Flirting appears to be a universal — and I would venture, innate — human behavior. It is so universal that the degree to which many aspects of it are downright odd often go unnoticed.
One of the more bewildering aspects of flirting is the degree to which it involves — on the surface, at least — insulting one another. This is summed up rather unironically in a dating tips website (check out this article as well):
“From the outside, teasing seems to be a twisted pleasure: affectionate and sort of insulting all at once. Teasing is a very articulate way of winning a person’s attraction. It actually helps bring people closer.”
Something about this analysis seems right, but the “why” seems very unconvincing. Teasing works because it draws attention and brings people closer together. Teasing also leads to bar fights and school shootings.
Teasing to reduce social space
Part of an answer appears in Penelope Brown & Stephen Levinson’s classic 1978 Politeness: Some universals in language use. On page 72 of the second edition, they note in passing that “a criticism, with the assertion of mutual friendship, may lose much of its sting — indeed … it often becomes a game and possibly even a compliment.”
I’m not completely sure where they were going with that, but one possible interpretation is that there are things that can be said between friends but not between strangers (criticism, for instance). So when you criticize somebody, you are either being offensive or asserting friendship. If the criticism is done in the right tone under the right circumstances, it comes across as an assertion of friendship.
Of course, the balance can be hard to maintain and it’s easy to foul up.
I don’t think this is a complete explanation by any means, but there seems to be something right about it. I’m just beginning to read more in this area of pragmatics, so hopefully I’ll have more to add in the future. If anybody is more familiar with this line of research and has something to add, comment away!