Flirting is much more than just a bit of fun: it is a universal and essential aspect of human interaction.Anthropological research shows that flirting is to be found, in some form, in all cultures and societies around the world.

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This is a very obvious example, but the more complex and subtle aspects of flirting etiquette can be confusing – and most of us have made a few embarrassing mistakes.

Research shows that men find it particularly difficult to interpret the more subtle cues in women's body-language, and tend to mistake friendliness for sexual interest.

Another problem is that in some rather Puritanical cultures, such as Britain and North America, flirting has acquired a bad name.

These rules dictate where, when, with whom and in what manner we flirt.

We generally obey these unofficial laws instinctively, without being conscious of doing so.

We only become aware of the rules when someone commits a breach of this etiquette – by flirting with the wrong person, perhaps, or at an inappropriate time or place.

Chatting up a widow at her husband's funeral, for example, would at the very least incur disapproval, if not serious distress or anger.

According to some evolutionary psychologists, flirting may even be the foundation of civilisation as we know it.

They argue that the large human brain – our superior intelligence, complex language, everything that distinguishes us from animals – is the equivalent of the peacock's tail: a courtship device evolved to attract and retain sexual partners.

Our achievements in everything from art to rocket science may be merely a side-effect of the essential ability to charm.

Like every other human activity, flirting is governed by a complex set of unwritten laws of etiquette.