A wink is one of the quickest, sexiest flirtations you can exchange with a stranger. Beating out hitchhiker thumbs and rollable tongues, it's the ultimate humblebrag motion and the most fitting emoji to accompany your 2 AM "U Up?" text. However, it's unclear how closing one eye became a hot thing to do—so unclear that no one's ever really bothered to figure it out.
There is no record of the first blink, though you can trace the word back to the Old English verb wincian, which signified "closing one's eyes quickly." That verb later became the root of the modern-day "to wink."
Eyes are the medium through which you appreciate the physicality of the object of your sexual attraction, and they respond in both voluntary and involuntary ways when someone or something is turning you on. In the 1960s and 70s, biopsychologist Eckhard Hess founded pupillometry, or the measurement of pupil diameter in psychology, upon discovering that your pupils dilate when looking at something sexually attractive. In Love Signals: A Practical Field Guide to the Body Language of Courtship, Dr. David Givens, director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies, writes that "rapid eyeblink (or 'eyelash flutter') means you've raised the blinker's level of psychological arousal," so "faster blinking may reflect sexual excitement." And the longer you look into those dilated, fast-blinking eyes, the better your chance of laying the foundation for a passionate, trusting relationship.
Body language expert Patti Wood explores the wink in her book SNAP: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, and Charisma, focusing not on what it adds to communication, but instead what it takes away: threat.
"[Winking] is a way of softening of what could be considered threatening continued eye contact," she says. "I analyzed Santa's body language in The Night Before Christmas, [which says] 'a wink of his eye and a twist of his head,' and that's a softening, like saying 'I did just come down your chimney and into your house but I'm harmless.'"
Winking is quick, discreet, and suggestive, making it your best choice when trying to lure someone over to you.
Joe Navarro, a body language expert and former FBI agent, added that as humans, there are only a few ways we can communicate non-verbally with someone more than a few feet away. There's waving, smiling, and tilting your head, but winking is quick, discreet, and suggestive.
Winking, he says, is the quickest and easiest way to communicate non-verbally across a room. "Even in a crowded, loud room, the message gets through," he says.
Beyond the world of real pupils and lashes, the wink has also found its place in nonverbal communication's virtual playground: emojis and emoticons. In Match.com's 2015 Singles in America study, the dating website interviewed over 5,600 single people of all ages in the United States about their flirty texting, or sexting, habits, and 53 percent of the sample said they used the "winky face" when trying to flirt—a significant percentage higher than the "smiley face" (38 percent) or the "kissy face" (27 percent).
Jeffrey Hall, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas and and author of The Five Flirting Styles, offered his interpretation of this statistic, suggesting that the winky emoji conveys "being playful, funny, or fun," which isn't far off from its real-world use.
"I think [a winky face] makes the information more light-hearted or inviting, which is part of early flirtatious banter," Hall says. "If people are using emoji winks in texting or through a Match.com server, perhaps they recognize that mediated social interaction has some inherent distance they want to bridge, like making eye contact across a bar or club. Maybe an emoji wink is used to close that distance [and] overcome the mediated break between two people and try to establish connection."