Why we get flirting wrong – and how to get it right

“Was he just flirting with me?  Did he notice me flirting with him?  Did I play my cards right?!” – if you’re finding it hard to read the signs, don’t worry, you’re not alone.  A recent study show that, despite millions of years of evolution and 6 seasons of Sex And The City (and 2 movies to boot!), our flirting skills are still hopelessly off kilter: only 28% of us even realise when someone is flirting with us*!

But while for the other 72% it may seem there’s no rhyme or reason to the flirting game, one woman has discovered there’s an actual science behind it – and she’s on a mission to show us the ropes.  Her name is Jean Smith, though we like to call her The Fairy Godmother of Flirting.  A social and cultural anthropologist, she is the author of ‘Flirtology – Stop Swiping, Start Talking & Find Love’, and has even done a TEDx Talk.

“No one is born a bad or a good flirt – it’s a skill that can be learnt”, she says.  Wait – we don’t need to stumble from one flirting disaster to another, Prosecco in hand, hoping one day we’ll get it right?  “OK”, we said, “Teach us”.


Off we went to our private lesson.  What we learnt blew our minds (why are these things not taught in school?), and while we can’t cram everything Jean shared with us into one blog post, here are our 5 key takeaways:


1. Know your HOTAPE

No, not the name of some mystical Hawaiian flirting chant, but an acronym for the 6 signs of flirting Jean has identified through her research with 250 people.  Pronounced ‘Hot Ape’, these are the key things to look out for to check if someone’s flirting with you, and the tools to use to up your own flirting game:


    • HUMOUR – not only a great ice breaker, but also one of the secrets to long lasting relationships.  Add a little joke here and there to see if you and the object of your affection share a similar sense of humour.  After all, “laughter is the shortest distance between two people”, as I once saw printed on a postcard (still on of my faves).


    • OPEN BODY LANGUAGE – crossing your arms may feel comfortable if you’re a little self conscious (or so-called ‘cold’) but it doesn’t exactly say “Come hither!”.  Lean or turn towards them, don’t hide your face with your hand, and check your shoulders – are they facing the person? Yes? Good 😉 And what’s their body language like?


    • TOUCH – like laughter this triggers a positive physiological response, but there’s no need to go straight in for the kill – just a little touch or tap will do.  The shoulder is always a safe place, but if you feel more adventurous go down the arm or even the hand (the level of intimacy goes up as you go down). Touch is something we generally seem to be most weary off, but try touching their hand when saying something like “You’re really funny” or lightly touch them between their shoulder blades just below the neck when you brush past them.  It’s these little touches that can say a lot, and quickly!


    • ATTENTION – it might seem obvious, but once you’re ‘in the moment’ it can be hard to notice what’s actually happening.  E.g. when you touched them, did they blush? Did they look at you and hold your gaze? Did they snort uncomfortably – or was that you?  You don’t have to over-analyse everything, but don’t get too lost either.


    • PROXIMITY – if they were at the other side of the room and suddenly they’re at your side then you know they like what they see and want to explore a bit more.  Are they standing closer than normal? Are you? Does that feel comfortable or are they pulling back? That’ll tell you if they appreciate it or if you’re invading their space.


    • EYE CONTACT – the number one sign that it’s not just friendly but flirty.  Are they holding your gaze or nervously looking away? Looking down at their phone while you’re talking (urgh!).  Were you? Slap wrist – Instagram can wait!


2. A good flirt is not out to be liked – they’re out to make others feels good

We thought this was a bit of an eye-opener, because surely we all want to be liked at the end of the day?  “Yes, that’s always nice”, says Jean, “But a good flirt doesn’t go around with that feeling of “Please like me”, they are more about “Mmm, how can I make the other person feel good?”  I’ve seen this in my research – clients that flirt to get confirmation that they’re attractive or liked usually have a hard time with rejection, whereas clients who see flirting as a way to let the other person know how amazing or cool they think they are tend to have much more fun”.  So rather than going on a self-validation trip, turn it around – make them feel good.  That air of desperation has never been sexy!


3. Pressure is the enemy of flirting

“Flirting is just a fun way to spend time, but it can only be fun and light if we keep it simple and have no expectations”, says Jean.  “Even if you see someone attractive across a room and think “I’m going to flirt with them” then that will put pressure on you. Instead, see them as a human being first, and just ask them a question.  If you go in with the intention of simply starting a conversation, which is low pressure, it’s much easier. Then see if any flirting happens from there”.


4. What happens outside the flirting arena is just as important

“So much of what happens in the flirting arena is about how we feel about ourselves generally.  It’s like we walk around with holes and want other people to fill those for us, like “Hey, can you make me feel pretty?” or “Can you make me feel interesting?”.  We need to make sure we look after ourselves, that we regularly do things that make us feel good so we fill ourselves up. Then when we get to into the flirting arena we’re not simply handing our self-worth over to a total stranger to make us feel good.  It’s not like you can’t flirt unless you’re a 100% OK with yourself, but it changes the emphasis”.


5. You already know what to do

Apparently it’s not so much that flirting doesn’t come naturally to some of us, but more that we seem quite adept at sabotaging ourselves.  “It’s all the borders and the boundaries we create that stop us”, says Jean, “It comes from not wanting to feel awkward, trying to avoid embarrassing situations or feeling rejected.  So we end up holding our cards too close to our chest and not show interest. But imagine you’re talking with someone you find attractive, and they lean over and touch your arm and say “I’m really enjoying this”, you won’t be thinking “Oh, cringe!”.


On our way back to the office we kept talking about how so much of what could happen in the flirting game comes down to what we bring to it ourselves – not only in terms of our confidence and general sense of self, but also what we intent to give the other person.  If we simply go round looking for strangers to plug the holes in our self esteem, we’re on that slippery slope of self-validation and it all becomes very ‘me me me’.  If we come in to it feeling good about ourselves and making someone else feel good too, flirting can be a fun way to spend time and get to know people, and a practical tool to help us find those we match with and those we don’t.

As with any other practical tool, the more you practice the better you get.  Try out some HOTAPE next time you see a handsome stranger across a crowded room (or at a bus stop in Elephant & Castle if that’s where fate decides to work its magic).  Get your friends in on it and compare notes. We’ve put together a mini play list to set the mood.


Fearless Flirting Playlist

      • ‘How will I know?’ – Whitney Houston
      • ‘All for you’ – Janet Jackson
      • ‘I can make you feel good’ – Shalamar
      • ‘Crush’ – Jennifer Paige
      • ‘Man, I feel like a woman!’ – Shania Twain
      • ‘Feeling Good’ – Nina Simone



Fearless Flirting Tour of London

Want some more hands-on flirting advice from Jean?  Combine it with a girly get-together on one of Jean’s ‘Fearless Flirting Tours of London’.  We’ll be announcing a special for The Blow Dry Club members soon – watch this space.

Find out more about flirting on Jean’s website.


We’d love to know about your own ideas and experiences! Share your flirting tips and disasters with us below.


*Based on Jean’s 2006 study into flirting behaviour spanning London, New York, Paris and Stockholm.

Categories London Life Love Sex & All That Jazz Recent posts Make Your Blow Dry Last Longer This Festive SeasonBy Louise Top 10 ‘ME -AND -MY- GIRLS’ Experiences in LondonBy The Blow Dry Club Why we get flirting wrong – and how to get it rightBy The Blow Dry Club
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