Flirting is a form of human interaction between two people, expressing a romantic and/or sexual interest. It can consist of conversation, body language, or brief physical contact. It may be one-sided or reciprocated.
The origin of the word flirt is obscure. The Oxford English Dictionary (first edition) associates it with such onomatopoeic words as flit and flick, emphasizing a lack of seriousness; on the other hand, it has been attributed to the old French conter fleurette, which means "to (try to) seduce" by the dropping of flower leaves, that is, "to speak sweet nothings". This expression is no longer used in French, but the English gallicism to flirt has made its way and has now become an anglicism.
Flirting is often used as a means of expressing interest and gauging the other person's interest in courtship, which can continue into long-term relationships. Alternatively, it may simply be a prelude to casual sex with no continuing relationship.
In other situations, it may be done simply for immediate entertainment, with no intention of developing any further relationship. This type of flirting sometimes faces disapproval from others, either because it can be misinterpreted as more serious, or it may be viewed as "cheating" if the person is already in a romantic relationship with someone else.
People who flirt may speak and act in a way that suggests greater intimacy than is generally considered appropriate to the relationship (or to the amount of time the two people have known each other), without actually saying or doing anything that breaches any serious social norms. One way they accomplish this is to communicate a sense of playfulness or irony. Double entendres, with one meaning more formally appropriate and another more suggestive, may be used.
While some of the subconscious signs are universal across cultures, flirting etiquette varies significantly across cultures which can lead to misunderstandings. There are differences in how closely people should stand (proxemics), how long to hold eye contact, and so forth.
During World War II, anthropologist Margaret Mead was working in Britain for the British Ministry of Information and later for the U.S. Office of War Information, delivering speeches and writing articles to help the American soldiers better understand the British civilians, and vice versa.
She observed in the flirtations between the American soldiers and British women a pattern of misunderstandings regarding who is supposed to take which initiative. She wrote of the Americans, "The boy learns to make advances and rely upon the girl to repulse them whenever they are inappropriate to the state of feeling between the pair.", as contrasted to the British, where "the girl is reared to depend upon a slight barrier of chilliness... which the boys learn to respect, and for the rest to rely upon the men to approach or advance, as warranted by the situation." This resulted, for example, in British women interpreting an American soldier's gregariousness as something more intimate or serious than he had intended.
Communications theorist Paul Watzlawick used this situation, where "both American soldiers and British girls accused one another of being sexually brash", as an example of differences in "punctuation" in interpersonal communications. He wrote that courtship in both cultures used approximately 30 steps from "first eye contact to the ultimate consummation", but that the sequence of the steps was different. For example, kissing might be an early step in the American pattern but a relatively intimate act in the English pattern.