What’s the Point of Flirting?

We swear we’re not being coy (well, maybe a little). But we really do wanna know.

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I’ve always thought there was something pleasingly onomatopoeic about the word “flirt.” The coy little flip of the “fl,” the sensual purr of the “r,” and the staccato “t” holding it all together at the end, suggestive of highly refined rules and codes of conduct. As anyone who has ever read a Jane Austen novel can tell you, there’s nothing more erotic than restraint.

But we live in an age where nobody has any boundaries anymore, or at least not any that we don’t have to constantly readjust in our Facebook settings. We seem as a culture to have tacitly agreed that all our powers of subtlety should be employed in the microanalysis of our favorite television shows, and mystery, long obliterated by the Google search, is no longer anything more than a word Carlton from the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills misspelled and named her daughter. (And in my day, kids walked 35 miles to school each way in the snow, and nobody even knew what a vibrator was until our mothers were forced to explain it to us after that scene in Parenthood where the lights go out.)

I’ve always been a flirtatious person, for reasons less fun-loving than deeply psychological; I am simultaneously incredibly confident and cripplingly insecure. I have to flirt with you to be reassured you find me as charming as I do. But surely there are healthier women out there giggling behind their metaphorical fans for somewhat more self-actualized reasons. Or are there?

In the goal-oriented days of Tinder and Grindr and Brenda (Tinder for lesbians, not a Brenda Walsh appreciation-site … or is it the same thing?), does flirting for fun even exist anymore?

And if it’s not fun, is it still flirting? How Do We Flirt Now?

Women of the world, take it away!

“For me, it’s all comes down to feeling sexy,” declares Sam, a psychotherapist in Los Angeles. “If I feel sexy, then I feel like I want to go out and flirt. It’s sort of a chicken and the egg thing: I feel sexy, so I’m a bit flirty, and I’m flirting, so that makes me feel sexy. It’s about the whole atmosphere, it’s all a part of being somewhere nice, looking nice, smelling nice, feeling nice.” What about online, I wonder; surely you don’t need to smell nice for that? Sam’s friend Sarah, a sculptor from Cape Town, gives a derisive snort. “All that stuff, that’s not flirting,” she says. “That’s shopping online. Flirting is something you do in person.” Sam takes a softer view: “I think it’s just that online dating feels so focused on the endgame. Are you going to meet in person, are you going to date, are you going to get married and have kids and be a couple in one of those eHarmony ads. There’s so much pressure. For me, flirting isn’t about that. There’s no agenda. It’s an end in and of itself.”

This sounds familiar to me. I’ve been married a long time, and if I want to remain that way, flirting pretty much has to stay just that. But Maggie, an editorial assistant, also in L.A., doesn’t put on the Spandex if she’s not going to medal. (I’ve been watching a lot of Olympics. My commitment to equality and human rights has proven no match for my commitment to ice dancing, it seems.) “Flirting is an necessary evil. I’m only in it for the endgame. Flirting for flirting’s sake has no appeal to me. I only engage in the behavior when I really want to get something out of it.” Like a better table at a restaurant? “No. But I see my friends do it. It’s pretty impressive. I really only flirt with people I’m interested in for the long(ish) term.”

Those of us less single-minded than Maggie can be no less specific as to the dimensions of our quarry. I tell Amanda, a journalist in New York, about my obsession with sensitive preppies. You look like you might have been really into Latin at boarding school, I would like to nervously twirl my hair for you please (I believe this is an extreme reaction to growing up in the Midwest, where nobody on the football team looked like Brendan Fraser in School Ties, believe me). Might she also see Dead Poets’ Society as a form of extremely targeted pornography? She demurs. “For me, it’s cute, writer-y boys in glasses, hands down.” She concurs with Sam that ambience is important for maximum flirtatious impact. “I’m in the mood to flirt when I’m dressed up at a party, usually at something swanky, like a book fete or a birthday. Somewhere where I know the crowd is vetted, smart and not full of serial killers.” Michelle, a health care expert and writer in London, concurs. “I work mostly from home, and since I spend a lot of time by myself, it’s nice to get breaks from that isolation. I can really come alive in a social setting. When I meet someone who sparks your interest—usually by discussing something I find interesting, flirting happens quite naturally. It’s exciting to feel admired, even—or maybe especially—if you’re not planning on doing anything about it.” Both women, who are in their early 30s, agree that, in Amanda’s words, “older people give you a higher quality of flirt.” “It’s not even a question,” Michelle adds. “When I think of “younger men,” I think of my brother’s generation. These guys are so often inexperienced, entitled, self-absorbed, technology obsessed, and lack a sense of ethical or social responsibility. I am impressed much more by humility not hubris. If someone can incite my curiosity, male or female, they will have my rapt attention.”

Jessica, a 25-year-old advertising copywriter in San Francisco, feels differently. “It’s easier to flirt with people who are younger or less experienced than you. I think it’s because you already know they think you’re attractive. Who cares if it’s because they don’t know any better? It’s a compliment.” But she agrees that she likes to flirt when she’s “out, wearing lipstick, with friends around. Definitely not in the mood when I’m hung-over.” As Sam says, “When I don’t feel sexy, I don’t want to flirt. End of story.”

“Validation,” Amanda declares. “That’s why I flirt. To feel alive, to feel seen, to feel sexy, to get a chuckle out of someone. If I got a date out of it, that’d be great, but that’s secondary.”

Michelle shares her seize the day attitude. “It’s nice to be admired. One day my breasts will probably be hanging around my ankles. Better enjoy the way people respond to me now, while I can.”

She wasn’t the only woman I talked to who expressed this kind of anxiety about aging. The inevitable tits-to-ankle day comes for us all; I am increasingly sure that mine has already arrived, which is why I’ve been showering with a bra on (sexy times!). But I found their candor about it surprisingly revealing. No matter your age, sexual orientation, or relationship status, flirting seems not to have changed since the first cavewoman figured out she looked cute when she starting playing with her hair (the hair on her head, that is).

Women don’t so much flirt to impress potential partners as they flirt to impress themselves. We do it because it makes us feel great to remember that we’re sexual beings, capable of turning heads and breaking hearts. We do it to hear—and enjoy—the sound of our own voices and to feel the electric crackle of a human interaction that no amount of IM’d innuendo or DM’d dick pics can replicate. What they—men, women, husbands, wives, the guy at the coffee place, or the officer about to give us a parking ticket—think is relatively incidental. It’s so simple, right? So simple and so human.

I can’t tell you how happy this makes me; that after all this time, all these apps, all this hysteria about our disconnectedness and how it’s changed our brains and how, like, teenagers in Japan don’t even have sex anymore, they just send each other pornographic text messages and never have to touch or smell each other, that every single woman I talked to said her favorite thing was to get dressed up, go to a party, and exchange witty banter with an attractive stranger who makes her feel good about herself. It’s enough to restore your faith in sophistication, in romance, in humanity. What was the last Valentine’s Day trend piece that made you say that?

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