Why, how & when to Flirt


Flirting has a bad name. Too often, it seems a supreme form of duplicity, a sly attempt to excite another person and derive gratification from their interest, without any corresponding wish to go to bed with them. It looks like a manipulative promise of sexual affection, that, at the last moment, leaves its targets confused and humiliated. In our sadness, back home alone after the nightclub or the party, we may rail against the flirt for ‘only’ flirting, when it appeared there would be so much more. But this kind of pattern represents only one, unedifying and regrettable possibility around flirting. At its best, flirting can be a vital social process that generously lends us reassurance and freely redistributes confidence and self-esteem. The task is not to stop flirting, but to learn how better to practice its most honorable versions. Good flirting is, in essence, an attempt driven by kindness and imaginative excitement to inspire another person to believe more firmly in their own likeability, psychological, as much as physical. It is a gift offered not in order to manipulate, but out of a pleasure of perceiving what’s most attractive in another. Along the way, the good flirt must carefully convince us of three apparently contradictory things: that they would love to sleep with us, that they won’t sleep with us; and that the reason why has nothing to do with any deficiency on our part. Good flirting exploits, with no evil intent, an important truth about sex. That is what often most enjoyable about sex is not the physical process itself, so much as the idea of acceptance that underpins the act. The notion that another person likes us enough to accept us in our most raw and vulnerable state, and is, in our name, willing to lose control and surrender aspects of everyday dignity. It is this concept, far more than the deft touching of skin, that is what contributes the dominant share of our pleasure. As we undress someone for the first time, or heed their requests to call them the very rudest words we know. The good flirt knows this, and is therefore spared the guilty sense that they might not be in the position to offer their lover anything valuable. They are wisely convinced that it is eminently possible, simply over a dinner table, in the kitchen at work, to give the person just about the most wondrous aspect of sex itself, simply through the medium of language. The good flirt is an expert, too, in how correctly to frame the fact that there won’t be sex. By a deeply entrenched quirk of a human mind, it’s generally hard for us to hear such news without at once reaching one overwhelming and crushing conclusion: that it is because the seducer has suddenly found us deeply and pervasively repulsive. The good flirt loosens us from such punitive narratives. They powerfully appeal to some of the many genuine reasons why two people might not have sex that have nothing to do with one person finding the other disgusting: for example, because one or both party already has partner, because there is an excessive age gap, gender incompatibility, an office that would disapprove, a difficult family situation, or more simply, a lack of time. Freed from the rigid and blunt opposition that flirting has to be the prelude to actual sex, the good flirt can artfully imply how different things might have been if the world had been more ideally arranged. And the recipient of the flirt can, with equal grace, ascent to the story, without a need to twist it through self-hatred. We all stand in need of reminders of what is tolerable and exciting about us. It’s a desperate foreshortening of possibilities to insist that such reawakening could only be justified by actual intercourse. Understood properly, flirting can beneficially occur across the largest gulfs: gulfs of political belief, of social, economical, marital status, of sexual inclination, and (with obvious caveats) of age. The 26-year-old corporate lawyer and 52-year-old man behind the counter of the corner shop can flirt; and so may the cleaner and the CEO. It is all the more moving when they do so, because it signals our willingness to use the imagination to locate what is most attractive about another person, who lies really very far from one’s own points of reference. The question of what, if I considered someone, anyone sexually, I would find charming is one of the most intimate, interesting and necessary questions one can ask. Flirting matters, because of how rarely most of us get to experience ourselves as desirable. We generally learn, through a rich sequence of rebuffs, and via intelligent modesty, to see ourselves as far from ideal. This picture is not inaccurate, but it isn’t entirely true, either. So the good flirt carries out an important psychological mission: to restore balance to our view of ourselves. They remind us that, for all our failings of character and bodily liabilities, we are in fact, in certain ways, properly appealing, and in a better situation than the one we find ourselves in, a truly interesting person to want to spend a night with. The flirt supplies an antidote to a characteristic sickness of maturity: an excessively negative view of ourselves. A good flirt is doing crucially important social work. They understand that being recognized as erotically appealing is hugely beneficial, and a key to rendering us more patient, more generous, more energetic, and more content. It is a quiet tragedy that this widely consequential need should so often be expected to pass through the desperately narrow gate of sex. The good flirt is wisely and literally trying to give erotic endorsement (with all the benefits this brings) a larger opportunity in life. Liberating it from the tiny difficult window of opportunity, offered by an actual requirement to make love. The good flirt is a pioneer in a crucial democratic science: they are attempting to correctly identify attractiveness in a way that will serve the many, rather than a few. We should not only be grateful to good flirts. We should try to become good flirts ourselves.

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