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Flirting with Disaster: How Flirting Tends to Send Mixed Messages

Have you ever had a disagreement about flirting? Maybe you were flirting, thought it was harmless fun, and the target of your flirting got the wrong message. Or maybe you were flirting with someone who was not picking up on the signals you were sending. Believe me, I've been there. We all have at some point.

In 2004, Dr. David Henningsen published an article called, "Flirting with meaning: An examination of miscommunication in flirting interactions." This line of inquiry has helped me and many others shed some light on these misunderstandings. As we all know, miscommunication (about anything) can lead to many problems including frustration, arguments, mistakes, and the like. As this study shows, flirting is no exception, sending mixed messages between the sexes.

Henningsen (2004) examined responses about flirting interactions. Participants were each given descriptions of six common motivations for flirting, which included: relational, fun, sexual, exploring, esteem, and instrumental.

Participants were then asked to assign these motivations to several flirting behaviors. Very few behaviors were identified as having instrumental (i.e. flirting to get something from the other person) or esteem (i.e. flirting to boost your own self-esteem) motivations, so they were not analyzed. Additionally, there were no significant differences between how men and women attributed flirting behaviors to exploring (or assessing whether another person is interested in you). 

So, what did Henningsen (2004) discover? 
1. Men attributed sexual motivations to flirting more than women did.
2. Women attributed relational (or flirting to intensify a relationship) and fun (or flirting because it is an enjoyable form of interaction) motivations to flirting more than men did.

What does all of this mean?
Basically, when women are flirting (or see someone else flirting), they have (or think others have) the intentions of having fun or intensifying the relationship that they have with the person they are flirting with. On the other hand, men have (or think others have) the intentions of wanting to get it on. This kind of misunderstanding could be quite disastrous! 

So, the real question is: Should women only flirt when they are sexually interested in a man (so that men don't get confused) or should men realize that flirtatious women are not always trying to get in their pants? I'll leave this one up to you.

Lastly, here's the Facebook Live Mini Lecture I (Dr. Jennie Rosier) gave on this subject:

·                Henningsen, D. D. (2004). Flirting with meaning: An examination of miscommunication in flirting interactions. Sex Roles, 50, 481-489.


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