I'm Terrible At Flirting, And Science Says You Probably Are Too

I've always been bad at flirting. The other day, a guy was flirting with me pretty persistently at a restaurant, complementing my necklace and asking where I got it. Although I tried my hardest to conjure up some witty banter in response, the conversation ended with me saying, "You need to get your own necklace", grabbing my food to-go, and running away. In all honesty, I've just never understood an activity where you're forced to tease and taunt, to find an excuse to touch someone before you're comfortable, or to view small-talk as a means to an end. No part of it seems authentic or organic, and yet I'm expected to have mastered various flirting techniques from a very young age in order to secure a relationship.

What makes it worse is that my friends are always on my case about honing these techniques. They tell me that flirting is supposed to come naturally, but then argue that it's also an art. Then they bombard me with tips and tricks that I'm supposed to remember in the heat of the moment when some guy is complementing my necklace (we never went over that topic!). "It takes practice," my friend says. "You've got to let your guard down a little." The problem is, I don't ever see myself as having a guard up in the first place. I simply fail to understand the hidden meanings behind flirtatious conversation. When a guy, for instance, is asking me where I bought my necklace, I'm really going to assume that he wants to know what store it came from. Perhaps it's my fault for being so awkward and uncomfortable, and for taking things too literally, but I'm not quite convinced that's true.

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Although I've been made to feel like the anomaly over the years, science seems to suggest otherwise. Research from Professor Jeffrey Hall of the University of Kansas tells us that, at least in the case of heterosexual couples, it's difficult to tell when we're being flirted with. For his study, Hall gathered a group of 52 single, heterosexual students and had them interact alone in a room for 10 to 12 minutes. At the end of their interactions, only 36 percent of the men and 18 percent of the women were able to correctly identify when their partner had flirted with them.

Researchers found a similar case among outside observers. In a follow-up study, Hall examined whether 250 people would be able to detect flirting among the 52 singles by watching one-minute video clips of their interactions. As it turns out, these outside observers were even worse at identifying flirting than the participants in the previous study. From these results, the study concluded that the majority of men and women were not adept at flirting. According to Hall:

Behavior that is flirtatious is hard to see, and there are several reasons for that. People aren’t going to do it in obvious ways because they don’t want to be embarrassed, flirting looks a lot like being friendly and we are not accustomed to having our flirting validated so we can get better at seeing it.

Hall's solution, then, is to avoid subtlety and be more direct. Let's ignore the fact that certain environments, such as the workplace, may exclude this type of forward behavior, and consider what direct interactions may mean for the future of flirting. First and foremost, it means running the risk of coming on too strong. But perhaps if all people were transparent with their flirting, there would be no such thing as "creeper" behavior.

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Still, this doesn't eliminate the more general problem I have with flirting, which is that it's so incredibly calculated. The idea that there are certain ways to flirt is extremely problematic for me, and I presume for a number of individuals, in that it means some people are better at it than others. As a result, people who aren't good flirts are naturally at a disadvantage in the dating game. What is more, even if all people were direct with their intentions, I'd probably still find it difficult to flirt with a guy when I know there's a specific objective for the conversation.

My solution, then, it is to take the emphasis off of flirtation altogether and try to get to know people first. Ask questions that you really care to know the answer to, and don't feel like you have to abide by any formulas during casual conversation. But lest you think that these are solutions to a personal problem, there are many who agree with me. According to Refinery 29, both male and female college students argue that the best way to express interest in someone is to ask them to dinner. No flirtation necessary, just a desire to get to know someone that you think might be a potential romantic partner down the line.

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Now I'm not arguing that flirting should become obsolete. For some people, it's actually quite fun, and can even tell you a lot about a person. Whether a man flirts by giving you a compliment or a backhanded insult, for instance, is often a good indication of character. Still, I'd argue that flirting shouldn't be the only way to initially spark up a romance. The important thing is to remain genuine in both your conversations and intentions. And for those of you, like me, who have yet to master the art of flirting, try to relax and throw out the rulebook, because the right guy will be persistent enough to let you know he's interested, and authentic enough to want to get to know you first.

Images: MTV, Giphy (3)