Humans love to flirt.
It’s even good for couples: According to a 2012 study, couples who flirt regularly tend to feel more satisfied with their relationships. The author of that study theorised that’s because it helps partners “create a private world.”
But flirting is more complex than it looks. And the reasons we do it can range from logical to downright creepy.
In a 2004 review of the literature on flirting, Northern Illinois University professor David Dryden Henningsen identified six different motivations for flirting and categorized them with a single word:
• Sex: trying to get into bed
• Fun: treating it like a sport
• Exploring: trying to see what it would be like to be in a relationship
• Relational: trying to increase the intimacy of a relationship
• Esteem: increasing one’s own self esteem
• Instrumental: trying to get something from the other person
The most troubling of all these motivations — to us, at least — was the “instrumental” one.
It happens in and out of the workplace:
• A 1998 British study found that women in the hospitality industry are often pressured by management to flirt with customers in order to cultivate repeat business and get better tips.
• According to a 1982 study of American college students, 60% of female and 41% of male students reported that they had flirted with instructors. About 75% of students thought that flirting could increase a female student’s grade, and 50% thought that flirting could increase a male student’s grade.
• In a 2007 survey of 500 professional women, 86% said they “would happily flirt with a male colleague if it meant they got their own way.” A 2008 study found that women who flirt in negotiations are viewed as more likeable but less authentic, and a 2005 study found that women who didn’t flirt at work were more likely to get promoted.
If all this seems strangely confined to results about women, that’s because it is. Compared with all the research about how women use flirting to get ahead, there’s almost none for how guys do it. Of that small body of knowledge, the main takeaways include that men who flirt at work tend to be less satisfied with their jobs.
There is a larger lesson here, too: attraction is its own sort of power.
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