Flirting 101

The first issue that I want to cover in this column is flirting. I wound up helping to organise two workshops on this topic at this BiCon 2003, probably because I have such a reputation as an outrageous flirt myself. Both sessions attracted a huge turn out and I was surprised that several of those who attended were people I’d always thought of as very confident. It seems that that flirting is something that even the most self-assured amongst us can struggle with. So, in the best ‘Sex and the City’ tradition, I had to ask myself: what makes a good flirt?

My glamorous assistant and I started our workshop by posing this question to the group. We decided that things to avoid included: bad personal hygiene, being overly pushy or alternatively far too subtle, not taking ‘no’ for an answer, using poor chat-up lines, invading people’s personal space and getting too drunk beforehand (not that anyone round here would do a silly thing like that…)

One person spoke about a friend of theirs who she regarded as an excellent flirt. She said that this guy was adept at making his interest clear whilst letting the person know that it was no big deal if they weren’t interested back. I certainly agree that this is a good strategy since it enables the target of your flirt to relax and get to know you. Perhaps the scariest thing about the whole flirting scenario is having to reject a flirt, so it’s great if you can let the person know that, although you fancy them, you’re happy to be friends if they don’t feel the same way.

I think that the main foundation to successful flirting is self-esteem. Poor confidence or feeling bad about yourself means you may well not have the nerve to flirt or to recognise when someone’s flirting with you. You might also lack the courage to either accept a flirt from someone you like or to turn someone down if you’re not interested. If you think that lack of self-esteem might be a reason that you struggle to flirt, you could try some of these exercises. Write a list of things that you like about yourself and read it out to a close friend. Increase awareness of the negative messages you tell yourself and replace them with more realistic ones, for example, turn ‘nobody will be interested in me’ into ‘my friends find me interesting and other people will too’. Try treating yourself in the way you’d treat a close friend and not expecting loads more of yourself than you would of anybody else. The book ‘Overcoming Low Self Esteem’ by Melanie Fennell has more suggestions like these.

Another key to flirting is to know your strengths and limitations. Some people are excellent flirts because they are very good at reading other people, knowing whether people are interested or not, and knowing how far to go. If this is you then it may be worth taking some risks with your flirting, like initiating physical contact or being very overt. However, many people find it very difficult to judge the other person’s level of interest. If you’ve found this tricky in the past it’s best to stick to safer strategies like chatting with the person and getting to know them.

In the workshop we covered some of the non-verbal signs that somebody might be responding to your flirting. This included them: making lots of eye contact (especially with dilated pupils), mirroring your posture and picking up on your gestures, moving closer, and touching you. However, it’s important to remember that there are differences in what body language means across cultures and between people in general. Be careful not to place too much emphasis on this.

Before you start to flirt with someone it’s important to think about what your expectations are. Are you looking to pull someone or have a one night stand, or are you potentially hoping for some kind of relationship? We dealt more with the latter situation in the workshop.

You can make flirting a lot less scary if you get to know about the person a bit beforehand so you can easily talk about areas of common interest. Come up with a list of conversation topics so you won’t dry up. Ways of finding out about someone include talking to their friends or initiating contact over e-mail. If you’re both on Live Journal you’ve got it made because you can read about their interests and experiences there. This strategy certainly worked for me and my co-workshop-organiser! Personally I also find Live Journal useful for making general statements about my relationship status and how I like to be treated. That makes it easy for people to know whether I’m likely to want to be flirted with and what works best.

At BiCon it’s relatively easy to strike up a conversation with someone because you can ask what they think of a workshop you’ve both attended or mention a comment they made in one. Back in the real world it can be more difficult, but we recommended starting with light topics, picking up on things you have in common, getting mutual friends to arrange casual introductions, and, in terms of encouraging people to talk to you, wearing a T-shirt that is easy to comment on and smiling. Personally I find a good general conversation opener is to ask people what their job/course/interest is and then to ask what they enjoy about it and how they got into it.

Once you’re chatting, listening is the key. Show them that you’re interested in what they are saying by nodding, responding verbally (mmhm, uhuh), reflecting back what they’ve said to show that you understand, and asking questions based on what they’ve said. Open questions are good, where they can’t just respond with ‘yes’ or ‘no’, because they draw people out to say more (e.g. ‘So you’re thinking of going back to college next year. What does that course involve?’ ‘What did you think of that movie?’). It’s also good to drop in interesting and relevant things about yourself for them to pick up on. I often use my trip to Australia with my sister a few years back because most people want to know what it’s like to snorkel on the barrier reef (or have similar experiences themselves), and it enables me to talk about my relationship with my sister, which is something I’m very enthusiastic about.

Paying someone compliments in conversation is a good way of testing the water to see if someone’s interested, but remember that some people find compliments hard to take. You could say that you’re impressed about something they’ve done that you’d find difficult, or comment on what they’re wearing because that’s something they’ve chosen themselves.

It’s important to remember that you don’t necessarily have to accomplish everything in the very first conversation. It might be good to have an initial chat, then move away before you start struggling for things to talk about. Come back and talk again later, picking up on things they said the first time to show that you were listening, then make your interest more clear the third time you talk. Alternatively, you could do what I’ve done in the past and just tell them they have a magnificent arse every time you see them. I find this eventually gets the message across, although perhaps it only works when both people involved are very brazen flirts!

This leads us on to honesty. I’m a big fan of this, although I know how hard it can be to do. Once you’ve chatted to someone a bit I think it’s perfectly OK to be open about your interest, whilst making it easy for them to say if they’re not interested back. Some of the best (more serious) flirts that I’ve been on the receiving end of have been ones which made it clear that the person would like to be in my life in some way and that it’d be good whether we ended up friends or lovers.

Like I said before, perhaps the most difficult thing about flirting is being rejected and having to reject a flirt from someone else. Here are some key tips for how to turn somebody down clearly but kindly:

  • Use the word ‘no’ or ‘not’. ‘I’m afraid I’m not interested’, ‘I’m sorry, but no’.
  • Repeat if necessary. If they are persistent, be a stuck record. ‘I understand you’d really like something to happen but no’.
  • Don’t over-explain or justify. It’s OK to not be interested, you don’t have to have another excuse. Also, it can feel worse for them if you go into a long-winded explanation.
  • To cushion the blow you can empathise with them and/or offer something else if genuine. ‘I’m not interested in you in that way, but I’d love to get to know you better as a friend’, ‘That’s not my bag but I hope you find someone else’.
  • You can ask for more time or information if you’re not sure. ‘Can I get back to you?’ ‘What are you hoping will happen?’
  • After saying ‘no’ be prepared to move away. You don’t have to deal with their anger or upset.
  • If somebody does say ‘no’ to you, remember that they’re not rejecting you as a person. There are many reasons why somebody might not want to become physically or romantically involved, lots of them to do with them rather than with you. Also it’s much better if someone’s clear if they don’t feel that kind of connection with you so you don’t get into a tricky situation.

After running this workshop at BiCon I got lots of wonderfully positive feedback, particularly from people who’d found it difficult to turn flirts down in the past, so this stuff really does work! Please let me know of any other techniques that you’ve found to be particularly successful. Remember, if you do find it difficult to spot flirts, you can always take a leaf out of one bi newsletter editor’s book and have a friend distribute stickers to everyone who fancies you… (can’t think who or what you mean. Nice sticker by the way… – Jen)

Next edition I’ll be reporting on the Flirting with women for women BiCon workshop. Feel free to e-mail me with any suggestions, questions or particularly positive/negative experiences you’ve had on this topic.