I’ve had a girlfriend for quite some time now, the buxom biologist TA, and though we rarely fight, we do occasionally have opposing opinions on certain matters. Like flirting, as I found out recently.
When we first met, TA was certain I’d be the problem partner in the relationship: the one who was a little less into it, the one who took the other a little bit for granted, the one who flirted. This was based on a particular impression people seem to have had about me, which is, how shall I put it, slightly whimsical affections. To her surprise (and mine, I must admit), I displayed an unprecedented orthodoxy in my views and ideas of how we should be as a couple. TA read that with positive prejudice, taking it as an indication of how much I was into her, and was pleased to reciprocate.
Until it came to flirting.
We were out at a party that was half work and half social for me, so some of the people we chatted with were people I might eventually work with. I was, therefore, working the room. We took our leave shortly and headed for our next event, a quiet drink with closer friends. As we commuted, we breezed over the conversations of the evening, focussing on one businesswoman in particular. I felt I had behaved with her with just the right balance of friendliness, charisma and disinterest in work that would make her want to work with me. I nearly jumped out the sunroof, therefore, when TA said matter-of-factly, “She’ll totally work with you, especially the way you were flirting with her.”
I spent the next five minutes sputtering indignantly that it was no such thing, that the woman was a repulsive specimen of femalekind, and how dare TA cast aspersions on the depth of my loyalty to her, the sole object of my steadfast affection? My rant expelled, TA clarified what she meant.
According to TA, there’s sexual flirting and social flirting. Sexual flirting is the well-known regular type, in which men and woman express sexual interest by a kind of effervescence in how they interact. Social flirting is when people express non-sexual interest by a kind of effervescence in how they interact. The interesting thing is that with social flirting, a person can do it the same way with any gender.
It was an intriguing idea. I have good interactions with most of the people I know, but did I actually flirt with some of them? The connotation of flirting is sexual, the word itself carries the weight of that usage. The strange thing is that the more I considered what TA was saying, the more I felt it was kind of true. It was disconcerting to contemplate the idea that I flirted with women and even men without really knowing it.
The key was to dissect what flirting really is. Ostensibly flirting is the primary means of conveying sexual interest. However, this is misleading. Flirting is actually a subset of play.
There’s a vast difference in perspective on what is normal playful behaviour between men. In large parts of India, men hold hands, wrestle languidly, lie on top of each other, and that is perfectly heterosexual playful behaviour. This, in the west, is generally considered homosexual. The term masti in Hindi can be applied to playful behaviour between men and men, men and women, and children — and, yes, masti can also have sexual overtones. The purpose of playfulness, aside from the fun factor, is to increase intimacy. Intimacy is increased by shared activity. Sexual flirting is a type of shared activity that breaks the social boundaries and increases sexual intimacy. Social flirting does the same thing, minus the sexual agenda. So, flirting is ultimately a kind of play to bypass social boundaries and protocol, to increase intimacy. Which, I must confess, I was guilty of. So, all flirting is not necessarily damning. And, social flirting to strengthen relationships is pretty okay. Especially considering that we’re all already doing it.
Olivier Lafont is an actor and scriptwriter.