Strangers in the night

Europeans have such a flair for flirting that it must be transmitted via breast milk. Why don't Americans get it?

By Christine Schoefer

Published February 15, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

I still think about a stranger whose gaze held mine as
I leaned out of a train window at the Gare du Nord station in Paris. There was something about his smile that makes me wonder, to this day, who he was.

I remember a dark-haired woman from a Berlin garden party because of the way she steadied my hand with hers when I lit her cigarette during a playful verbal repartee.

And on dreary mornings, I recall my sunlit breakfast at a small trattoria in Viareggio, where a man lowered his newspaper just long enough to watch me walk over to my table. His gaze was neither demanding nor demeaning, but it awakened me to my presence. Tingling with this self-awareness, I sipped my cappuccino -- solo.

This is the art of flirting. What I love about it is that it has no consequences. It just stirs up the energy of an average day, for a shared moment of mutual recognition and attraction. Unlike friendship, its lifeblood is ambiguity and nuance. It thrives on glances, gestures and half-smiles. Flirting is not in pursuit of anything except itself.

I find it revealing that my fondest recollections of flirtation occurred while I was abroad. Sadly, in this country, the art of flirting is languishing. Weakened by the '60s, inhibited by the women's movement and the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, displaced by tell-all talk shows, its proximity to sexual harassment may have dealt flirting a mortal blow.

Flirting is not a strategy, but an artful riff on attraction. It has nothing to do with the sexuality flaunted in low-cut dresses or seductive poses. Compare the out-there sexuality of Madonna or Mick Jagger with Audrey Hepburn's sweet glances or Marcello Mastroianni's encounters and you get the difference. You know you've crossed over into the terrain of seduction when you begin issuing invitations or feel pressured by the other person's expectations.

Unfortunately, in the United States flirting is commonly thought of as a strategy in the mating game. It invariably connotes seduction and is considered an essential ingredient for snaring a mate.

I learned this the hard way when I first came to the United States as a teenager from Berlin. Hormones stirring, I was eager to make contact with the opposite sex in a Midwestern high school. Quite innocently, I engaged in actions that would be deemed adolescent flirtations by behavioral researchers: jostling, sitting close, smiling, making eye contact, etc.

I didn't mind being called a flirt by my peers until I learned that the subtext of that word was "she's asking for it." Actually, I wasn't asking for a thing except for a playful exchange. It never occurred to me that boys and girls would interpret a lingering gaze as a promise.
Flirtation could taint you regardless of whether or not you followed through -- you were either a tease or a slut. The girls voted "biggest flirt" in our high school yearbooks were called sluts behind their backs.

Of course, then I didn't understand that this relentless
typecasting was a way of penalizing girls for playing too aggressively with attraction. But the unspoken message came through loud and clear: The terrain of desire is governed by a complex set of rules made by
boys. Since every action had implications, playfulness was out of the question. Taking the initiative of flirting, for example, committed one to some sort of follow-up action.

It's possible that America's proverbial pragmatism left no
room for the ambiguity of innuendo and nuance in matters of sexual attraction. Certainly, Puritanism suppressed expressions of sensuality and designated eroticism, no matter how subtle, as treacherous territory.
My Webster's dictionary, which defines flirting as "behaving amorously without serious intent," captures the spirit of artful flirtation. But my thesaurus, which suggests synonyms with negative connotations, more accurately describes what the term has come to mean in America.

A flirt is a coquette, but also a tease, gold-digger, siren, vamp, vixen, swinger and philanderer. To flirt is to banter and dally, but also to make a pass, pick up, proposition, tease. Someone who is flirtatious is coy and enticing, but also libidinous, wolfish and a nymphomaniac. In other
words, flirtation is not as a harmless hide and seek game with Eros, but a means to a specific end.

A recent issue of Psychology Today stressed the importance of flirting and attempted to determine in two articles whether flirting is biologically or culturally driven.

In the first piece, evolutionary biologists argue that humans of all cultures engage in a fairly fixed repertoire of gestures to test a potential partner's sexual availability and interest. In this regard, we are not so different from insects, fish or mammals. Our mating dance follows a predictable sequence of attention, recognition, dancing, synchronization, which is another way of saying meeting, looking, touching, having sex. As the initial step in the procreation sequence, flirting is a form of self-promotion, a clever kind of advertising. And it is a silent negotiating process in which gestures transmit information about the viability of a possible sexual coupling.

This teleological view raises more questions than it answers. For one, it assumes rigid role behavior that seems outdated, to say the least. There is no reason to assume that women's signals are always submissive and men's are necessarily dominant. For another, it disregards the fact that flirtation, like other kinds of behavior, is culturally shaped and individually modulated. What happens when two women or two men flirt with each other?

The more sociologically oriented writers of the second article maintain that flirtation is not necessarily biologically driven. They see it as a game that can be played with artful self-awareness and even conscious calculation for fun and suspense. Citing recent studies, they conclude that flirting tends to be feminine domain: Women practice it more consciously and more frequently than men and many admit to rehearsing their moves.

I doubt that these last two conclusions have much currency in Europe. There, the flair for flirting is so universal and so second nature that I'm convinced it is either transmitted via breast milk or tiny airborne spores. The seasoned market vendor knows what she's up to when she tosses her head just so, but does the 12-year-old realize that his sparkly sidelong glance qualifies as flirting?

Could it be that Americans have infected this practice with their relentless work ethic, while Europeans include it in their broad range of playful leisure activities? Or did the pomp and extravagance of courtly rituals and games encourage Europeans to develop their own simpler versions of erotic play, to smooth out the rough edges of daily existence. Perhaps it's the pervasive presence of other sensuous pleasures? Pungent cheeses, velvety wines, chocolate with its purported aphrodisiac qualities that stimulates the desire to flirt?

Glossies like Cosmopolitan and Glamour have an endless supply of advice for women on how to snare a man with sizzling and sparkling acts of flirtation. And if you need more intensive lessons, you can study strategies of flirting in workshops that mix therapy and coaching. You will practice the most effective gestures -- stroking your hair, short, darting glances, mysterious half-smiles or absent-minded nods -- until they look fluid and spontaneous.

I have my doubts that the art of flirting can be learned by mastering a repertoire of scripted gestures. Like other arts, this one feeds on creativity and inspiration. It lives in the moment and unfolds in reference to another person. Actually, the most difficult part of flirting -- the strong sense of self it requires -- cannot be taught in a crash course but must be cultivated as a daily practice, like meditation. You have to have firm boundaries when another's gaze crosses over into the realm of intimacy. And if you are the one who is gazing, you must be solid enough to hold the other person's reaction.

There is no question that most of us have flirted strategically at some point. But what if mating is not on our minds at all? What if we are happily settled, and dating is the last thing we desire? Do we disregard everyday erotic vibrations altogether for fear of being misinterpreted as hunters on the prowl?

In the past few decades, even strategic flirting has come under attack. The women's movement, which coded all erotic innuendo as patriarchal, blasted flirtation as yet another means by which men objectified and intimidated women. It took me years to realize that flirting was not misogynist by definition and to reclaim it as fun.

With the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, the erotic became dangerous terrain. Talk shows that offer orgies of self-revelation are promoting a climate in which the subtlety of flirting doesn't stand a chance. Finally, as if all that weren't enough, sexual harassment has called into question the innocence of flirtation with legislation demonizing all erotic tension and playfulness, making acts of flirtation dangerous mines in the landscape of mutual attraction.

But sexual harassment goes counter to the spirit of flirtation. It proceeds from a stance of entitlement, and it favors the colonialist stare that grazes rather than gazes. While flirting is a horizontal encounter that presupposes equality and acknowledges the other as a subject, sexual harassment is vertical and denigrates the other as an object.

Flirtation wants nothing except momentary pleasure, it is invigorating, witty, light, even elegant. Sexual harassment is deadening, oppressive and heavy-handed, intent on trapping the other in discomfort and even fear.

When practiced artfully, flirting is as light as a chocolate souffli, stick a fork into it and it collapses. The pleasure of flirting is that you can play whether you are in a committed relationship or not. On my European travels, I learned that you do not have to be young, beautiful or single to flirt, just alive. Regardless of your sexual orientation, you can engage in it with men and women. I have flirted with solidly committed white-haired men, with women as married as myself, with adolescent lifeguards and ice-cream vendors. Sometimes, I fear that if I go too long without a European sojourn, I'll get too rusty to pass on this art to my daughters.

The worst a flirtation can do is to evoke jealousy in a third person. Because American culture teaches us to be single-minded when it comes to sexual attraction -- seeking a partnership for bed or for life -- acknowledging the erotic has an unsettling effect.

But since artful flirtation is not intent upon acting, it poses no threat, really. Watching a lover flirt with someone else can be like a pinprick piercing the bubble of our complacency, but what's wrong with stirring up the energy?

In our daily lives, a stranger is the closest thing we come to encountering a new frontier. Countless people flow past us unnoticed, but occasionally, one will kindle our interest. Artful flirtation does nothing more than acknowledge this fact. A glittering glimpse of our energy, it is like a shooting star that fades into the night, leaving us with nothing except perhaps a wish.

Christine Schoefer

Christine Schoefer is the mother of three die-hard female Harry Potter fans. She is also a German-American freelancer whose writing has appeared in the Nation, the L.A. Times, Utne Reader, the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications in the U.S. as well as in Germany

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