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Winking: What Does It Mean & Why We Do It

Jamie Mendiola

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Jamie Mendiola

Updated: 20 May 2024 •  
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Ever had someone wink at you before? Or maybe you’ve given someone a cheeky wink?
Winking has long been a big part of basic body language. But really, what does it truly mean when someone winks at you, and does this cute gesture have a different meaning in other cultures?
Today, we’re unpacking all that, along with some fun facts about winking you might not have known.

1. It could be a sign of romantic interest

woman winking holding candy canes in a way that forms a heart shape

A wink is most commonly associated with old-school flirting.

The most common interpretation of a wink is that it’s a flirty gesture. After all, you see leading men and women do it in romance movies all the time.
For instance, one of the most iconic winks on film was done by none other than the legendary Elizabeth Taylor in ‘Cleopatra.’ In that scene, the queen winked to send flirty regards to her love interest Mark Antony, portrayed by Elizabeth’s co-star and then-husband, Richard Burton. Talk about real-life chemistry!
Elizabeth Taylor winking in the movie Cleopatra

Elizabeth Taylor infamously winked as Cleopatra in the 1963 movie of the same name. Source: Film Freedonia

So, it’s pretty safe to say someone is interested in you romantically if you catch a wink from them.
But what should you do if you want to wink at someone for the same reason? Well, you have to consider the context. Doing it out of the blue might seem odd, and doing it with a stranger might feel unwelcome.
And of course, try not to overdo it. Too much winking might send the wrong message. If you’re winking or blinking excessively and uncontrollably, it may be time to seek medical attention for a possible underlying eye condition.

2. Joking or teasing

man winking while pointing at the camera

A good punchline can get better with a well-timed wink.

A wink could also punctuate a joke or teasing statement. In a group setting, if a person jokes at someone else’s expense, a playful wink can let them know that it’s all done in pure fun.
Done right, a teasing wink can offset the joke, and let the other person know not to take it too seriously. Of course, whether they’d be a good sport about it or not is entirely up to them.
Similarly, you see actors and comedians wink in TV shows or movies to punctuate their punch lines. With good comedic timing, it can work seamlessly to let the audience in on the joke.
In this type of context, a wink doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s romantic. However, some people use it with double meanings. They might be flirting, and trying to get a rise out of you, at the same time.

3. Winking as a sign of trust

man winking and giving a thumbs up as a sign of trust

A wink can sometimes convey, “Trust me, bro.” without needing a single word.

Sometimes, you don’t need words to show solidarity. A friendly wink between close friends or loved ones can be all you need to show that you trust them implicitly.
Basically, it can be seen as a subtle gesture that says, “I got your back, and you can rely on me.’
If you want a beautiful example of this, check out the recent Oscar-winning movie, Everything Everywhere All At Once.
Waymond Wang winking in the movie everything everywhere all at once

Waymond Wang (Ke Huy Quan) winks at Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) to let her know he’s got her back in ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’. Source: Youtube

In a scene where Waymond Wang, played by Ke Huy Quan, readies himself to fight off security guards, he shoots a reassuring wink at Evelyn — played by Michelle Yeoh — to let her know that everything will be okay.
Additionally, it can also be a quiet way to let someone you trust in on a secret. For instance, if you’re telling a story to your friends, a little wink can signify, “Hey, keep this a secret between us.”

4. A wink could suggest hidden motives

a boy winking

A little wink can have a hidden, and totally different, meaning behind it.

Speaking of secrets, a wink can also signify that there’s something unspoken going on. There might be a mystery afoot, and the other person needs to be aware of it.
Alternatively, a wink like this might mean you only want to hint at a secret or a hidden motive, without giving the full story away. It’s quite similar to the finger to the lips gesture you might do when trying to sneak off somewhere.
daniel craig winking as james bond while aiming a gun

Daniel Craig as James Bond never hesitates to give a suave, mysterious wink. Source: Youtube

A clear example of this is Daniel Craig as the debonair James Bond. In Skyfall for instance, he throws out a cheeky wink as a little flourish before he rescues his boss.

What does winking mean in different cultures?

Japanese woman winking while hugging a tree

In countries like Japan, winking may be considered too forward or suggestive.

Now, before you go ahead and wink at others, you need to ensure you’re doing it in the right cultural and social settings first. While it’s not a big deal in most countries in the West, it may be a different story in other cultures.
For instance, in more conservative parts of the world, like Japan or India, winking isn’t seen as just harmless flirting. In fact, some would consider it too forward or suggestive.
In Western Africa, winking takes on an entirely new meaning.
Africans may use winking as a parental gesture of subtle dismissal towards a child. For instance, if they have adult guests in the house, a parent might wink at a child to tell them to leave the room.
All in all, be aware of where and how you’re winking if you want to steer clear of trouble and misunderstandings.

Bonus fun facts about winking

Before you go, here are a few fun facts about winking you might not have known.

1. Not everyone can wink

Contrary to popular belief, not everyone can wink. Some people can’t do it voluntarily, which means they might have to practice it a couple of times first.
If this is you, don’t feel too bad — even the great Rihanna can’t do a proper wink.

2. Some can wink with one eye but not the other

In line with the no-winking club, some people can wink with one eye, but not the other. And that’s completely normal!
When you wink, you might find it easier to do so with your non-dominant eye. Some people also do it almost subconsciously, especially children or adolescents who might be under stress.

3. Dogs and cats can wink, but they carry different meanings

Now, if you’re a pet owner or just curious about animals, you might be intrigued by the fact that dogs and cats can wink too.
When a dog winks, it’s usually a sign of submissiveness, a.k.a. they’re not in the mood for a fight. If a puppy winks though, it can mean that they respect you.
On the other hand, a cat’s wink is one of the highest compliments you can get from them. It’s their way of saying “I trust you and I’m comfortable with you”. If your cat winks at you while you’re both chilling on the couch, it’s their subtle way of saying ‘I love you’.
a cat winking to show affection

Fun fact: If a cat winks slowly at you it means they trust and love you.


So what does it mean when someone winks at you?

It’s all about context.
A cute, seemingly innocuous wink can have tons of interpretations, based on where you are and what situation you’re in. It’s all about knowing the context.
For instance, if you’re just joking around with a group of friends, a cheery wink might help the joke to land. However, throwing out a wink in a serious environment like a corporate setting might backfire for you instead.
If you want more fun facts about your eyes, why not check out what heterochromia is or learn more about your retina?

Jamie Mendiola
Jamie is a writer and non-profit volunteer advocating for mental health. When not typing up a storm at work, you'll find her binge-watching Netflix or meditating like Yoda.