Confusion Reading Signals Around Flirting and Dating for Singles

Goodbye to cuffing season and hello to horny season

As folks transition out of winter and have re-set their clocks forward, it is critical to better understand how single people can approach consensual flirting this spring fever season. Given the turnover from what singles describe as cuffing season to horny season, appreciating the nuanced shades of what exactly do these terms; flirting, wanted vs. unwanted attention, signaling actually mean? Defining and disentangling misinformed beliefs about giving and receiving attention is essential to understanding flirty and/or mating cues whether on date #1, and any subsequent date and/or sexual encounter. 

Unwanted Sexual Attention vs Flirting

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A 2015 study of 52 opposite-sex pairs of college students found that only 36% of men and 18% of women accurately identified when the opposite gender was actually flirting. This study suggests that males “over-estimate female interest so as not to miss an opportunity to mate, thereby rendering their judgment more accurate when females are actually flirting, but impairing judgment when they are not flirting.” This study then found that third-party observers of these interactions did not predict flirting any better. The third-party observers detected flirting when it happened only 38% of the time. Given the coupled context of flirting, which typically requires that one individual be more active while the other partner take on a more following or receiving role, the predominance of gender role beliefs in predicting behaviors may reflect the perception that a certain role must be taken on for the flirtation dance to move ahead.

Gendered Interpretation of Flirting Signals 

Since many dating clients report that they have trouble picking up on flirting cues, how can help clients differentiate between unwanted advances and actual flirting? Even more so, how can a person agree to flirting without agreeing to anything when people can not even identify when or if they are flirting? A 2023 study examined gender differences in the aftermath of unwanted advances. They found that 71% of women in the study reported experiencing unwanted advances earlier in life compared to men, and additionally have more negative experiences and worries about rejecting unwanted advances. Given this, how do women’s flirtation cues get misinterpreted by men? 

A 2024 study on how men perceive women’s sexual interest found that when women’s global cues(i.e. clothing or appearance) and specific cues (i.e. facial expression) were conflicting (not aligned with one another) about sexual interest towards men, men often misinterpreted the women’s intentions to mean she was interested. Furthermore, according to this study,  researchers found that if a man was sexually aroused or if he usually looked upon women as sexual objects, he would be more likely to misinterpret a woman’s cues thinking she was interested when she wasn’t. 

How to Manage Expectations in the Dating Sphere

When single therapy clients discuss their anxiety around getting back to dating apps after taking a pause or starting to date after a breakup or divorce, they are feeling unsure of how to show interest so that they can go at their own pace.  Many of them find their date is more sexually assertive and at times aggressive when they’re not ready for that level. They ask for help through coaching on how to set their date’s expectations non-verbally and/or verbally. At other times, dating clients express frustration in session when they believe they are explicitly expressing themselves in a flirty manner on a date and interpret their date’s responsiveness as mutual interest only to find that they have been ghosted a few days later.  

The Influence of Gender Re-Flirting Behaviors

A 2021 study exploring what influenced non-verbal flirting which included heterosexual, bisexual, lesbian and gay participants from a college community in western Canada found gender, rather than sexual orientation, to be the primary predictor of flirting techniques. What researchers found was that “men who globally identify as masculine will be particularly likely to select masculine-typed flirting behaviors which fulfill this traditional role. Gender-role beliefs, however-which have to do with relations between men and women-did not predict flirting behaviors. Thus, for men, the individual’s identification with the traditional norms of their gender, rather than their beliefs about gendered relations, are more important to flirting behavior.”  

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Interestingly, “for participants who identified as women, sexual orientation did not emerge as a predictor of flirting behaviors.” Their results support the findings of previous research, “in that they indicated no difference in flirting styles between heterosexual and sexual minority women.” However, what researchers found in this study is that what did impact women more critically in flirting behavior were their beliefs about men’s and women’s roles rather than their self-concepts of femininity or the adherence to a traditional feminine identity.

However, it is also important to note that the sample of people who identified as non-binary participants was minimal. Therefore the analysis of flirting in individuals who identify as non-binary is limited. Similarly, the measures used to determine flirting were also based on studies and measures designed for heterosexual samples, and thus, it is hard to truly say whether these scales accurately portray flirting patterns of gender-expansive and queer populations. As gender becomes more fluid it is hard to say how applicable any of these measuring scales truly are as ideas around gender expand. Nonetheless, these results do shine a light on the presence of traditional gender role behavior when it comes to flirting. 

It is important to note that most of the other studies were also done with entirely, or mostly, cis-gender white heterosexual participants, which may make the results less generalizable to queer-identifying, gender-expansive, and people of color . However, these results call for more clear communication skills and boundary-setting techniques in dating and new relationships. 

Signal Sending, Receiving, and Consensual Communication

It is essential to note that if you’re sending signals that aren’t being mirrored back or reciprocated, that should be taken as a sign that the flirtation is not mutual and to back off. If you interpret that someone is mirroring back your flirtation, check in on your interpretation by asking them if they’d like a hug. You can tell them you’re really attracted to them, and wait to see if they respond in kind. If you think they are leaning in and sharing personal space with you and smiling and connecting with your eyes a lot, and you’re into them, ask them if you can kiss them. It’s a first step that many people skip over but is essential to beginning consensual communication early on in a romantic or sexual relationship. 

You can also flirt by telling a date you are thinking about what it would be like to kiss them and see if the person responds that they too are curious about what your lips would feel like. Talking about doing a sensual or sexual thing can be a sexy type of flirtation and is a way of feeling out verbally whether your interpretation of non-verbal signals is accurate.  The 2nd partner might not want to kiss at that very moment, so an option they have is to say in a flirty inviting way: I’m not ready at this time but definitely ask me next time we’re out, or at the end of the night. It can be fun, and light, and yet express the notion that sexual interest might not be mutual at one point but could be revisited at a later point. This is a more nuanced way of keeping an erotic seduction vibe while maintaining consensual language embedded in the dating experience.

Techniques to Embrace a Fun Flirty Spring

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  1. Practice eye gazing with short pauses looking away as a form of showing interest in a person you’re interested in at a social gathering or on a date. 
  2. If you’re finding yourself attracted to a person, let them know by moving towards them and perhaps asking to touch their shoulder or forearm as you’re telling a story. If you find you’re less interested in them, move back in your seat, do not touch them, and cross your arms to show less openness in your body language. 
  3. If you feel someone is showing you more attention than you’re comfortable with, break eye gaze more frequently, take more distance from them, and maybe end the date a little earlier. 
  4. When someone touches you and you’re uncomfortable, you can either move further away or verbally let them know you’re sensitive to touch and would prefer not to be touched at this time. If you are interested in the person, you can let them know that you take a while to warm up to someone and that you are interested in them.  
  5. If you are feeling unsafe or pressured by a date partner, you can end the date by either saying you have been feeling under the weather and need to get home earlier than you expected or that you have an early start at work the next day.