RELATIONSHIPS: We can all learn the language of flirting


A group of university students were having a highly animated debate about flirting.

A lot was said, but one of them, a woman, carried the day, declaring in a mixture of English and Kiswahili: “Mwanamke ku-flirt na mwanamme ndio ku-do? Si ni kama kulala flat? (When a woman flirts with a man; isn’t it the same as lying down flat?” The insinuation of course was that when a woman flirts with a man, it signals sexual availability. Is this the case though?

The dictionary defines flirting as to “behave as though attracted to, or trying to attract someone, but for amusement, rather than with serious intentions.” This suggests that flirting is anything but a serious purposeful act.

That said, part of this definition, as we’ll see, has been disputed by social scientists who argue that flirting is a natural and necessary part of the male-female social intercourse.

It comes ahead of ‘serious’ actions such as proposing marriage or solicitation for coitus, serving to ‘test waters’ and thus minimise the pain of rejection.


Generally, people will either flirt for fun or with intent to establish an emotional connection. Flirting for fun happens a lot among friends, people of equal rank, or during social events that are open to such behaviour, such as parties.

Friendly, light-hearted flirting may help to initiate and keep conversations going, and generally involve everyone within acceptable limits.

Flirting with intent, however is part of the process of mate selection and as such, one flirts with those that he/she considers potential partners.


Research has identified five flirting styles. The first one is physical flirting, which involves touch, such as holding someone’s hand a little longer than necessary after a handshake.

The second is traditional flirting, where women play a passive role, while men take the aggressive one.

Third is polite flirting, where the emphasis is on proper manners. It is common in societies or circumstances in which social interaction is highly regulated, such as during official cocktails.

Sincere flirting is the fourth style, and involves communicating sincere interest and desire to establish strong emotional connections.

This could be through eye contact, body language or suggestive conversation. Research shows that women use this style more effectively than men, and still manage to make the man think he is in charge!

The last one is the playful flirting, such as playfully teasing someone about their dressing, usually with sexual undertones.


The biggest risk with flirting is the very real possibility of being misunderstood, and in the process, creating unintended consequences. As the young woman in our story intimated, flirting, especially when initiated by a woman, may be seen as an invitation for sexual advances. Before you flirt, bear these in mind:

The first is a warning to be cautious because people have different levels of tolerance when it comes to flirting. Second, learn the skill of reading verbal and non-verbal skills.

For instance, research by the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) in the USA reveals that men have difficulty reading women’s body-language. This often leads to mistaking harmless flirting for sexual interest.

Third, do not just flirt with anyone, even when it is just for fun. It is important to observe people first, especially when meeting them for the first time.

Age and social rank are other important considerations to make before you make a move. With this in mind, you should do just fine.