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The key to flirting? It's not about you

Gracia Lam for NPR

Updated July 7, 2023 at 2:22 PM ET

Flirting can be fun, but it can also be scary. What if you get rejected?

"Nobody wants to be rejected, and people will do anything they think will stop them from being rejected," says Jean Smith, author of the book Flirtology: Stop Swiping, Start Talking and Find Love. Smith adds that this fear ultimately results in people doing nothing at all.

A lot of behaviors are rooted in this fear of rejection. When it comes to dating and flirting, people tend to compare themselves to others to see if they're good enough or worthy enough or attractive enough, says Smith. Some of these larger issues of self-acceptance and worth are better dealt with in your own time. (Here are a couple of differentLife Kitepisodes that might help).

But if you're looking for a few concrete tips to help you get better at flirting, look no further. Nothing corny or weirdly creepy — OK, one slightly corny thing.

Remember that flirting isn't about you.

One way to ease the fear of rejection is to view flirting as being more about the other person than about you. "You get a much better result if, instead of trying to get others to make us feel good, we actually concentrate on making them feel good," says Smith. This takes care of lingering self-doubt that usually presents itself as questions such as "What if they don't like me?" or "What if I'm not charming or funny enough?"

Part of doing that is to avoid putting your own expectations on the other person.


Jayda Shuavarnnasri is a sexuality and relationship educator who's seen a lot of flirting driven by a focus on the endgame — trying to get someone's number (more on this later) or buying someone a drink. This goal-oriented way of viewing flirting isn't that helpful.

"We're so used to flirting as a means to an end," she says.

Shuavarnnasri refers to the "relationship escalator" — the idea that you date someone, enter into a monogamous relationship, get married, have kids, live happily ever after, etc. But if you remove that goal, you'll hopefully instead just be looking to create a mutually pleasant experience.

Instead of any preconceived goals, aim for a few minutes of pleasant conversation. That's much more manageable and can help ease the pressure of any possible rejection.

Be open with your own body language. If all else fails, smile.

Smith often tells people to approach others not based on how attractive you find them, but instead on their body language. Is it friendly? Is it open? These will be the people that it'll be the most fun to talk to, regardless of whether you end up clicking.

It follows that you should take that advice if you're hoping to attract people: Keep your shoulders back, don't cross your arms. This is especially important if you're more introverted and don't expect to be making an approach anytime soon.

The most important aspect of body language is your smile, says Michael Rivera, a dating coach at The Date Maven, a dating and matchmaking consultancy. "A happy, genuine smile has a way of lowering walls," he says. "And if you can get the person you're trying to connect with to lower their walls a little, you're already halfway there."

But a happy, genuine smile can be hard to find. It can even take some practice, which is exactly what Rivera recommends to his clients. Stand in front of a mirror (preferably full body), and try smiling in different ways. This is the one corny thing I alluded to earlier, which is the usual reaction Rivera gets. But he says that after a half-dozen times, you get used to it and get more comfortable and confident with it, and "that's how you're going to start to show up."

Open with a question.

Don't overthink this one. Simple questions like "have you been here before?" or "how do you know so and so?" will do just fine. These are just small ways to get people to open up. You can also try gearing your questions toward their likes — "What do you recommend?" "Are there any good places to eat around here?" Let people share their likes and interests, and from there, all you have to do is listen.

Test and assess.

As you talk with people, take the time to check in on how they're reacting to you. Are they offering short, one-word answers? Have they stepped back? Are they looking away? Then it might be time to leave. That isn't really a bad thing — particularly if you remember that flirting isn't about hitting any preconceived personal goal, other than helping someone else have a good time. Sometimes that means bouncing out of the conversation.

"There's a level of confidence to that," says Rivera. Going back to that fear of rejection for a bit, if all you're hoping to do is make someone else feel special for a bit, "you really realize you actually can't lose."

Say goodbye (either for good or just for now).

If you're getting the sense that it's time to go, there are a few ways to go about it. If you're with someone, a simple "Hey, it's been great chatting, but I should get back to my friends" ought to do. If you're by yourself, just go about doing whatever it is you went there to do — order your coffee or whatever. This is a relatively frictionless way to make an exit, says Rivera.

Now, if you're not sure about how the conversation is going, give them an out. "Hey if you gotta go, it's OK" or "Let me know if you wanna get back to your friends," work just fine, says Shuavarnnasri.

If there is something there, Smith recommends ending the conversation and coming back later. "Repeat points of contact are really powerful," she says. So you could be chatting with someone for five minutes and assess (remember!) that things are going well. After ending it and giving it some time, you can approach them again and talk about stuff you'd mentioned in that first chat. Do that a couple of more times, and if vibes are vibing, then it's time for us to talk about the number.

Don't ask for their number.

People have different feelings about handing out their phone number. To Shuavarnnasri, it goes back to the culture of getting something out of an interaction. "If you're a stranger I've never met, I don't feel the need to give you anything, including my personal information."

If you're a stranger I've never met, I don't feel the need to give you anything, including my personal information.

So try giving your number to someone. It's a small way of upending the usual power dynamics that come with flirting, and it eases some of the tension that might come with asking for someone's number. Let people decide for themselves if they want to hit you up. Because it's really about them.

The audio portion of this episode was produced by Andee Tagle.

We'd love to hear from you. If you have a good life hack, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org. Your tip could appear in an upcoming episode.

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Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.
Andee Tagle
Andee Tagle (she/her) is an associate producer and now-and-then host for NPR's Life Kit podcast.
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