Your dopamine levels spike. Norepinephrine is released, causing your heart to race. Serotonin—the key hormone that regulates mood, well-being, and happiness—floods your brain. This is your body on flirting.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. Flirting, that is. Perhaps because I went from seeing my partner only on nights and weekends to spending every waking hour with him, and the way we interact with each other now as a result is… interesting. If you installed a secret camera in our apartment, you might raise a warranted eyebrow at the way we converse: in a language that is not not English but increasingly takes the usual grammatical rules, syllables, and pronunciations as mere “suggestions.” A bizarre combination of inside jokes, baby talk, laziness (our penchant for word shortening took on a new extreme when “groggy” became “grogs”), and pet names that are too embarrassing to disclose. An ongoing flirtation that is utterly and completely our own.
I’m using the term flirtation liberally here, and that’s intentional. I’ve always considered flirting to be a pretty amorphous thing, depending on what the circumstances are and who is participating. It can be super romantic or 100% platonic. It can be as overt as a compliment or as subtle as eye contact (there’s a poem about flirtation by Rita Dove that begins, “After all,/ there’s no need/to say anything/at first”). In any case, over the course of the last year and its extreme isolation, I’ve been paying closer attention to the role flirting plays in communication. Perhaps because, out of all the cliche mood-boosting tricks in my arsenal, flirting has become a sleeper hit.
Why We Flirt
I spoke anecdotally with other people via Instagram about recent experiences with flirting, and almost everyone acknowledged the uplifting effects of a good flirt. Annie, who is single, said she “1000% gets a self-esteem boost from flirting.” She found that she’s come to prefer flirting on a mostly digital basis during the pandemic, because she has more time to think of witty responses without being put on the spot.
Another woman, Imani, told me she’s used platonic flirtation as a way of keeping in touch with friends over the last year. Every once in a while, she texts friends something she loves about them totally out of the blue, and says it’s been a nice and relatively low-effort way of showing people she hasn’t seen in months that she is thinking about them.
Caleb, who moved in with his partner a year ago, said conscious flirting has become a tactic for coaxing each other out of anxiety spirals: “There isn’t always a sexy motive behind it when we flirt, it’s often just to cheer each other up or make one of us laugh.” He also compared flirting to hot chocolate: “It’s sweet, and everyone likes it. So why not?”
I interviewed David Henningsen, a professor in the University of Illinois’s Department of Communication who has conducted several studies on flirting. His research confirms that flirting serves many different purposes in our communication beyond the obvious sexual or romantic ones. For example, we can flirt purely to boost our self-esteem, which he calls “esteem flirting,” or to convince someone to do something for us (“instrumental flirting”). He told me that one of the most common reasons we flirt is simply because it’s enjoyable: “Flirting interactions tend to be playful, and people often engage in them just to have fun.” When I asked him how much low-stakes flirting has the power to affect our moods, he acknowledged the importance of “these little moments of bliss.”
My mind flicked back to the other week when I FaceTimed my partner while running an errand to ask him a question. After we hung up, he texted me, Thanks for reminding me how good you look via Facetime! Corny? For sure, but still: a little moment of bliss.
Digital Versus IRL Flirting
Flirting has come up a number of times in conversations I’ve had with friends recently, too (okay, yes, I may have sneakily introduced the topic). I asked my friend Paul, who is active on dating apps, if he’s noticed an uptick in flirtiness lately. He told me not only has there been significantly more activity on dating apps in his experience, but also that the women he interacts with seem more interested in initiating the conversation and asking to exchange numbers. However, when I asked if he’s found there are still opportunities to flirt with strangers, he said, “The last time I flirted with a stranger was March 6th, 2020.”
Another friend, Haley, echoed this acutely perceived lack when I asked how her relationship with flirting has evolved over the past year. She said she’s become more conscious—and appreciative—of the subtle public flirting between strangers that suggests a kind of mutual acknowledgement: “Even just a moment of eye contact could entertain my mind for an entire train ride. Not with fantasies necessarily, but with ideas about who the person was, where they were going, what they thought of me, what brought both of us there to that moment on that train. I'd have never considered flirting an important element of public life until it was gone."
Neither have I, but it is now one of (many, many) things I looked forward to resuming with gusto.