I don’t know how to flirt. I never have. I suspect I never will.
In theory, I know how. I know all the tips and tricks that magazines hawk: wear some intoxicating perfume, flip your hair just once or twice (but never more than that because then you look silly and indecisive), talk low so he has to lean in and hear you, touch his arm lightly, make jokes that could be construed as dirty to an already dirty mind, laugh, look down, smile a lot — but do it all semi-secretly, like you’re the Mona Lisa, live for one night only in this bar! There are a lot of things you can do to flirt, and none of them are all that difficult. But then when it comes time to actually put everything into practice, I don’t know what to do. I freak out. And I just talk. A lot.
This is not a bad thing, really. Most of the time it isn’t, anyway. I have had conversations on online dating apps — you can have full-blown philosophical conversations on Tinder! Really! No dick pics involved! — and I’ve had conversations in bars, and on dates, and at parties where I didn’t know anyone, and in text message threads spanning months and years. And sure, being able to hold your own and actually talk to someone seems like a dying art these days, especially because we’re all equipped to talk in increasingly smaller, 140-character (or less) sound bytes, but when it comes to actually progressing, conversation doesn’t go anywhere. Flirting, which is much more overt, and offers much fewer crossed signals, seems to help things progress much faster.
We live in a society that champions the awkward, the adorkable, and the downright strange. It’s seen as a special defect, something you actually want — like how being lactose-tolerant is actually the mutation, I guess. But then again, not being weird seems a little boring, so maybe there’s reason for us to yearn for the quirky and the imperfect. (A few years ago, it was the claim that we were “so random!” that everyone sought out. The desire for strange or nerdy or crazy or whatever it is in this moment may rebrand every now and again, but it is not a new undercurrent.) Still, we have taken the concept of being weird around your crush — of flailing, and acting shy and strange and bizarre.
The concept of our crushes catching us unaware and rendering us incapable of acting like normal, functioning human beings is nothing new. “The last time, I freaked out, I just kept looking down. I st-st-stuttered when you asked me what I’m thinking about,” croons the singer in her 2007 song, ‘See You Again. (She continues in the chorus by saying that she “felt like [she] couldn’t breathe” and her crush “asked what’s wrong with [her].” She’s noticeably awkward, which is supposed to be relatable and endearing to her tweenage listener.) But the fact that we consider it normal to malfunction — that we can no longer have conversations with other people, so we resort to flirting “tricks” — should give us pause.
And yes, it’s a “we” thing. About 75% of millennials are unmarried, and untold millions of the generation have at least one dating app downloaded on their phones. “For fun,” my friends say, when they’re asked about the little widgets on the screen. “Why not?” “I just like the ego boost of knowing someone thinks I’m cute!” But we also bemoan the comments and opening lines we get on these sites and apps — because though we send 7,500 tweets, 1,394 Instagram photos, and over 2 million emails every second, we don’t actually know how to talk to people. (41% of 20-somethings consider it okay to ask someone out through a text. Whether or not emoji up your odds of a ‘yes’ is still up for debate.)
So yes, sure, we communicate. We converse. We live in a world of instant connection, and instant interaction. But we never seem to make a connection, and we don’t have to — there are so many options dangling there, just a swipe away on the other side of your phone, that if you don’t immediately feel sparks and fireworks and whatever cosmic a-ha! moment you think you deserve, you can delete the number and move onto the next person. And though Jennifer Lawrence argues that “boring [is] so much better than passion” and all she wants is “a peaceful time. [Those relationships] are deeper because you can be your true self with somebody, and somebody can be their true self with you,” most people would argue that they want both. They want passion and boring. A sweatpants kind of love, but maybe designer sweatpants. You know, the kind that cost $200 a pop and you wouldn’t ever want to actually sweat in. Flashy, but comfortable.
And in an age where the common theme is instant gratification, the “hookup culture” — I cannot tell you how many friends have told me that their first date never turned into a second when the other person realized they weren’t going to put out that night, and God forbid more work in lieu of a second date to get into somebody’s pants — seems normal. Wanting to actually talk to someone, to get to know them, to understand what makes them tick is all secondary to knowing their social media handles, their following, what they ordered for brunch last Sunday. We’ll creep on social feeds and hope to God that we don’t accidentally fav or double-tap (and therefore make our presence known) before we’ll pick up the phone and just talk. We get to know people, sure, but in covert ways we can never admit to. We can’t, after all, let slip that we were creeping on them. They’d think we were weird.
But when pressed as to what we’re looking for in another person, it usually boils down to the same thing: someone to laugh with, someone to have a good time with, someone you can just be yourself around. These are not things that are that strange to want in a relationship, and if you’re going to sit through dates and dinners and maybe even the rest of your lives together, it would help if you could hold a conversation through it. Better still if the conversation doesn’t seem forced — if you can just, y’know, talk.
So maybe we shouldn’t be focused on flirting so much after all. Sure, it’s fun, and there will never not be a plethora of advice and tricks and tips — after all, flirting is one way to actually know the other person is into you, and since we live in a world where people don’t know if they’re officially in a relationship unless it’s like, Facebook official, there are some benefits to it. But flirting is often just a gateway — the opening line, the ice-breaker, the drawing you away from the giggling group of friends – and then you’re left to other things, like your personality and your sense of humor and your interests. The things that make you who you are. Cosmo, for all of its endless dating hacks, can’t give you a personality. Your social media feeds are carefully curated versions of your personality, but they only go so far. The only way for the other person to know if who you are lives up to whatever ideals you actually hold in the flesh — that three-dimensional, multifaceted you standing right there in the dark bar — is if they have a conversation with you.
And if neither of you can actually talk to and with each other, how are you supposed to weather your first fight, or any big financial decisions, or even The Talk? And if we’re so weird and awkward and ungainly, wouldn’t we want people to know that about us off the bat? Maybe we should all just find someone we can be weird with. I have a feeling that’s what we really want, deep down. Because if we’re all weird in our own ways, then we’re also all normal. And that feeling — of belonging, of inclusion, of not being so strange after all – might be the best indicator of close bonds and strong relationships, whether you’re single or coupled, flirtatious or shy, actively looking or just along for the ride.