Given the predictable trajectory of the ongoing discussions in the F&SF world, it seems a good time for a repost with a couple of tweaks. Some things shouldn’t have to be said, but obviously they do.
There are two basic things you need to know about flirting.
- Flirting is the creation of intimacy, which is only rarely a search for sex.
- Flirting cannot be done by one person. It takes two (or more).
We do have problems understanding flirting, as a culture, but most of those problems come from associating flirting with sex. They’re different things. Flirting may be used to get to know someone we might consider having sex with. Flirting may be used to increase the level of intimacy between to people to the point that it becomes socially acceptable to ask for sex. But flirting itself isn’t about seeking sex.
Flirting is about creating a more intimate connection between two people than usually happens in our daily meeting and greeting. For that reason, it involves behavior we don’t engage in with everyone. Touch and the signaling of sexual interest fall into that category, but so do much simpler behaviors. Maintaining eye contact longer than polite, sharing secrets, giving very personal compliments, monopolizing someone’s time, teasing someone–all these can be part of flirting.
As an aside, this is why salespeople can be so creepy and annoying. They are often taught to employ techniques for creating intimacy and rarely to never taught the downside of using them on people who don’t want them.
One thing you may have noticed about the behaviors I listed: We consider all of these (at least) rude outside the context of flirting. There are other flirting behaviors that aren’t otherwise rude, but there are plenty that are. Flirting changes the rules of what’s acceptable, which I’ll talk more on in a moment. However, first I want to take a moment to talk about awkwardness.
Feel awkward about flirting? It isn’t you. It’s flirting. Seriously, look at how rude all of that stuff would be in any other context. Look at how creepy it is when it comes from that salesperson. Gah! There’s no way to make this not potentially awkward. On the other hand, being willing to be a bit awkward around somebody is part of what makes flirting work. One of the intimacies you’re creating when you flirt is letting your guard down and opening yourself up to criticism. Scary? Yes, but there it is.
By now it should be obvious why one person can’t flirt unilaterally with someone else. If you force intimacy on someone, that is not flirting. It is, at best, creepy salesperson tactics. From there, it ranges up to assault, depending on the type of intimacy forced.
This is also why it isn’t difficult to tell whether someone is flirting with you. Flirting should be fun for both of you. Are they enjoying it when you create little intimacies? Are you enjoying it when they do something that would annoy you from most people? Then yay! You’re flirting.
If not, stop. If either of you stops having fun, stop or dial it back to something that was fun. If one of you still isn’t having fun after dialing it back, stop. If you don’t stop, you’re no longer flirting. You are forcing an intimacy on another human being. And it’s your responsibility to make sure yo’re not doing that. Not the target of your behavior. You. Anti-harassment policies are aimed at halting forced intimacy. There is no reason they should interfere with flirting.
If you really can’t tell, ask a question where “No” is the answer you’ll need to hear to know the flirting is wanted. “Is that too much information?” “I’m taking up a lot of your time. Should I let you get back to your friends?” “Should I stop teasing you?” Anything but a clear “No” in that situation should be taken as “Yes.”
However, wanting to flirt still doesn’t mean the person you’re flirting with wants to have sex with you. Most flirting isn’t about getting to sex. Emotional and social intimacy are enjoyable in their own rights. They are perfectly good reasons to take that potentially awkward path.
So how do you know whether someone wants to have sex with you? You can use flirting to create an ever-more-intimate atmosphere in which you can be more comfortably convinced, but that still doesn’t tell you for sure. At some point, one of you is going to have to ask. It may be a coded question. It may be (if you think you can be certain enough) handled nonverbally. But you’ll still have to ask.
That, of course, is the actual hard part and the part that people get confused over. Flirting itself, however, is easy.
* Flirting is about as easy as any other social transaction with multiple moving parts, which means the situation varies from person to person. We’re just more emotionally invested in firlting. There are some good comments frrom Pteryxx on the original post about handling these situations if you find social cues particularly difficult to decipher.