So you’ve met this new cutie.
Maybe they’re a friend of a friend who you followed on a whim. Maybe they’re a classmate you don’t have much in-person interaction with. Maybe they’re a random mutual. But as you watch their stories for their good taste in TikToks and scroll through 2 years of selfies, you start to think — passively — that they’re kind of cute.
It’s not a full-blown crush by any means, but especially right now in quarantine, you’re open to some innocent flirtation. Hey, we all need a pastime — and validation helps.
Your double-taps on their thirst traps turn into heart-eye emoji comments, which turn into DM slides that turn into coy innuendo. And you’re feeling good about the fun of it all — you look forward to their messages, but aren’t pressed if they leave you on read. Then suddenly things take a more serious turn: They message you their phone number and ask if you’re open to a date. They want to take this next level.
Now you feel stuck: How do you reject them when it’s totally valid that they think you two have a thing going? Wait — did you actually lead them on?
It happens to all of us (okay, or maybe it just happens to me). Your innocent flirting lands you in a guilty-as-charged romantic misunderstanding. And now someone else’s feelings are on the line.
Did you actually do something wrong here? And if so, what can you do differently next time?
Depending on cultural context, flirting involves intentional, if subconscious, changes in written or verbal communication or body language to create tension and deepen intimacy between people.
How you communicate with words can be flirtatious; changing your tone of voice to be more playful or sensual can be flirtatious, as is gently teasing someone to make them laugh or showering them with sincere compliments. Altered body language is often seen as a widely read sign of flirting, too: standing closer to someone than is the social norm, holding longer eye contact, or briefly brushing their arm.
We may not do this on purpose. But we recognize flirting when it happens — because it’s a marked shift in communication. And just like any kind of communication, we do it to impart some kind of information or to elicit some kind of result. This also can make flirtation a type of manipulation.
Don’t let the common negative connotation of the word freak you out. We are all manipulating people, environments, and situations all the time. Hell, you manipulate dough when you’re baking bread. To manipulate is simply to influence an outcome.
In fact, flirtation falls into the sexualization category of the Circles of Sexuality, a model originally published by Dr. Dennis Dailey in 1981, which explores the complexity and connectedness of sexual experience. It can feel a little out of place alongside violence like sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexual abuse — but there’s a reason why these are placed together: They all involve sexuality to influence, control, and/or manipulate the way other people feel or react.
The idea is: If the behavior has a goal in mind, it’s manipulation. And the goal of flirting is “either to suggest interest in a deeper relationship with the other person, or if done playfully, for amusement.”
The problem comes in when flirtatious interaction between two people is read differently by each person: One of you thinks it’s just for fun, while the other interprets it as genuine interest.
No one is wrong when there’s a miscommunication. But there is a line between innocent flirting and leading people on. And if you find yourself in the “oops” spot of clarifying your intentions repeatedly, you’re crossing it. Just because you’re being carefree doesn’t mean you’re not also being careless! And this fine line is worth exploring because of how it hurts other people — even if you totally don’t mean to!
So here are three questions to use to check in with yourself when flirting to help ground you in what you actually desire and how to communicate that to someone else.
I get it. Flirting is supposed to be a little coy — suave, if you will. Sliding into someone’s DMs with “Hello, I would like to have sex with you!” probably won’t land as sexy or cool; it’s awkward at best, at worst creepy. But there comes a point at which naming what you want (or don’t) is necessary.
Before that, though, ask yourself. What are you feeling for this person? What are you hoping to get out of your interactions? How do you see this developing, if at all? What is your end goal? Sitting with these questions a few points along the way can be really helpful.
Maybe your desire is simply some good banter and flattering attention from a babe. And that’s valid! It’s perfectly okay if, after a few days or a couple of weeks, you send off a quick note to solidify that: “I just want to check in about our communication. I love the flirting, but I want to be clear that I’d like it to stay there, if that works for you.”
If and when your feelings on that change — maybe you’re no longer interested in the flirtation, or maybe you want to gauge their interest in a next-level thing — you can communicate that, too. Just remember that ghosting never feels good for anyone.
I wish I could pinpoint for you the exact moment when innocent flirting turns into the potential for developing into something more, but it’s too complicated of an equation. Instead, it’s helpful to keep tabs on when it feels like you’re reaching the city limits of Flirtation Town.
Try to take note of when something about the communication changes. Maybe you’d previously been exchanging compliments, and now they’re making suggestions about what you two might do together in the future. Maybe the frequency of communication moves from casual to consistent — where the flirty texts were once one-offs, there now seems to be an expectation for attention. Maybe the conversation has turned from purely sexy fun to something more serious, like from fire emojis on your selfies to “How many siblings do you have?”
When you feel a deeper, personal shift, take a pause. Revisit your intentions. Can you steer the conversation back to where you’re comfortably, implicitly communicating what your needs are? Or is there something you should communicate to this person explicitly to help them understand your boundaries for the interaction?
Stay on top of changes — even the ones that feel tiny — so that you can course correct when necessary.
Getting attention from someone we have a crush on (yes, even a little one) is very pleasurable for our brains: Dopamine is released when we receive a reward that we seek, and the happiness that we feel when we receive a compliment or responsiveness from someone we think is cute counts! We can become dependent on that feeling. And that can leave us using other people for the dopamine hit, regardless of how that affects them.
Which, by the way, is not cool. It’s great to have our own best interests at heart. But it’s not great not to consider how that impacts another person.
When someone is led on (even if just by accident) to thinking that you’re pursuing a deep connection, your interactions might hold greater meaning for them than it does for you. The moment you recognize that they’re not on the same page and don’t want to be, it’s time to cut your losses and to try to find someone with intentions that match yours!
There’s nothing inherently wrong about accidentally leading people on (it happens!), but keeping people in a state of (what feels like) limbo when you already know that the relationship isn’t going to progress is unfair, and possibly cruel.
I know it can feel silly to sit back and think this through when it seems so obvious to you what’s really going on in these interactions. But as the saying goes: two people can experience the same event in very different ways! And because flirting can be amorphous (is it for connection or amusement?), it makes sense that a lot of miscommunication can occur.
Flirting is a magical experience in and of itself. It doesn’t have to lead anywhere to be worthwhile. And it’s totally valid to want to flirt without any further results. But with that magic comes responsibility: Because of the social scripts of how flirting can lead to seduction, which can lead to a relationship, flirting can cast a spell we don’t mean for it to.
And we all know, as the stories go, that unintentional spells can become more of a curse than a charm. So to avoid all of that, be clear with yourself and with others about what’s going on.
Melissa Fabello, PhD, is a social justice activist whose work focuses on body politics, beauty culture, and eating disorders. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.