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The Britanica Dictionary defines flirt as

to behave in a way that shows a sexual attraction for someone but is not meant to be taken seriously.

In which of the following situations can we say “Bob flirts with Mary”?

  1. Bob really likes Mary and wants to be her boyfriend.

  2. Bob just wants to sleep with Mary or to have her as a sex partner without a serious relationship.

  3. Bob acts toward Mary as if he is interested in having a romantic relationship with Mary just for fun, but in reality he wants neither to be her serious boyfriend nor to have her as a sex partner without a serious relationship.

When the verb flirt is translated to Vietnamese, it implies three of the above situations.

If flirt can not be used in one of the above situations, then what other verbs can be used in that situation?

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    Not my downvote. Even though "the dictionary" is idiomatic among native speakers who may not realize there are multiple dictionaries available, on this site you should cite the dictionary by name and not refer to it as "the dictionary". Sep 11, 2023 at 10:07
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    How old are Bob and Mary? What does "Bob really likes Mary and wants to be her boyfriend" actually mean? Is Bob being 100% honest about his feelings, exaggerating his attraction, or pretending he doesn't care? For alternatives, you might want to look up synonyms for woo, but a lot will depend on whether you're writing a Victorian novel or chatting about sex with close friends.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 11, 2023 at 14:26
  • Let's hope Bob's wife doesn't find out about this....
    – Richard
    Sep 11, 2023 at 18:06
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    Number 1 and 2 describe intent. Flirting is about behavior. It's about what you actually do, not about how you feel.
    – Ivo
    Sep 12, 2023 at 6:27
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    Wow. While flirting is playful it most certainly does not preclude serious intent in my book, and I respectfully disagree with Britannica and Merriam-Webster. It is just the first step in the dance between the sexes, intentionally open-ended. Where it leads depends on the response and developing (or not) mutual chemistry. It can be "declined" or "aborted", no harm done. How else would you start something, anything? Get to your knees and declare eternal love? That would be awkward. Sep 12, 2023 at 18:29

5 Answers 5

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It can be used in all of the above. It doesn't rule out any of those three, or imply a particular one of those three. However, the word "flirt" has the connotation of something light; that is, the words (but not necessarily the intent behind the words) are not too serious or explicit / direct.

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    @Rakib I strongly disagree. "Flirt" describes an action, not the intent behind that action. Tom can flirt with Mary regardless of how seriously he's interested in her.
    – Stef
    Sep 11, 2023 at 10:05
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    @Stef - Oxford Languages has Flirt - behave as though sexually attracted to someone, but playfully rather than with serious intentions. Sep 11, 2023 at 11:39
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    @KateBunting Yes, so the emphasis is on the "playful behaviour", rather than on any "serious intent to have sex", but that's still independent of how serious is Tom's relationship with Mary.
    – Stef
    Sep 11, 2023 at 11:44
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    "Bob really likes Mary" is not necessarily serious. Even if you really like someone you may not want a relationship. Being someone's boyfriend is not necessarily a serious relationship. Particularly if they were in their early teens, for instance. And even if you really really really love someone, it's possible to flirt with them in a playful way, if you don't want to admit how much in love you are (see every rom-com ever).
    – Stuart F
    Sep 11, 2023 at 14:21
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    Indeed, one can flirt even within an established relationship.
    – TRiG
    Sep 12, 2023 at 15:21
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Ditto @gotube when he says that flirting is an action and not an intention.

Flirting means making casual romantic advances. Like telling someone that you think they are attractive, laughing at their jokes, making light-hearted comments of romantic interest. The difference between "flirting" and "making a serious romantic advance" is subjective. Likewise, in the other direction, the line between flirting and just being friendly can also be fuzzy.

I think saying "not meant to be taken seriously" is overstating it. Someone who really wants to begin a romantic relationship often begins with flirting. The key difference between flirting and serious romantic overtures is that flirting is light-hearted, so if the other person isn't interested, they can just treat it as a joke, and the person who initiated can easily back down by just saying, "oh, just kidding around".

Like, if Al says to Betty, "I am deeply in love with you and want to marry you", and he says it in a serious tone of voice with every indication that he means it, that would NOT be flirting. But if he casually says, "You're very pretty. I bet you have lots of guys who want to be your boyfriend", that would be flirting. Flirting can also be non-verbal. Like if a girl wears a short skirt and stands very close to a man to speak to him, that would likely be considered flirting even if she talks about business.

But whether the person's goal is just to joke around and be friendly, or to have a sexual relationship, has nothing to do with whether or not their behavior is flirting. Flirting is an action, not a motive.

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    If a girl is wearing a “short skirt” and is talking to a “man” that is a sign of flirting? Believing a young woman who wears a short skirt must want to hook up is a bit sexist, don't you think? If a man is wearing a business suit and deliberately stands next to a young woman, not respecting her personal space, in my books that shows creepy behaviour.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 12, 2023 at 5:42
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    @Mari-LouA I said "... and stands very close", not simply "is talking". You can't take half of what I said, ignore the other half, and then draw conclusions. No, I wouldn't think a girl wearing a short skirt is automatically flirting with any man she meets. And I said this might be flirting, not "wants to hook up". That is not the same thing at all. RE man stands very close to woman: Yes, things that would be considered flirting if done by a woman could be considered creepy and harassing if done by a man. Men and women are different.
    – Jay
    Sep 14, 2023 at 5:02
  • I didn't ignore any half. You forgot to mention the detail "even if she talks about business." It's suggesting a "girl" who is talking to her male coworker–why else would they talk about business– is giving off mixed signals. The message you are driving at "She must be flirting, especially if she's wearing a short skirt" is sexist. If the setting were a bar, in a queue outside a club, if they were total strangers (but why talk about business?) I'd probably think the same but in a workplace or in a dentist's waiting room (etc.)? Unlikely.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 14, 2023 at 11:15
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    @Mari-LouA Well, I'm not going to get into a protracted argument about this. If you want to interpret my statement that way, fine. The key element in my comment was "stands very close", which you keep ignoring. In retrospect the part about the short skirt was mostly irrelevant. If she goes up to a man and stands very close while talking about a mundane subject, no matter what she's wearing it might well be interpreted as flirting. But if you want to keep going on with your rant about sexism, feel free to get the last word.
    – Jay
    Sep 14, 2023 at 15:11
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Flirting is the act of making romantic advances; this is true no matter the intent behind those advances.

However, these advances are "not meant to be taken seriously" in the sense that there is "plausible deniability" as to whether the speaker is flirting to initiate serious romantic advances or simply for the sport of it.


As for your examples:

(1) Bob flirts with Mary. He hopes that she is receptive and flirts back. If she does, he will most likely ask her out on a date.

(2) Two strangers flirt at a bar. If enough flirting happens someone may even offer an overt proposition of hooking up that night.

(3) A young male customer may flirt with the old lady running a restaurant; he is not actually interested in pursuing this in any way, it is just for the fun of flirting.

Yes, all three of your situations would be considered flirting in English.

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    I think "plausible deniability" is very well worded. It is, among other things, a playful interaction which may not go anywhere ideally without either party losing face. Sep 13, 2023 at 3:14
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Strictly speaking, flirt describes situation 3. (I would use Bob behaves towards Mary rather than says to.)

It definitely doesn't mean situation 1; it implies that you don't have real romantic feelings for the person.

Whether it applies to situation 2, I would say depends on the speaker's, and Bob and Mary's, attitudes to casual sex.

Edit in response to subsequent comments: Of course the possible different permutations of romantic relationships are numerous, so it's impossible to make hard-and-fast rules; but all the dictionary definitions of flirting mention playfulness or 'not being serious'.

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    I flirt with my wife's best friend, in a mild way, for the amusement of the three of us. My father used to flirt with my aunt, my mother's younger sister. People used to call it being 'gallant', I think, with the emphasis on the second syllable. In neither case is anything 'intended'. Sep 11, 2023 at 9:03
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    When you said "it implies that you don't have real romantic feelings for the person," this is so surprising to me that I have to assume that different dialects use this word very differently. For me, flirt almost requires one to have romantic feelings for the person.
    – BigMistake
    Sep 11, 2023 at 15:49
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    I'd say flirting doesn't imply that one has serious feelings toward another, but it also certainly does not imply that one does not have serious feelings toward another - it implies neither #1 nor the opposite of #1. One can flirt with a person they'd like to date, or one can flirt with no real romantic intention (like a waitress with a customer). It doesn't imply either way whether the behavior connotes some real underlying feeling. Sep 11, 2023 at 16:57
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    You can have playful/not serious conversations with the same person who you also have serious conversations with. psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/myths-desire/201909/… Sep 11, 2023 at 21:19
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Flirting is an action only, not an intention or desire, so 1 and 2 are not examples of flirting because they aren't even actions. Bob may want some kind of relationship with Mary, but do nothing at all about it.

Example 3 is an action, but flirting is a playful behaviour that shows sexual attraction, and telling someone directly what you want isn't playful at all, so that's not flirting either.

Flirting behaviour from Bob might include making her laugh, teasing her, bringing up sexual or romantic topics, complementing her attractiveness, looking deeply into her eyes, implying indirectly that they'd be a good couple or have good sex, etc.

If your English->Vietnamese dictionary says anything different, it's unreliable.

HOWEVER, if your question's intent is whether doing what I describe above is still called "flirting" if the person has serious intentions, then the answer is yes to all. The name of the behaviour doesn't change based on Bob's feelings or intentions. Even if he's madly in love with her and can already see his own grandchildren in her eyes, or if hates her and wants her dead, that behaviour is still called "flirting".

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    You're correct that none of the situations describe flirting. However, the poster was asking "In which of the following situations can we say 'Bob flirts with Mary'," so it might mean "which of these could be situations in which flirting may well occur" rather than "which of these are examples of flirting."
    – BigMistake
    Sep 11, 2023 at 19:14
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    @BigMistake Thanks for the catch. I've added a paragraph that addresses that question too
    – gotube
    Sep 13, 2023 at 5:04

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