationship development, but more focused on having a good time generally. Men who favour a playful flirting style like to give their partner lots of compliments, and women who are playful in their flirting typically ask fewer questions of their partner – in line with the idea that their goal isn't always an emotionally intimate relationship.
Women are more likely to prefer this style, and often see the goal of first dates as being fun (where men are likely to see their goal as being sex).
The polite flirting style is a courteous, rules-based approach to starting relationships. It sticks closely to typical first-date scripts (family, pets, careers) and is unlikely to lead to polarised conversations or explicitly sexual material. It's more cautious than the other ones we've discussed, and liked particularly by women – who are, as we might expect, more concerned about the risk of sexual harassment and coercion than men. Men are much more likely than women to perceive female behaviour as sexual, and liable to perceive friendly female behaviour as seductive. A careful, measured approach to flirting from women can serve as protection against that misunderstanding.
One risk of the polite approach is that men who adopt it are often thought by their partners to be disinterested; partly because the norm for men is that they express interest quite openly. Failure to do so is interpreted by women as a lack of interest altogether. The polite style of flirting is linked to lower self-confidence, and sometimes difficulty in communicating sexual interest at all.
We might recognise ourselves in any or even all of these "flirtation styles," but it's important to remember the extent to which we all differ when it comes to expressing attraction. This attempt to categorise human behaviour into five distinct areas is fun to read about and interesting to consider, but no substitute for our own experience or judgement in new situations. Our recommendation: have fun, be nice, and if in doubt about someone's intentions – summon your courage and ask them!