Winking isn’t one of those things that comes naturally to us. Ask a young child to wink and you’ll see what I mean. It’s something we have to really learn to do. Why would we train ourselves to shut one eye? Well, perhaps partly for the same reason that some people climb mountains: the eye is just there to play with, and it’s a challenge you can’t resist. But it’s also partly because of the body language meaning the wink has taken on in society which enables us to purposefully communicate certain things in subtle, unsaid ways. What kind of things can winking signal?
What does a wink mean?
A wink’s meaning depends on the context and culture involved, but here are a few possible wink meanings:
- Hello signal:
The wink can be used as a substitute for a wave: the eye is fluttering like the hand.
- Flirtation signal:
Winking is perhaps most famous for its use in flirtation to signal the message: “I’m attracted to you”. When performed between strangers, and when accompanied by an inviting smile, it is often considered a genuine or a teasing sign of sexual invitation. If used genuinely, it is widely considered to be quite a vulgar and uncouth way of signalling attraction and is deemed unladylike.
Why do we wink to signal flirtation?
Although the history of the wink is unclear, it can be hypothesized that the wink became associated with flirtation due to the fact that when we’re excited, the pupils dilate and our blink rate increases. Excitement of any type is known to boost our number of blinks, so sexual excitement may do the same thing. The wink may be a stylised allusion to sexual excitement in this way.
The eyelash flutter that girls use to flirt is thought to come from a similar origin.
A variation of the flirtatious wink is the “clink”, a wink accompanied by a clicking sound.
- Secret shared knowledge signal:
It can silently acknowledge shared secret knowledge between the winker and the winkee.
This may be purely for the sake of pointing out the shared knowledge, or if done overtly rather than covertly, it may be for ulterior motives such as to deliberately exclude others in the group and announce your closeness with your winking partner.
The closed eye denotes a secret aimed only at the person you are winking at, and the remaining open eye indicates that the secret is not for the rest of the people in your eye’s view.
The secret-knowledge wink has evolved into the not-quite-as-subtle saying “wink wink, nudge nudge”, which carries the same meaning.
Why do we wink to signal secret knowledge?
One theory is that this habit may have been inspired from the story of Odin the Norse god. The legend says that he gave his eye in exchange for a drink from the well of Mimir; a drink which would give him the gift of great wisdom and knowledge.
- “Only joking” signal:
When a wink is used together with an outrageous or sarcastic statement, it can be a way of removing doubt about whether you are serious, indicating you are kidding. The smiley wink “;)” is often used in this way.
- Comforting or encouraging signal:
The wink can be a substitute for a comforting gesture: For example when mingling in a party, if someone notices their friend looks a little down and wishes to comfort them without bringing awareness of their need for comfort to the other people at the party, they may send an encouraging wink their way. It’s almost like a substitute for a pat on the back or a hug.
- Initiation of predetermined plan signal:
It may be a discreet signal for a previously-decided thing. For example in the presence of guests, some parents use the wink code to signal to their children that it’s time to excuse themselves and leave the room.
- Nervous twitch:
As mentioned, increased blinking indicates excitement, and on a similar thread it can indicate nervousness. Some people wink as an uncontrollable nervous habit. This can be differentiated from the deliberate winks through the person’s facial expression which is usually stressed and nervous looking.