Why do we Flirt by Text?

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Do males and females have different reasons for flirting by text?  Certainly, in face-to-face situations, males generally report flirting more for sexual reasons, whereas females report flirting more for fun.  Furthermore, in mixed sex interactions, males tend to perceive female behaviour as more sexual and flirtatious than females perceive their behaviour to be (Abbey, 1982), which is often the cause of confusion.

In the age of Smartphones, the ambiguity involved in mixed-sex messaging interactions might have become just a little more confusing partly because of the lack on nonverbal cues.  Additionally, our primary motivations for sending text messages are often to engage in small talk (“Did you see what that guy was wearing?”’; “I’m really hungover today”).  This type of interaction is mere chat rather than an actual exchange of information, for example making arrangements to meet for an event (Thurlow and Brown, 2003), and it demonstrates how electronic chat can be very different to face-to-face chat and lead to added confusion in text-based flirting. 

The reasons for flirting

In order to understand the potential confusion in text-based messaging Narissra Punyanunt-Carter and Thomas Wagner, sought to investigate the specific reasons people flirt via text or face-to-face, and set out to investigate three principal questions, which were:

  • Are the reasons for flirting face-to-face and flirting while texting positively related?
  • Are there differences between males and females regarding flirting motives through texting?
  • Do communication motives for flirting differ as a function of relationship status?

The researchers recruited 400 college students, roughly half of whom were involved in a romantic relationship and asked them about their reasons for flirting.  All participants in this study completed the ‘Interpersonal Communication Motives Scale’ (Graham, Barbato, & Perse, 1993), which seeks to measure six broad reasons people communicate.

  • Pleasure: Communication because it is exciting, fun and to have a good time.
  • Relaxation: Communication for the purpose of relaxing and resting. 
  • Control: To get others to comply, or to get something from somebody.
  • Escape: To avoid other tasks and activities.  Preferring talking to working.
  • Inclusion: To connect to other people and feel less lonely.
  • Affection: To help or thank others.

Two versions of the Interpersonal Communication Motives Scale were created.  The first measured face-to-face flirting, with items such as:

‘I flirt face-to-face …’

  • Because it’s fun
  • To let someone know I care

and the second version of the scale to measure flirting while texting

‘I flirt via texting ….’

  • Because it relaxes me
  • To get someone to do something for me

Each item is scored on a scale ranging from not at all like me to exactly like me.

Mode of Communication

In terms of mode of communication, the researchers found that those who flirt face-to-face primarily do so for the motive of pleasure, relaxation, control and escape, with pleasure, relaxation and control being the primary motives for text based flirting.  The strongest motivation for flirting face-to-face or via text was pleasure.

Gender Differences

In terms of gender differences, they found that males were more likely than females to flirt face-to-face for escape.  Additionally, males were more likely to flirt via text for control and relaxation.  On the other hand females reported being more likely to flirt both face-to-face and via texting simply for pleasure

In face-to-face contexts males reported being more likely to flirt for escape, but via text they reported that relaxation was the primary motive to flirt. 

There are differences in communication styles between males and females.  Females are generally superior to males at conveying and understanding information nonverbally.  This may be a possible reason why males might prefer communicating via text.  There are also general differences between males and females in what they talk about.  Male disclosure more factual information, whereas females disclose information that is more emotional.  These differences in communication styles are also evident through computer-mediated communication (Savicki & Kelley, 2000).  This may partly account for gender differences in flirting behaviour

Relationship Status

Finally, the researchers examined differences in the reasons given for flirting between those who were currently in a romantic relationship and those who were not.  Those currently in relationships reported that their primary motive for flirting in face-to-face situations was control compared to those not in a romantic relationship.  Those who were currently in romantic relationships were also more likely to report flirting for pleasure via text and face-to-face compared to those not currently in a romantic relationship.  However, it is unsure whether flirting in this context was with their current partner or with someone outside of their relationship.

Possible advantages of flirting by text

Despite the fact that the receiver of a flirtatious message might have to second-guess the intention of the sender, it is possible that text-based flirting will have several advantages over flirting face-to-face.  Firstly, the sender has time to construct their message allowing them time to carefully consider what they wish to say.  Secondly, if the reason for flirting is to convey romantic interest in another person, then there is less potential risk to the sender’s self-esteem as a result of rejection, if the message is conveyed by text, especially if the sender is geographically distant.   

The researchers suggest that overall, the way in which people flirt face-to-face or via text, may give much insight into how people ultimately conduct their romantic relationships.  This is especially true given that more and more communication is now carried out online.

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