5 ways to indicate interest without being aggressive.

Have you ever been interested in someone but unsure how to interact? Making an introduction, starting a conversation, and gauging mutual interest can all seem like navigating murky waters. One helpful tool is an art that our culture has seemed to forget: flirtation.

At first, flirting seems to be the only thing pop culture instructs us to do on the romantic scene. But “flirting” today often means just innuendo, focused on short-term, selfish pleasure. That’s actually flirting-gone-wrong, as Jane Austen shows in Pride and Prejudice. Lydia Bennet is notorious not just for flirting but for being “the most determined flirt that ever made herself and her family ridiculous.” She goes out of her way to talk with as many handsome soldiers as possible and is always teasing and forgetting them.

As those who have read Austen’s classic know, Lydia’s flirtation does not land her in a stable and happy marriage. But that doesn’t mean women shouldn’t flirt at all. Lydia’s sister Jane is so quiet and unassuming that she conceals her feelings for Mr. Bingley—so much so that when Mr. Darcy observes her, he is convinced she is not interested. 

Most girls want the guy to “make the first move,” but unless he receives encouragement from her behavior, a kind of “green light” to launch an encounter, he might not take action.

There is a mean between the extremes of Lydia and Jane—a way to communicate romantic interest gently yet clearly. That kind of interaction—let’s call it intentional flirtation—is not just about attention but about getting to know someone.

So how does intentional flirtation work? The details will vary from person to person, but here are five ideas that, based on my own experience and success (I’m very happily married!) tend to work. I’m primarily taking the female perspective, but the men might find these suggestions helpful too, either to practice themselves or to better understand a lady’s cues.

One – Find your crowd. Intentional flirtation is like a dance. Subtle cues—not abrupt statements—between the partners indicate where to step and how to respond to each other’s movements. It’s a kind of communication that relies more on gestures than on words.

But in a culture that idolizes brazen exposure of every feeling (licit or illicit), subtlety is hard to come by. That means that intentional flirtation doesn’t work anywhere there’s a crowd. Although it might seem like the natural place to flirt is a packed party or dimly lit nightclub, those settings actually hinder intentional flirtation the most, since they emphasize sensual experience more than coherent conversation.

To find people who are interested in dating as courtship (that is, looking for someone to potentially marry), socialize at events that reflect your values and encourage conversation. Go to a conference on a topic you care about and stay for the reception. Join a club whose cause you support and meet new people there. By placing yourself in settings that affirm who you are, you are more likely to encounter potential dates who share your fundamentals and will be open to intentional flirtation and dating.

Two – Smile. Meeting someone you find attractive (for the first time or the tenth time) can be both exciting and intimidating. It might feel like any outward sign of interest will come off as too forward. But as dreamy as it sounds, standing in a corner longing for your eyes to meet is hardly the most effective way to begin a romance. After all, any personal relationship must start with conversation.

If you feel too shy to say hello, tap a friend to pull the two of you together. Either way, let your face show the excitement you’re feeling. A genuine smile is a simple yet powerful way of saying, “I’m glad to see you! I look forward to spending time with you.” A smile is an invitation to begin a conversation. So when you’d really like to talk with someone, don’t be afraid to flash a big one their way.

Three – Ask questions. Now that you’ve got your potential date’s attention, what do you say? What holds true for most conversations holds true here: let the other lead. Asking someone questions about him or herself is not only polite but also shows interest—and if you actually are interested, this is easy and fun! Think about what you know of the person and build from there. “What got you interested in playing the trumpet?” “You must like reading a lot if you’re studying English. Do you have a favorite book?” “I hear your thesis is about business ethics. Tell me all about it!”

Once you launch your question, just sit back and listen. More often than not, people find attentive questions flattering and, if they’re also interested, will respond in kind. This approach can also help indicate whether you’re interested in continuing to get to know the person. Does the conversation feel more like a chore than you had anticipated? Or are you eager to continue asking questions? Are you getting thoughtful questions in return, or maybe even a compliment? If so, it could be a sign of mutual interest.

Four – Repeat until a response comes. Ladies, I hate to say it, but I have to tell you (and my husband backs me up on this) that when it comes to hinting interest, boys can be very, very dumb. Case in point: It was only after several interactions at club meetings, an entire evening discussing my thesis, and a party where I made a point to talk to him and give him a good-bye hug, that he finally realized I wasn’t just being nice. Each interaction was great, but it took some time to shift from friends to dating.

My point is that because intentional flirtation is subtle, it often requires patience. If the person you like doesn’t seem to respond after one interaction, try again until he or she either reciprocates or makes clear that the feeling isn’t mutual.

Five – Have fun! Intentional flirtation is more polite and personal than Lydia Bennet’s attention-hungry flirting, but that doesn’t mean it should be a solemn spouse hunt. As with every stage of dating and courtship, flirtation should be fun and natural. If you find yourself anxiously trying to memorize questions and strategize your next move, odds are you’re missing out on the real aim of flirtation, which is to meet someone whose company you enjoy and find out whether a relationship could grow there.

So if nothing else sticks, just relax, put your best self forward, and have a good time interacting with friends old and new. Who knows? One of them might become the love of your life—but you won’t know until you say hello!

Sophia Martinson (’18) is a former writer and editor-in-chief of The Irish Rover. She is a wife and mom with a passion for reading, writing, and home arts. She is a freelance culture writer for various publications, and her blog, Homemaker Hopeful, explores the skills of taking care of home and family.

Image Credit: Matthew Rice