Humans are unique among sexually reproducing animals in the subtlety of their flirting behavior.
Covert sexual signaling: Human flirtation and implications for other social species.
According to signaling theory and a large body of supporting evidence, males across many taxa produce courtship signals that honestly advertise their quality. The cost of producing or performing these signals maintains signal honesty, such that females are typically able to choose the best males by selecting those that produce the loudest, brightest, longest, or otherwise highest-intensity signals, using signal strength as a measure of quality. Set against this background, human flirting behavior, characterized by its frequent subtlety or covertness, is mysterious. Here we propose that the explanation for subtle and ambiguous signals in human courtship lies in socially imposed costs that (a) vary with social context and (b) are amplified by the unusual ways in which language makes all interactions potentially public. Flirting is a class of courtship signaling that conveys the signaler’s intentions and desirability to the intended receiver while minimizing the costs that would accompany an overt courtship attempt. This proposal explains humans’ taxonomically unusual courtship displays and generates a number of novel predictions for both humans and non-human social animals. Individuals who are courting should vary the intensity of their signals to suit the level of risk attached to the particular social configuration, and receivers may assess this flexible matching of signal to context as an indicator of the signaler’s broader behavioral flexibility and social intelligence.
There’s a reason the apocalypse opener is so rarely encountered.
The entire study is worth reading at the attached PDF link. Essentially, humans, often men (since men are usually the courtship initiators), coyly flirt to preserve their social capital (public shame/rejection) or to protect themselves from interference by aggrieved third parties (cockblockers/AMOGs).
Whereas the standard model of sexually selected courtship signaling suggests that maximum intensity is always favored, we propose flexibility as an alternative route to reproductive success. Signalers who skillfully assess and adjust to social context (i.e., good flirts) display their quality not through high-intensity displays that index physical prowess and condition, but through sensitive signal-to-context matching that indicates behavioral flexibility and social intelligence.
Game is applied charisma, and applied charisma is best thought of as revealed social aptitude. Good flirts can read signals in a timely and precise manner, and respond to those signals with interest level gauged to the social context within which the signals occur.
Muscles, looks, and money aren’t the key variables driving, or even instigating, female attraction in most complex modern social contexts. Social savviness — the ability to flirt confidently and skillfully, aka game — is the fitness trait that really matters. Even a top 1% looking man will flounder if he lacks the social prowess of a less good-looking but more socially keen competitor.
The more social costs that can be imposed, the more covert your flirting needs to be to reduce the risk of social annihilation. Office romances have a Coyness Rating (CR) of 90%. One-on-one weeknight approaches in empty bars have a CR of 20% (you can go pretty direct there). Daygame pickups on the sidewalk have a CR, give or take depending on number of onlookers and proximity to relevant observors, around 40%. Picking up a second cousin at a family funeral has a CR of 100%.
The lower the social risk of courtship, the better direct game will work. Anonymous, thumping urban nightclubs are playgrounds of direct game. SWPL bars where a girl is surrounded by all her friends, beta orbiter and female? You had better insinuate yourself indirectly.
The key quality of Gricean implicature—for the flirt—is that it allows speakers to claim two distinct meanings at once: the surface meaning as well as the implied one. For example, the question, “Do you want to grab coffee sometime?” can be both an innocent invitation to drink coffee and a sexual overture.
Chicks dig ambiguous men. Ambiguity is a challenge to a girl’s self-conception (does he really want me?) and an affirmation of the social risk she may incur by following through on the man’s courtship attempt. A man with a highly intelligent grasp of social dynamics is likely a man who does well with women, and we all know how much women love preselected men.
A couple of final points. One, ff the “receiver” — the woman you are approaching — is much higher SMV than what you could be expected to get, your instinct will guide you to very coy (plausibly deniable) flirty game, to lower your social risk of rejection. But that’s exactly why you should try to go in with more intention; you increase the perception of your own relative SMV by flirting more intently as if you were a higher value man. Perception is king in the field. If you act like a winner, women will treat you like a winner. Maybe not right away, but in time, as long as your frame is solid.
Two, you should be adept at varying the intensity of your flirting. Tight game means attention to context. Finger her in the public restroom? Sure. Avoid PDA when friends are watching? Yes. Sexual intention must be communicated at some point between “hi” and “slip it in”, but the timing of that revealed intention, and the strength of the revelation, will vary according to circumstance, and a good player knows this.