19 June, 2009

Ambiguity in Flirting

Stephanie Zvan of Almost Diamonds has called me out in the mini-series going on below for having not aptly noted that I have not yet discussed how women socially condition men. I have discussed how men are failing their brothers and sons and how men acting in society perpetuate, unwilling or not, gender inequality. She's quite correct in that I have so far left out a very important part of the dialectic, but honestly I haven't yet done so because how men and women interact and shape each other in society is even more complex than the differentiation pathways of dendritic cells, and I still don't feel like I know enough about the latter in the first place, let alone the former.

For example, I was walking home from the lab the other day, still in my lab clothes (dress shirt tucked into Dickies with sneakers and a jacket), lost in the depths of my head as I often am. I noted that there were 2 casually dressed women approaching me from the opposite direct walking side by side, so I politely stepped to the edge of the sidewalk so they could pass and fixed my gaze somewhere oblique. Then, as they approached, one said loudly to the other "That's a GREAT IDEA, NAME!" and then she turned to me as they passed and told me so as well. I stammered back "Good, I'm glad to hear it!" and turned away to walk away and hide my blushing. I still have no fucking clue what any of that was about.

But the thing is, is I immediately wondered if they'd been playing a joke on me because my nerdness is apparent from 50m distance or if it was some odd form of flirting. I suspect that the ambiguity of flirting shapes a lot of how men perceive women's cues and accordingly react. Men grow up exposed to women in films and other popular media who very often say the opposite of what they really want, who are coy, or who are fufilled by a the acquisition of a strong protective man. This, in turn, leads men to believe that in order to possess win over a woman they must be strong and protective, and this is all too frequently transmuted into a smothering sense of entitled control and possession.

Although, in rational terms, it seems a wide and ridiculous leap from a protective attitude to a possessive attitude, the emotional space is actually rather small. It is all too easy for one to go "I protect them when they need it" to "I protect them therefore I know what is best for them". This kind of thing perpetuates the patriarchal attitudes of society just by itself and was especially evident in the historical argument against women's suffrage that they'd just vote how their husbands told them to.

Nonetheless, men believing that they must be strong, aloof*, and shallow to gain access to a relationship with a woman hurts both men and women in the long run. Men hide their emotions from women, and then from themselves, and as such carry around a knot of confusion that too easily erupts into rage and violence. And when many men may perceive the women in their lives (or lack thereof) as the source of their stress (which is a socially encouraged scapegoat**), they lash out at them, emotionally conflating their own misunderstood hurt with the "fight" response of flight-or-fight.

That society tells men they must be strong for women and to get women creates a strong impetus for men to not show weakness around women, especially those they are in relationships with. A woman may push very hard on the man in her life to open up to her emotionally, but when he does so she may very well never be able to see him as she used to want to perceive him, and at some level many men know this and as such it is an additional incentive to remain closed off. Perhaps women could help men here by signaling that they will not judge them poorly if they open up, as this clarity could help a lot of men to become more confident simply with feeling their emotions and not dangerously bottling them up.

I know I'd sure appreciate it if flirting were clearer.


(UPDATE: I just noticed that it doesn't say so anywhere here, but this video is "Closer" by Suffrajett. Citation citations!)

*Toaster has frequently been described as aloof. This is inaccurate. Toaster is simply oblivious.
**Bachelor Pad vs. Ball and Chain.

19 comments:

Jason Thibeault said...

*Toaster has frequently been described as aloof. This is inaccurate. Toaster is simply oblivious.

We have a point of commonality, you and I! I've been told that girls were "obviously" flirting with me, and can honestly say I had no freaking clue. Which explains the long stretches of single-ness between significant others.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Toaster, I'm very sorry. I had no intention whatsoever of calling you out. That was intended to be an oblique observation on a number of various reactions by commenters in lots of different places across this discussion. And no, there's no way you could have known that.

Nor have I offered any comments that would give you the context that I'm hugely impressed with this series of posts. Let me fix that.

This is a huge, complicated set of situations. If it weren't, you and I each could have written one post and been done with it. There's simply no way to say everything that needs to be said in even a short series of posts. These posts, however, are focused, thoughtful, empathetic and insightful.

To put it another way, these are very mature posts and would be even if you were three times your age. To be honest, the fact that you're mature enough to have written them at your age makes me worry just a little, since in our society, that kind of early maturity usually requires trauma. It's only the fact that you are just as capable of bringing the silly that reassures me.

Seriously, you're doing very good things here.

ktbug Ladydid said...

There's definitely a discord between the reality of male to female interactions, and the fantasy interactions young people are shown. Movies and books (fiction media in general) provide that standard, "man protects woman" mentality, so much so that women often seek out men like that in reality. Then these men often take the juggernaut approach to relationships, because it's "expected of them."

Flirting is a scary, yet highly entertaining endeavor. And although many times we strike out with the opposite sex, I like to think the reciprocated flirting is a just reward for all the failures and embarrassments. Just try to remember that there are some of us ladies out there who do enjoy a man who can be in tune with his emotions, and is perfectly happy flying his dork/geek/nerd flag.

By the by, do you happen to know....the doom song? :)

scicurious said...

I love this series of posts, Toaster. They are REALLY important.

Also, it's not just guys who are oblivious. I get told that people are "checking me out" ALL the time, and I may have actually noticed this behavior twice.

Becca said...

Toaster- if I were a loud random woman on the street telling you something was a great idea, it would be neither flirting or mocking. It would be a recognition that my ebullient manner of speaking had spilled over onto an innocent bystander, followed by an attempt to include that bystander (in order to mitigate the rudeness, or at least distract from it).
Ambiguity in flirting exists (from both genders) at least in part for the purpose of allowing us to save face (oh, I wasn't *really* interested). Going up to someone and telling them you wanna have like 10,000 of their babies is very creepy, and can't really be taken back.
That said, if you are just willing to look ridiculous, you can get around much of it.

D. C. said...

Nothing beats experience, and it's best to learn the game when the stakes are low.

The best flirting lessons evah for me were with friends when we were both attached. Yeah, I know -- egg, chicken. However, flirting is a fun party game when all concerned are clear on the fact that it is a game and not for serious. (Obviously, the whole "consent" thing applies; I wish it could go without saying.)

So be flirtatious. I suspect (but you'll have to ask them) that some of the ladies here would be fine with your practicing flirtatiousness with them.

--

The above is a page from my paternal advice to my far-side-of-geek sons, in the chapter on "just be good company first and foremost -- anything else is cart before horse."

Toaster Sunshine said...

@Jason:
Good to know I'm not alone out here in the 5th standard deviation from mean social aptitude.

@Stephanie:
Looking back, "calling out" was the wrong phrase to use. I probably should have said "noted" instead. I'll swicky-fix it.

Thanks for the props!

@ktbug:
Just try to remember that there are some of us ladies out there who do enjoy a man who can be in tune with his emotions, and is perfectly happy flying his dork/geek/nerd flag.

Perhaps you'd know where your peers hang out in SE MI?

And I don't know the Doom Song, although I recently finished one song entitled "Swiftly Daftly Boom Boom Doom". Perhaps you can enlighten me?

@Sci:
Thanks!

@Becca:
Saving face is valid. I'd be very taken aback if someone wanted to have 10,000 of my babies and told me so at any point because that would be an EPIC BIOLOGY FAIL. Unless, of course, they had a massively polycornate uterus.

Jason Thibeault said...

Methinks ktbug refers to Invader Zim, Gir's "doom song" from the pilot episode. Which consists of him singing "doom doom doomy doomy" for like six months.

Massively polycornate uterus for the successful reproductive strategy win!

Stephanie Zvan said...

Jason, until you figure out a way to carry around that massively polycornate uterus yourself, you might want to tone down the enthusiasm. :)

Toaster, I would totally flirt with you, but my version wouldn't teach you much. Firstly because I flirt very oddly and much more experienced people than you have had difficulty telling when I'm flirting. Secondly, because it's the kind of thing that really has to be seen in person to teach you to recognize it.

The really strange thing about flirting is that it's dead obvious from six or more feet away. I suggest picking a socially observant friend or two and asking them to let you know when you've been flirted with (or, if you can trust them to be subtle, while you're being flirted with). Then you'll have some data to apply to new situations.

D. C. said...

Toaster, I would totally flirt with you, but my version wouldn't teach you much. Firstly because I flirt very oddly and much more experienced people than you have had difficulty telling when I'm flirting. Secondly, because it's the kind of thing that really has to be seen in person to teach you to recognize it.

In person maybe, but your online persona is sending all sorts of flirtatious signals. (Becca, too, at least as far as my Flirt Warning Detector is reading.)

Then again, I'm several sigma off the mean myself and that kind of thing is seriously sensitive to wavelength mismatch.

Which reminds: Toaster, Jason, et al: "flirt signals" are both social and personal, and part of your obliviousness [1] may well be that your friends are tuned to a different station than you are.

It's a game, damn it! Relax and enjoy it. Much more fun when you're not worrying about scoring.

[1] I will match the total obliviousness of one of my sons against any of you, alone or in teams. I love him so much ...

rystefn said...

I suggest picking a socially observant friend or two and asking them to let you know when you've been flirted with (or, if you can trust them to be subtle, while you're being flirted with).

Some friends and I worked out a signal for a good friend of ours who was continually oblivious to the fact that women were interested in him... Any time we noticed him being oblivious to flirtation, we'd all start shouting "SECRET CODE!" at the top of our lungs at him... So pay attention to that subtlety bit, it's important if you're easily embarrassed.

Jason Thibeault said...

D.C., I don't know how you're seeing anything flirtatious in anything that anyone says online. Seriously. Maybe it's just because I don't "do" flirtatiousness myself while I'm online, but I've never read anything resembling flirting in any of the aforementioned ladies, regardless of whom they were speaking to. So if they were really being flirty, well, wow. I saw none of it.

With one exception -- Ktbug kinda sounded like she was being slightly flirty with Toaster just now. But that's only in retrospect, on rereading the comments. And I might have killed some mojo both by stepping in on the Doom Song, and by saying so right now.

As for the wavelength theory, I suspect I'm putting out massive waveform interference unintentionally. If I could somehow see myself from six feet away while talking to someone, it might be helpful. Or maybe I should flirt with everyone from across the room only.

Not that it really matters since I'm in a stable, committed relationship at the moment, but it's still a long-standing personal failing.

D. C. said...

D.C., I don't know how you're seeing anything flirtatious in anything that anyone says online.

That may be because your vision of "flirtatious" is different from mine.
(The WikiPedia entry is pretty good, BTW.) For me, it's sly humor, mischief, playfulness, and exaggerated courtesy. Which, please note, are all part of my online persona anyway so "flirting" in this sense is just someone else playing to the same themes. Which means that any sexual inferences are speculative (and will damn well stay that way.)

With one exception -- Ktbug kinda sounded like she was being slightly flirty with Toaster just now.

Ya think? Dude, you're not quite as oblivious as you claim to be.

But that's only in retrospect, on rereading the comments. And I might have killed some mojo both by stepping in on the Doom Song, and by saying so right now.

'Tain't possible. Remember: it's all just a game. Doing it in public is a large part of the fun. (And for those of us who aren't looking to start something, part of the safety factor.)

Not that it really matters since I'm in a stable, committed relationship at the moment, but it's still a long-standing personal failing.

It's only a failing if it bothers you, and when you're in an SCR can be the best time to practice. As long as all concerned know its not for real and you're saving the last dance.

Think about it -- how many guys would ever learn to dance if they only danced with girls they were interested in? Having non-romantic female friends is an essential part of male socialization. We're a pretty dense lot and they're a big part of how we finally get "they're human before they're female" hammered through all that bone.

Look: my first lessons in flirting were from the mothers of girls I knew in high school. Nothing remotely Mrs. Robinson about it, either (despite my longstanding taste for older women.) Just a party game.

Toaster Sunshine said...

With one exception -- Ktbug kinda sounded like she was being slightly flirty with Toaster just now.

Ya think? Dude, you're not quite as oblivious as you claim to be.


Well, crap. Apparently I actually am that oblivious.

I had not intended that this post generate a discussion about how flirting works, but I'm nonetheless pleased with how it has come out. This is also useful, so continue at will!

D. C. said...

I had not intended that this post generate a discussion about how flirting works, but I'm nonetheless pleased with how it has come out.

Ain't thread drift wonderful? So much more interesting than scripting.

Do, please, bear in mind that all comments on flirting from me are those of another (if older) geek who is had a far from normal social development and is still mostly faking it.

Jason Thibeault said...

I think maybe we're ALL faking it. But some of us are better attuned to seeing the cues given by others, and emulating them. For me, every time I talk with someone, I have to make a concerted effort to pick up on any specific underlying cues, and often I get them wrong and make a fool of myself, but at the very least I try to only practice this with people who already know I'm pretty socially inept.

There was at least one person to my recollection that I was able to convince that I was very insightful and excellent at reading hidden meanings, but I also think it could be that that specific person was pretty bad at subtlety and had no idea of that fact. I never let on that I suspected such, and though we've not talked in forever, the last time we did (after another such stretch), she seemed to have an inflated idea of our friendship.

I kinda feel guilty about that, too.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Yes, we're definitely all faking it.

D.C., the question of whether I'm flirting is also complicated by the fact that it's very hard to discuss certain subjects, like flirting, in anything but dry academese without sounding like I'm flirting. But yes, I can't imagine that "Of course I would flirt with you" could be anything but flirting.

D. C. said...

Stephanie, as long as I'm not out of line or otherwise making trouble, I suspect that it's moot.

Not that moot questions can't be fun, too ...

Jean said...

I think there are 3 general categories of flirting: non-sexual, sexual-conscious, and sexual-unconscious. Within these categories, there are gradients of intensity.

Apparently I’m in disagreement with wikipedia (but in agreement with some others here) in that I think there is a non-sexual form of flirting—we describe children as flirts in this way, and it involves laughing, joking, and the flashing of dimples, just as sexual flirting can. Similarity isn’t surprising—after all, the motives of both sexual and nonsexual flirting stem from a desire to engage and to please, and for some form of intimacy.

I’ve been told I’m a flirt—I flirt with everyone from babies to 90-something ladies. But for a long time I thought I was lousy at flirting with men, coming off as friendly charming (like I do with old ladies) rather than I-think-you-are-wildly-attractive-let’s-make-out charming. However, friends, co-workers, and flirt subjects have told me that this isn’t true. At first, I was embarrassed—I mean, what sort of spectacle have I been making of myself? They haven’t been good about explaining how they can tell I’m flirting sexually, just that they can. I’ve been trying to figure out what I’m doing. Is it a certain tilt of the neck/vocal inflection? I might make my voice a bit lower, but I’m not sure.

For figuring out if a girl is flirting on you, the more attuned friends with passwords idea is good. Lacking the convenience of ever-present friends, and if really interested, you might try asking, “Are you flirting with me?” I’m pretty sure that if asked in the right way, it would be flirtatious.