Flirting remystified

(I’m postponing my post on /r9k/ for later)

This is a guide on flirting written by Kate Fox at the Social Issues Research Centre. I’d recommend everyone to read it. It’s practical advice for both men and women, with apparently sound empirical backing. Seems like a great demystifier. This is just what the topic of flirting needed.

Flirting is a tricky subject, because people seem to refer to it (e.g. tell you to ‘just go and do it’) without being able to explain what it is, even if they’re really skilled at actually doing it. It’s an elusive concept, because it describes an activity that involves non-exact understanding; ambiguous, implicit methods of communication characterises it. The SIRC guide’s strength is in describing these methods (verbal and non-verbal cues like eye contact and physical touch) and outlining their generally-understood meanings, and appropriateness for a given level of target flirtiness.

The guide says ‘flirting is a basic instinct’. But it’s really complex. It’s laden with social conventions. The fundamental underlying instincts are the sex drive, and fear of potential danger. I see flirting as a way to navigate though the barriers that keep our sex drives under control. It’s about signalling sexual interest, and ascertaining the level of interest in others, but also actively raising it. When properly employed, it avoids the embarrassment of explicit rejections, by subtly dissuading against unwanted advances.

Of course, people often get it wrong, and an explicit verbal rejection is required to put an unpleasant encounter to an end. And even then, some dudes persist in getting it wrong.

The SIRC document mentions the possibility of sending ambiguous signals, as in ones that can reasonably be interpreted two contradictory ways. It warns against causing undesired confusion in this way. But it does not directly address the practice of deliberately doing this, for the purpose of testing the interest or courage of the other party, or causing frustration in order to build up sexual tension, or simply taking delight in the act of teasing.

It’s tempting to declare that such the best move in such games is not to play at all. Or fall back to explicit verbal communication.

Forthcoming content: I want to talk about a necessary precondition of flirting: meeting. Specifically, meeting strangers. I’ll discuss Tinder, and technologically-mediated dating generally, and its future.