The first thing to understand about flirting is that it is by definition a playful activity.
When it occurs between two available adults, it is also a healthy activity. It is a harmless form of amorous communication, a statement of prospective interest, a vestige of the courting behaviors and displays from the animal kingdom that you see on the Discovery Channel. But, above all, it is playful.
It is generally accepted that we have come a long way from our caveman ancestors, but flirtatious behavior remains a link to those distant days because of the role it plays in courtship behaviors. Ask any anthropologist you meet, and they’ll be happy to explain in detail the meaning of every gesture and cue. You can almost hear Sir Richard Attenborough intoning: The crucial initial phase is almost entirely non-verbal, consisting primarily of eye contact and reciprocal smiling. The males place themselves in conspicuous locations that afford a wide view of the watering hole. The females, by dint of tossing their hair, altering their posture or making trips back and forth to the powder room, offer themselves for inspection. Suddenly, initial eye contact is made. The male holds eye contact for a few moments (but not for too long for fear of appearing a stalker.) The female makes eye contact for a moment, looks away for a moment and then makes momentary eye contact again. And then, as Dr. Watson would say: “The game is afoot!” Conversely, should the female make eye contact, look away and continue looking away, the game is most certainly not afoot.”
Research indicates that women are largely in control of flirting situations. While it is the men who are usually responsible for initiating non-verbal signals, it is how the women respond that most often determines if things move forward. Other than making eye contact, common positive female responses include smiling, stroking her hair or smoothing her lapel or collar.
Research indicates that a key to successful flirting is to appear non-threatening. That women are generally shorter than men is highly adaptive in this regard, as looking up into a man’s eyes, down and up again is a strong signal of submissiveness. Such behavior tends to remove any sense of threat or danger very early on in the contact. Similar behavior is noted among wolves in their packs and in our primate cousins.
For a primer on flirtatious behavior, see Woody Allen’s hilarious film Play it again, Sam. A textbook study of painful self-consciousness, it is composed with such genius that you can’t help but laugh. As Woody’s character manifests so many symptoms of self-consciousness, no doubt a good deal of the fun we experience in watching him is that feel secure in knowing we struggle with only a fraction of his symptoms.
How do you avoid feeling self-conscious when flirting? You develop clear, modest goals. Woody’s character, you may recall, was always trying to get women immediately into bed: a home-run in his first at-bat. Were you to aim lower, for just meeting and getting to know new people and enjoying yourself in the process, you may find it much easier to manage the essential playful attitude identified earlier. The next thing to do is practice, practice, practice.
There are three restrictions that I think need to be applied when flirting. The first is that it take place between two available adults. The second is that caution be exercised at the workplace or any other context where it is difficult for someone to walk away from unwanted advances. Third, you need to refrain from offering more than you are willing or able to give.
If you were to do a Google search on flirting, you’d find a great deal of literature available, most of it self-serving and manipulative. Like Play it again, Sam, it is highly informative in the sense of showing you what not to do, but lacks any of the charm. Were you to review some of these sites you’d learn that they are intended to teach you how to control and manipulate people into doing what you want. This, unfortunately, is the prevailing mindset of many in the dating environment. It points to the need to strive for honesty and responsibility while being playful and to avoid the tendency toward selfishness and the desire to control.
It is no accident that Woody Allen’s character was both lonely and a bumbling manipulator, though I doubt, even had he been a successful manipulator, that he would have felt any less lonely. His redemption, as you may recall, came after he sacrificed his own needs for those of his best friends. While such an obvious sacrifice is rarely necessary, it suggests that sacrificing selfishness for honesty and respect will always facilitate a happier outcome.
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