Flirting feels good, but Hugo Schwyzer wonders if it’s always good for us.
I was 13 and in the middle of a conversation with Katie Banks when she cocked her head to one side and asked, “Hugo, are you flirting with me?”
I gave Katie a blank look. The word sounded bad. “No?” I answered her question with one of my own. “You don’t know what it is, do you?” Katie asked. “It’s when you kinda like someone but don’t want to say it.”
I grunted something unintelligible and headed home to look the word up in the dictionary.
My mid-adolescent attempts at conscious flirting began not long thereafter, and they were predictable, obvious and almost always unsuccessful. But my interest in girls was strong enough to help me overcome rejection after rejection, so I kept practicing what I thought of as my “technique.” I watched two of my older teenage male cousins, young men in college whose bodies were hard and chiseled and whose “patter” was smooth and (judging from their large number of girlfriends) successful. I watched their hand gestures, listened to their voices, studied their apparent effortlessness. Slowly, as my own body matured and changed, my confidence began to increase.
It was only in my early thirties that I became willing to rethink my own flirtatiousness. I realized how much time and energy I had devoted to flirting. The goal was rarely sex — the goal was validation of my own desirability. For so many years, I eagerly “stirred the pot” to see if I could arouse a spark of interest in the various women I met in my life. It never mattered if I was single or attached, and I didn’t much care if these women were available or not. My ego needed feeding, and flirting was the best damn way I knew to get it fed. If the “intriguing” led to a short-term relationship or brief encounter, so much the better — but that was just icing on the cake. The “cake” in these instances was the knowledge that I was wanted. And knowing that I was desirable was the ultimate payoff.
Talk to most people about flirting, and sooner or later they’ll distinguish between two different types. There’s “seductive flirting” that’s designed to lead to something tangible: a date, a hook-up, a relationship. The other sort is “flirting for validation,” where the primary goal isn’t sex or romance but simply to get one’s own attractiveness affirmed.
The first kind is less controversial, at least when it’s happening between two single people. Flirting is surely one of the best and easiest ways to send a signal to another person that you’re not only interested, but interested in doing something about it. Though for many reasons some people are better at seductive flirting than others, we can all benefit from understanding the technique – if only to figure out when someone’s doing it with us.
Flirting for validation is more problematic. When married or otherwise “taken” folks flirt with people who aren’t their partners, they’re often not trying to start an affair. What they want is affirmation of their continued attractiveness, a reassurance that their own significant others can no longer give. Just as Groucho Marx once said he wouldn’t want to be a member of a club that would accept him as a member, some people don’t feel any charge from being affirmed by those whom they know are already in love with them. So they not only flirt for validation, they need to flirt with new people on a regular basis.
As my friend Sophie put it to me once, “Sometimes I need fresh flirt from fresh people.”
But those “fresh” people aren’t mindreaders. It’s not easy to distinguish genuine romantic interest from the selfish desire for a quick affirmation hit. Flirting because you want to know if you “could have her” (or him) if you wanted may seem innocuous to you, as after all, you have no intention of following up. But you can leave your flirting partner confused and hurt, and rightly so.
Flirtation, particularly when we are married or in committed relationship, brings us dangerously close to one of the most underestimated of all cruelties we inflict on others. No, I don’t mean adultery. I mean using another human being to soothe our own anxiety, to feed our ravenous ego. Sending out “mixed messages” that arouse interest, deliberately fishing about to see if we can get a little “stroking” — this is toxic and manipulative. I did it for many years. It took a lot of hard work to break myself of the habit.
I didn’t just stop flirting for validation out of respect for my wife. I also stopped because I wanted other people to be very clear about what my intentions were. I knew that being deliberately ambiguous and just a little bit mysterious would get me sexualized affirmation – but it left other people feeling confused. When other people aren’t sure of your intentions, they may find you fascinating, but they don’t feel safe with you. That’s sexy, but if we’re not planning on “doing anything about it,” it’s also unkind to everyone involved. When we’re in monogamous relationships, we should be focusing on creating mystery and heat at home – and non-sexual clarity everywhere else.
Perhaps there are exceptions. Earlier this year, I was in São Paulo to give a lecture. After an exhilarating evening, I came back to my hotel to catch some sleep. The only other passenger on the elevator going up was a beautiful woman about my age, an Australian tourist whose unmistakable accent I’d heard earlier in the day. Standing in the lift, we looked at each other and smiled. We didn’t need to double-check for wedding rings, though we both were wearing them. I’ve been around long enough to recognize mutual attraction in an instant – and just as fast, to recognize that she was as committed to her partner as I am to my wife.
“Have a great night,” I said as I got off at my floor. She smiled a broad grin and winked. “You too,” she replied. We were both laughing as the doors shut behind me. It was a charged moment, but a safe one. If we were both single, something else might have happened, and it was screamingly obvious to both of us. But we weren’t, so it didn’t, and we were both old and wise enough not to draw out our time together a second longer.
But infrequent exceptions don’t invalidate good rules. Moments like that in the Brazilian elevator are understandably rare for almost everyone. So while there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a serendipitous and unexpected jolt of mutual affirmation, there is something very wrong with seeking it out at the expense of others whom we might mislead.
Flirting feels good. But it’s at it’s best when it leaves everyone involved feeling that way.