sex & gender

Fearless Flirtation: a Refresher Course

In a city as cosmopolitan as London, it’s not unusual to greet someone with the double-cheek kiss imported from the continent. This usually unfolds without incident, unless the kisser comes in confidently à la française (left-right) while the kissee approaches all’italiana (right-left), only to find themselves engaged in a full-frontal smack on the lips. In an unfortunate sub-clause of Murphy’s Law, this never seems to occur with anyone whom you’d care to kiss. Perhaps post-Brexit, all we’ll be left with is that uniquely British salutation of the half-hug, in which two people appear to press their top halves together while deftly avoiding any actual bodily contact.

In my adult life, I have lived in New York, Paris, Rome and now London, so I have most of such idiosyncrasies of etiquette ironed out by now. I still get tripped up occasionally, brightly telling someone to ‘Have a nice day!’ in England before rushing to correct myself: ‘No, no, sorry, don’t have a nice day at all.’ (Profuse apologising is, at least, consistent with local custom.) When it came to decrypting the mating habits of London locals, however, I found myself utterly at sea.

At watering holes in my native New York, male Homo sapiens are regularly observed approaching females of the species, striking up conversations, and even offering to buy them drinks. Englishmen, confirms cross-cultural anthropologist Jean Smith, author of The Flirt Interpreter: Flirting Signs from Around the World, consider it rude to intrude. While certain gestures of the flirtation arsenal are universal—hair flipping, sustained eye contact, suggestive straw-sucking—what can seem like seduction in one culture can border on harassment in another, particularly when it involves physical contact. “Touching a New Yorker’s knee might well get you a foot in the door,” concedes Smith. “Touching a Londoner’s knee,” she warns, “will almost certainly get you off on the wrong foot.”

Which is how I found myself one of twelve sheepish pupils (nine women, three men), gathered at the entrance of the National Portrait Gallery on a Thursday evening to receive Smith’s wisdom on the ancient art of flirtation. Smith begins her monthly ‘fearless flirting’ tours in the museum to demonstrate the efficacy of props, which a stealthy seductor can use to spark conversation in any location. Gallery: ‘What do you think of this painting?’ Pub: ‘Can you recommend one of the beers on tap?’ Flirting is, after all, nothing more than “the gentle art of making a man feel pleased with himself,” as ‘Bachelor Girl’ Helen Rowland observed in 1909. The brilliance, and lesson number one of fearless flirtation, is that if someone wants to talk to you, IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT YOU SAY. Smith warns against losing too much time deliberating a perfect opening line: blink—in our bustling metropolis—and the object of your affection has disappeared.

After taking our flirtation training wheels out for a spin on the surrounding streets, where Smith tasked us with asking strangers for directions, we graduated to the belly of a Tesco Metro to tackle advanced ninja flirtation techniques. The produce aisle was too obvious—all that fruit squeezing—so I parked myself in the wine section with my basket to await suitable prey. Eventually, a handsome gay gentleman walked by. The assignment wasn’t to get a date, just to practice talking to people, so I went in for the kill: “Do you know anything about reds?” He did! I proceeded to the till armed with Tesco’s finest Malbec.

While I waited for the rest of the group outside, basking in my prowess, a young man a good fifteen years my junior approached me to ask for directions to a pub around the corner. After a few minutes of chatter about the provenance of my accent, he asked if I’d like to join him and his friends at said pub, an invitation that, while flattering, I politely declined. I suspected a competing flirtation course had moved in on our hunting grounds, but Smith later assured me that she’s the only game in town. Perhaps I had been vibing more friendly after all that practice, or was approachable simply by virtue of standing still, as opposed to charging forward at my usual breakneck speed with protective earbuds in place.

Smith, an American married to an Englishman, can’t help but employ anthropological terms: “The London male,” she claims, “is very happy for a woman to do the asking.” This is where the ‘fearless’ bit comes in. She urges everyone—men and women alike—to work up the courage to speak to members of the opposite sex IRL, without relying on the usual crutches of vats of alcohol or hiding behind the security of a smartphone screen. Dating apps have proven to be particularly popular in the UK thanks to their ‘double opt-in’ feature, which only puts users in contact once mutual attraction is confirmed. But to enjoy the connection we crave, we must dare to risk something. “Love,” wrote Ovid in his Ars Amatoria c. 2 AD, “is a kind of war, and no assignment for cowards.”

After a roundup powwow at a pub, Smith left us with another of her top tips: one’s self-worth must not be pinned on the vicissitudes of the flirting game. A smile is, after-all, a low-cost investment: if it goes unreturned, what, really, has been lost? I returned home feeling inspired, and encouraged. There are, in fact, plenty of singletons out there in the wild, if we just lift our heads from our smartphone screens long enough to look. (Hint: start with the watering holes.)

Fortune favors the fearless.

Get your flirt on:

This article originally featured on PS I Love You.

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