explain to me this... mojo.
January 23, 2009 9:55 AM   Subscribe

Please explain the basic principles of flirting to me as if I were an alien who had recently landed on Earth trying to describe the phenomenon for my anthropological records or something.

Because advice that seems to make sense to everyone else on such matters is completely lost on me (e.g. "be confident" -- but how?).

I'm a 24-year-old straight male, living in new york city, I'm successful, bright, reasonably attractive, and I have scads of friends, but my romantic history is laughably abbreviated.

I don't know how to read non-verbal communication, I don't know what to say (or, indeed, what not to say) to a girl to indicate I'm interested, nor how to steer a conversation towards a situation that might lead to make-outs. Or at least a phone number.

It is impossible to dumb down your explanation too much. Really.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (27 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a 24-year-old straight male, living in new york city...

Okay you're already starting in a tough place.

It's pretty much just applying a sense of humor or wit turned in a playful or mischievous direction. If you can infuse conversation with light jokes or double-entendres or other banter that slowly and gently gets a bit more serious or dirtier over time... you're now in the flirting pool.

If the other person is reciprocating (or even trying to, bless their heart), keep pushing a bit more toward the deep end -- slowly -- until the other person backs off. It's quid-pro-quo, and you'll only really look bad if you go too far, too fast. If they are not responding... back off!
posted by rokusan at 10:02 AM on January 23, 2009 [4 favorites]

Social Issues Research Centre's Guide to Flirting and Advanced Guide
posted by djb at 10:03 AM on January 23, 2009 [5 favorites]

You might find that The SIRC Guide to Flirting is worth a look.
posted by Lycaste at 10:05 AM on January 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

how to steer a conversation towards a situation that might lead to make-outs. Or at least a phone number.

Make jokes or half-serious suggestions in the middle of light conversation. Choose strength of suggestion carefully. In other words, give her some openings and see what she does with them.

"You like baseball? You should come with me to Citi sometime."
"Ha-ha, okay, next time I am starving for Thai food I will call you."
"Yeah I dress like a clown. I need someone smarter to take me shopping sometime."
"I need a drink."

...and watch/listen to the response. As above, back off if it's not being reciprocated.
posted by rokusan at 10:06 AM on January 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

From a (possibly cynical, sexist, and self-absorbed) lady's perspective: If we are not already friends, and you start talking to me, I am going to assume you're interested in me. If you mention my appearance, at all, I am going to assume the same thing. If you buy me a drink, I am going to assume you want into my pants (not a bad thing as long as all involved understand that accepting said drink does not constitute a contract for sexual congress).

Flirting is just a conversation where the two people involved have compatible genitalia. How successful will likely depend on you taking the advice of people who are better at this than me.
posted by Juliet Banana at 10:10 AM on January 23, 2009 [8 favorites]

The best advice that not many people give is to flirt when it doesn't matter. Don't try out your flirting skills when you've got your eye on the prize and you're worried about making a good impression. Flirt all the time. Make light hearted banter and funny innuendo a part of social interactions. For some reason Americans are terrible at it, but non-British Europeans excel at it.

If you're comfortable making light and flirtatious banter with someone when everyone knows its just goofing around, it'll be much easier when you're actually trying to snag the interest of the other party. The big upside of this is that when you say something remarkably flat or stupid sounding... when you're goofing around with your friends they'll call you right on it and make fun of you ;-) It's instant feedback!
posted by JFitzpatrick at 10:18 AM on January 23, 2009 [5 favorites]

If you're comfortable making light and flirtatious banter with someone when everyone knows its just goofing around, it'll be much easier when you're actually trying to snag the interest of the other party.

This is really, really true. It also really helps if you can develop some friendships with girls, or at least reasons to talk to them that don't involve trying to hit on a stranger at a bar. You can join any kind of group or club, pub quiz team--anything that will give you a common interest gives you a place to start flirting because it gives you something to talk about.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 10:34 AM on January 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Yeah, echoing everyone: you're psyching yourself unnecessarily. Flirting isn't about tricks, or signals. There's no secret code everyone but you learned at 16 in their parents' basement parties. Ignore the guidebooks, because calculated gestures (obvious touching, sustained and Sauron-like eye contact, dust bin questions) usually ring false to me and lots of New York girls who are used to the rigors of the city meat market. They make me feel like I just got cast in someone's amateur play about Boy Accosts Girl.

Do you know how to start a conversation with a girl at a party? A safe bet is to catch the girl in a group of people she knows, winnow in a decent opening sentence ("how do you know [host's names]?" or "yeah, I was going to order the pink grasshopper too, but I chickened out and got a Budweiser instead"). Don't siphon her away from her friends, but let her know you're interested in talking to her specifically. Girls pick up quickly that a guy's flirting when he's singling them out for a conversation, and this instantly triggers that "hmm, is he cute? smart? funny?" wire in her brain.

When I'm at a bar and talking to someone new, I'm more inclined to stick around with someone who's just talking to me rather than looking at themselves talking to me and second guessing everything they're saying. We're all Nervous Nellys when talking to strangers, but if you're degenerating into self-deprecating gestures and apologies and mumbling, then uh, I have to see if my friend is back from the bathroom. So when you feel yourself slipping into this oh-god-why-am-I-talking-to-this-girl-about-systems-analysis-FUCK-I-need-to-bail panic attack, pull yourself together, man, and tell me that my shoes are rad, or ask what I've been reading lately.

In conclusion: Mute the meta-commentary in your head that's constantly berating you for being lame and clueless. Wear your favorite shirt to the bar. I promise you, girls will appreciate sincerity and confidence way more than cliched signals some playboy wrote in a guide book.
posted by zoomorphic at 10:46 AM on January 23, 2009 [8 favorites]

Me giving advice is really the blind leading the blind here, but I liked The Definitive Book of Body Language. It points out a lot of subtle stuff I never noticed before.
posted by Durin's Bane at 10:46 AM on January 23, 2009

...Sauron-like eye contact...

Which is unnatural and creepy as hell, but if you're the type who simply doesn't make eye contact, then you're missing out on both receiving cues she may be sending and sending the message that you're interested. If you make a point to just make a little more eye contact in general, you may find your interactions going differently.
posted by kittyprecious at 11:27 AM on January 23, 2009

A lot of women prefer regular talking to flirting. If you can't have an interesting conversation without goo-goo eyes, cheezy come-ons and phony manipulative games, what's the point? A lot of people flirt just to prove they've got "the stuff" and are still attractive...bah. If it doesn't come naturally to you, you're better off just being yourself.

I don't go to bars, but if someone started talking to me about systems analysis, I'd give them props for having the balls to be themselves.

enthusiastic, genuine, and confident > "slick", insincere, and insecure.
posted by aquafortis at 12:20 PM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Socially adept people will tell you to be yourself. This is not terribly useful when you are trying to change who you are. So here are some concrete things that I have to often TELL myself to do when I am flirting. (Caveat: I am a nerd and proud of it so tailor these ideas to whatever demo you feel necessary.)

If she laughs at something you say, leaning forward, lean forward yourself to reply. Reach out your arm and casually squeeze her shoulder or upper hip. Then stop. Alternatively, punctuate a phrase by poking her in the arm playfully (indian rugburn may be taking it a bit too far).

If she says something you don't quite hear, or even if she mutters and you do hear it, lean down and turn your ear toward her and say what? while keeping your eyes generally towards her. Gauge her response carefully but if she leans in herself and speaks to your cheek respond by leaning towards her ear and lowering your voice. (Woman must be shorter than you for this to work. If she is taller, try growing.)

Balance sarcasm with wild-eyed optimism. This espeically works well if you're in kind of a crappy bar. "This place is amazing huh?" is a better conversation starter in an Applebees than some hipster club. If in a hipster club, "Man they don't have places like this back in Omaha!" is preferable. Sure these are dumb, but the point is to establish a conspiracy between the two of you. You and her versus everyone else, first as a joke, but then in physical space as you both block out the rest of the environment to have an intimate conversation. If you say something negative, immediately follow it with something positive. "This band is about to play a Hootie cover aren't they? Good lord why. On the other hand, that hootie guy does sell a mean Tendercrisp Bacon Cheddar Ranch sandwich. God I'm hungry."

The pickup artist insult thing is boring, but teasing is fun and establishes that you're not afraid of the opposite sex. Primary topics are common items of clothing that she isn't wearing but probably has ("Man I love those Uggs that girl is wearing, she looks like a robot from the 1960s! Oh you have those? Are you going to EXTERMINATE me? Danger Danger!") or a celebrity she mentions ("You love Miley don't you? You love her wholesome and chipper attitude. You are a closet Mormon, I can tell") Don't complain though, that's annoying (Do: "You read Twilight? Hold on, I've got to go get my body glitter." Do NOT: "HOLY SHIT THAT IS THE WORST BOOK EVER HAVEN'T YOU READ ANN RICE SHE'S SO MUCH BETTER AND ONE TIME WHEN I WAS PLAYING VAMPIRE THE RPG WHERE ARE YOU GOING?") Agreement is a conversation-ender, it's all about Yes, And. or No, but...

Call her dude, or man or buddy or pal or guy or chief or homey or captain. Or something. Nothing says "I think you're cute" more than pretending that she is a man. It's like asking her to wear one of your collared shirts and a tie.

Dance. Don't formally invite, just take her hand and say "hey let's dance!" once you've been talking for more than a half-hour or less if you're sure she'd like to.

I find that it is best to work on a Punctuated Equilibrium theory of flirting evolution. Every conversation begins at Conversation State 0 (a species in which you and she are both potentially interested). This state is stable. Meanwhile a multitude of informational mutations are occurring in the course of your interactions. Then, suddenly once a large accumulation of these mutations have built up, a new species of State will sweep across the plains and replace State 0 with either -1 or +1. -1 being either you or her is NOT INTERESTED, or (+1) it's clearly time to exchange spit and/or numbers. This will not necessarily occur before you have to go meet your friends or she pretends to.

In State 0 it is possible to ask for her phone number. Mutation is still occurring and certainty has not yet been reached. If you hang out for a while and no new species has shown itself, it's acceptable to take a break without getting anymore information. Go get a beer or a cupcake. Try again later or just give her your email address and split.
In State -1 no more information should be exchanged.
In State +1, kiss asap.

The important thing here is to remain satisfied within State 0 until enough small changes have occurred to swiftly and irrevocably break the equilibrium. So it's not about recognizing small hints like she plays with her hair or licks her lips or looks around for her friends, but all of these should register gradually with you until a formidable new beast emerges, or she throws a drink in your face in which case there's your sign.

All of these are based on the idea that you are funny, but if you are not, then adapt strategies to whatever you are good at in conversation. If you are thoughtful, lean forward and touch her when she nods at your wisdom and you reply. If you are quiet, ask her questions and remember her answers, then bring them back later in the conversation when you can. Just being sober and interested enough to recall what she said is pretty hot.

Wow I just wrote a lot.

Closing arguments: I hope this didn't come across as sexist, I think all of my advice could be applied for women to flirt with men. These specific things might not work, or might work a lot less than something different. The point is that it's helpful when you're awkward about flirting to have a plan. You do X Y and Z and they don't work so you adapt them and do X1 Y1 and Z1 and they work better but you seem phony but then eventually you are just "being yourself" while employing strategy X12 Y76 and Z29.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:40 PM on January 23, 2009 [18 favorites]

I'm going to contradict Juliet Banana a bit and say that while it is, on some level, about sex, it's only the forbidden fire that the two people dance around to make a conversation more interesting. There's a waitress that I flirt shamelessly with, and she flirts back just as shamelessly. But neither of us are really 'interested' in each other. She's happily married and not my type, but we have fun in a challenge-response kind of way. In fact it's almost more fun knowing that there's no true 'danger' in it. Well go back and forth until I say something apparently shocking and she walks away, only to have her return 30 seconds later to whisper something that completely catches me off guard.

Some people just like the higher-stakes verbal fencing that flirting brings about and it has very little to to with getting into pants. It's a way that some people use to raise a conversation out of the mundane.

A good professional flirting session is a bit like playing the dozens but rather than insults it's compliments, innuendos, and suggestion.
posted by Ookseer at 12:43 PM on January 23, 2009

I have been accused "flirting" on numerous occasions. My alleged flirting took the form of conversation and good-natured joking with someone of the opposite sex. If that is considered flirting, well then so be it.

I guess the best way to know you're flirting with someone is when you don't know you're flirting.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 12:57 PM on January 23, 2009

Engagement - start talking. It's really okay to introduce yourself and ask how she knows the party host or some other generic question. At first when I did this I felt stiff but people appreciate friendliness. Ask her questions about herself, starting with generic stuff and then getting into more details as you find points of common interest. Make jokes if you can think of any, but don't stress about it. Smile. Laugh. Make some eye contact, not all-the-time, but look at her.

Reciprocation - watch for signals from her. Returned eye contact, lots of laughing, smiling, touching.

Escalation - this is how people know you want further contact with them and aren't just flirting "for fun," but are really interested. Compliments, touching (like on the hand or arm), moving from one part of the party to the other ("let's go dance" "let's go out sit out on the porch") all accomplish this.

End of the evening - sometimes you lose track of someone in a party even when things are going well. In that case just chalk it up to bad luck and hope to see them again or maybe send them a message on facebook if things went really well. But if you arrive at the end of the evening and are still together, you have a golden opportunity. Express your desire to see her again, ask for her phone number, take it, and then call her.

Don't be daunted by your own nervousness or fear - everyone feels that way, have a drink to loosen up but don't get too drunk, be a gentleman, be friendly, and eventually a girl will reciprocate your interest.
posted by mai at 1:55 PM on January 23, 2009

Reach out your arm and casually squeeze her shoulder or upper hip.

Upper hip? Oh HELL no. Until you know her better, leave the pelvis alone.

A lot of women have body image issues. If there's anything on her hip to squeeze, she's going to hate you intensely for pointing out the chub. If she's underweight or anorexic, she might feel terrified you're judging her and implying she needs to lose a few. Either way, it's likely to be too intimate for somebody you just met.

teasing is fun

Fun for whom? Do you enjoy being the butt of jokes and negative remarks too, or is this just for putting women in their place?

and establishes that you're not afraid of the opposite sex.

It can also establish you're not afraid of being an insensitive jerk. Why is this even an issue, much less something you need to prove? Seems like antagonism toward the opposite sex, not fear.

Jesus H. Christ on a popsicle stick. No wonder I don't go to bars.
posted by aquafortis at 2:11 PM on January 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Please do not "[r]each out your arm and casually squeeze [my] shoulder or upper hip". Especially my upper hip. If you're not comfortable with flirting in general, this may be too complex a move and to be honest, I doubt I'd stick around if every a really good flirter made this move. Also, don't poke me.

Otherwise I agree with Juliet Banana - if I'm at a bar and you start to talk to me, I'll assume you're interested. If I'm not interested, I'll be cool/standoffish and answer in monosyllables ("Thanks", "It's nice", "Mm-hmm" etc. ). If I'm interested, I'll be happy to talk to you. Parties are similar except I am more friendly (because I figure everyone is a friend of a friend).

I like striking up conversations with strangers (of either gender) and if it doesn't come off as too 'flirty' at first, I'm more likely to be comfortable enough to carry on the conversation to the flirty level. But even then I've been know to give my number to guys with whom I've never really 'flirted' with.

(Maybe slip in some comment about "your boyfriend" to suss out whether she's available or not)
posted by hydrobatidae at 2:20 PM on January 23, 2009

If you are interested in someone, ask them about themselves. There's no trick that will give you a greater return on your energy than showing a genuine interest in people. Pay attention to the answers they give to your questions- when you hit a topic that they get excited about, continue to move the conversation in that direction. Move away from topics they attempt to gloss over.

You: So, what do you do?
Her: Oh, I'm out of work right now, but I just sent in my application to go to cooking school and I'm excited to start that in 2 months.

What do you do?
A) Oh, got laid off, huh? This economy sucks, huh?
B) Out of work, eh? So I guess I'm getting the drinks, yuk yuk yuk!
C) Oh, neat. ::look at phone, twirl ring on finger, look at other people::
D) Oh, you're going to go to cooking school, wow! Tell me more about that- what made you interested in that?

There's advice above on teasing, and the way it's laid out sounds more like a bad comedy showcase than an engaging conversation. You don't have to be drop-dead funny to be a good flirt, and if you try too hard to be funny, you might miss your mark. Also, squeeze any part of my body without invitation and risk death.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 3:24 PM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Don't flirt. I find flirting exasperating. I prefer blunt and direct honesty. After getting to know someone, saying, "Hey, I think you're excellent. I would like to [insert something here, depending on what you want]."

I'm not saying it works, but then flirting (giving or receiving it) doesn't really work for me either, so. You might as well try to be brave enough to be honest and direct.
posted by Casuistry at 3:46 PM on January 23, 2009

Flirting or not, please don't touch a stranger. Chicks do not dig it, I promise. I might lay a hand on the arm of a good friend I was flirting with, but if a guy I didn't knew put his hand anywhere near my midsection, I would immediately head for the door. Be nice, not cheesy, not touchy feely, and have a sense of humor.
posted by CwgrlUp at 3:56 PM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

People tell lies to each other.
"I sent you a bunch of flowers at Christmastime!"
"Oh, how nice of you. I never got them."
"I'm so sorry. They must have got lost in the mail."
Granted, the man who did this with me (he is twice my age) had just moved back to the mainland US from an island.
posted by bad grammar at 5:28 PM on January 23, 2009

Flirting is fun, and the more unrealistic, the more fun it is. Being married is great, because I can flirt all I want with not expectations on any side of follow-through. And the genitals don't even need to be compatible, either -- if even a painfully and narrowly straight guy like me can have fun flirting with gay guys and lesbians, then so can you. It's not about sexual possiblity as much as it is just acknowledging the other person as a fellow sexual being.

The touching thing is tricky. When it works, it really, really works. But otherwise, it is intrusive and downright rude. Three dudes probably tried to grab her ass when she went looking for the bathroom ten minutes before, so the onus is on you to not be dude number four, you know?

Personally, I let the woman take the lead on touching. Unless she chooses to reach out and touch my arm or whatever, I simply respect her physical space totally. That way you aren't trying to read subtle little clues, which might even be contradictory, or might not be serious.

The core thing to take away here, I think, is that many, if not most, people, enjoy and are craving contact with other people. So "flirting" -- meaning fun, low-key, not intrusive, not PUA-weirdness -- is about adding pleasure and value to both your day and someone else's. If it's not fun for both people, step back and try again differently later.

Teasing, like self-deprecation, can be really hard to pull off in a way that isn't off-putting. Usually when I see those things, they are working more as defense mechanisms than as ways of making contact with another person, and that's the opposite of what you want -- you want to draw the person in, not push them away.
posted by Forktine at 9:05 PM on January 23, 2009

"Man I love those Uggs that girl is wearing, she looks like a robot from the 1960s! Oh you have those? Are you going to EXTERMINATE me? Danger Danger!"

"Don't you mean Cybermen? Daleks don't have feet."
posted by aquafortis at 9:31 PM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Reach out your arm and casually squeeze her shoulder or upper hip. Then stop.

Please stop before your hand reaches my shoulder.

Don't formally invite, just take her hand and say "hey let's dance!" once you've been talking for more than a half-hour

Don't do this. Ask if she wants to dance. It shows respect and doesn't send a patronizing/slightly creepy controlling message.

That said, I've had relationships begin with the most unsexy of conversations. I, ever the maternal/caring one, butted into a conversation one guy was having with a classmate about a cut he'd suffered to his eye. That was followed by a fire drill in which we couldn't shut up to each other, friendship, and a relationship a few months later. Chemistry can begin in the weirdest scenarios.

The lesson in that is not to play games. Don't try to put on too much. Because if there's chemistry, you should be able to feel something relatively soon. I'm sure you've felt a signal in your previous relationships. Maybe you're just trying too hard.

Shared activities and interests are a great icebreaker. Go to meetup.com and join a group for an activity you like. It makes it easier to talk to someone, and when you're involved in a group together, it removes the pressure to flirt/be interested/be super suave and it helps kill awkward silences since you can always refer back to the film/quiz/political topic/Aboriginal Dance lessons that brought you to the evening's outing in the first place.
posted by cmgonzalez at 12:15 AM on January 24, 2009

It's easier to describe what it's not. Flirting says "you're cute, and I'm interested" in a fun, non-threatening, playful way. It's also something that comes naturally, and isn't forced. Forced flirting looks creepy.

I'm guessing here, but the way you use aliens as your default metaphor and say things like 'scads' and 'laughably abbreviated' makes me pretty sure that almost everything you say or do says "I have a large collection of Monty Python LPs and I fantasize about having magic powers". If this is true, you're probably screwed, and always will be. You don't have the natural abilities - the mojo, as you put it, probably in an Austin Powers accent - and you can't learn them anymore than you can learn to be tall.

And don't take advice about how to talk to girls from somebody who uses Sauron as a simile.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:02 AM on January 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Whatever, obiwanwasabi. Dorks flirt, too. ;)

I'm still trying to figure this stuff out myself. I think the reasons why people always tell you to be confident are two-fold:

First, it's really hard to be too confident. Yes, there's always that jackass that can't stop bragging about himself, but I doubt you're that guy. Think of it this way: if someone sees you and thinks "that guy thinks he's way better than he actually is", that person's never going to want you in the first place. Whereas plenty of people are turned off by an otherwise awesome person being too nervous and shy. So you have nothing to lose by being as confident as possible.

Secondly, being confident allows you to stop focusing on yourself and everything you're doing/could do wrong and focus on the other person. Maybe you would find it easier to pick up cues from women if you were more attuned to them. Also, many cues are ambiguous. For a long time, I, lacking confidence, erred on the side of "no, they're not into me". After all, extended eye contact, fun conversations, a hand on the arm - they can all be explained away. Maybe you're picking up on cues and then discounting them.

Of course, I have no idea how to actually make myself more confident. Right now, the current plan is to fake it til I make it.

(And, re-reading your question, I have no idea if a lack of confidence is your issue. Oh well! The essay still stands.)
posted by shaun uh at 9:30 PM on January 25, 2009

Something that might chill you out about flirting is that it really doesn't matter what you say or do because if the person wants you to talk to them, you could say pretty much anything. You can have a line that you say, but keep it simple and positive. If you feel you aren't good at flirting memorizing lines and rules will just trip you up. Have your rule be "simple and positive".

The SIRC article that was recommended above is great for learning to read others' body language so that if your simple and positive doesn't go over well you can back out before things get excrutiating. And ditto the suggestion to practice when it doesn't matter.
posted by kenzi23 at 4:07 PM on January 26, 2009

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