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On Good Flirting and Bad Flirting

Recently on an evening commuter bus from New York I had an experience that lifted my spirits. It had to do, of all things, with flirting. .14837872284_bd19864464_q_Flirting-men-and-women

The middle-aged man sitting next to me adjusted his seat backwards so he could get some sleep. As he did so, the attractive young woman behind him exclaimed, “What are you trying to do, lie in my lap?” Her voice was rather gay with an edge of whimsy, as if she had just come from a party and was still in a cheerful mood. The woman next to her laughed.

The man turned all the way around in his seat and looked at her. “Now that’s a thought.” The two women broke out in giggles and the passengers around them joined in the laugh. I also laughed. At the same time, I thought about how often such a situation could turn ugly, with passengers even getting into fights about it. Indeed, some months back a male passenger began strangling a woman in front of him when she lowered her seat and the pilot eventually had to divert the flight and have the man arrested.

Now I and the others involved had a good laugh and I ended up feeling good, even inspired. I had gotten on the bus in a funk and ended up feeling appreciative of the woman who had used a gentle double entendre to express her dismay rather than making an angry threat. The man responded humorously to the mild flirtation and readjusted his seat forward. Everyone around them shared their cheerful attitude and was in a good mood the rest of the trip.

I got to thinking that this kind of humorous flirtation has been missing from our society for a long time. When I was a young man working in New York offices in the late 1960s, flirting was a mainstay. It made the social atmosphere more lively and more real and it led to a sort of camaraderie between male and female employees. Sexual tension is always there between men and women and you can deal with it in pleasant or unpleasant ways.

Nowadays people seldom flirt. Flirting has taken on negative connotations. If a man flirts with a woman, he is often seen as being a sexist, as viewing women as sex objects, as not taking women seriously. An emphasis on sexual harassment in offices and schools has also made flirting to be viewed in a threatening light. Hence flirtation has almost disappeared while cases of sexual harassment have multiplied.

There are two kinds of flirting, depending on the goal. Good flirting relieves tension. In the case above, the participants used flirtation to make light of a situation, to acknowledge the sexual tension that is always present, and to resolve a conflict. In this kind of flirting, men and women consider each other as friends. When a person flirts in a constructive way, it is clear from their tone and manner that they are joking and have no further aims. The result is that all parties to the flirtation feel good about it. They feel good because a certain aspect of truth–the sexual underpinnings of all relations between males and females–comes to the surface. Bringing it to the surface and joking about it in a good-natured way relieves that tension and leads to bonding between men and women.

Bad flirting is a different matter. Destructive flirting does not have the goal of resolving tension and bringing closeness. Destructive flirting happens when men and women consider each other rivals, or even enemies. Hence a woman flirts with a man in a teasing and insincere way, hoping to ensnare him. If he takes the bait and flirts back, the woman plays the “got you” game. He is seen by her as a sexist who gets what he deserves. In some cases this can lead to sexual harassment cases.

Men flirt in a destructive manner by viewing women as prey. Such men see women simply as sexual objects to seek and conquer. They lavish the woman with compliments only to get her into bed. As soon as that happens, the man disappears. His flirting is not at all concerned with relieving tension or bringing closeness, but with acting out anger at women by seducing them and abandoning them.

In order for constructive flirting to happen, men and women need to have equal respect for one another. It is as if they are saying, “We’re all in this together so we might as well make it as pleasant as possible and have a little fun.” Constructive flirting has several psychological effects. It uses the biological urge as conversational play; it creates a positive feeling between men and women rather than enmity; and it fosters trust insofar as the participants learn that they can engage in flirting while respecting each other’s boundaries.

For example, a man might be attracted to a woman at work who is happily married, and remark, “Mary, you’re looking good today.” The woman might roll back her eyes and walk away, seeing the remark as sexist and leaving the man feeling hurt. Or she might respond in a positive way.

“Maybe we should get rid of my husband and run away together to Madagascar.”

“I’ll bring the champagne.”

“And I’ll book the yacht.”

The interchange helps dispel the sexual tension while preserving the boundaries; they both know she will never get rid of her husband and they will never run away to Madagascar. But it is fun to play act as long as each understands that it is a joke that will never be acted upon. Tone of voice and body language confirm that understanding.

To practice the art of constructive flirting you must distinguish between flirting as good fun, flirting as seduction, and flirting to act out anger. And you must be able to distinguish between those who are capable of constructive flirting and those who aren’t

On Good Flirting and Bad Flirting

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2015). On Good Flirting and Bad Flirting. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 25, 2020, from


Last updated: 13 Nov 2015
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