‘How do I know if someone is flirting with me?’
Dear Roe: ‘I’m a guy in my mid-20s who finds it difficult to know when somebody is into me’
If your first step in flirting is to touch someone, if your first move is to put your hands on someone’s body before you’ve received any indication that it is welcome, you have got flirting very, very wrong. Photograph: Getty Images
Dear Roe, I’m a guy in my mid-20s and I find it difficult to know when somebody is into me. How can I tell?
Most of the time, people won’t outright tell you that they’re into you without prompting. They’ll flirt. And how can you judge if someone is flirting with you? By following the most basic tenant of all healthy flirtations, romantic interactions and sexual activities, which is one and the same: enthusiastic consent.
In the era of #MeToo, there’s a lot of (often pretend) confusion and hyperbole about the dynamics of flirting, with men crying out “But how on earth can we re-populate the planet if I’m no longer allowed touch women’s legs without written permission?!”
Let me tell you the not-so-secret secret of flirting that really should be self-evident: it starts long before touching. If your first step in flirting is to touch someone, if your first move is to put your hands on someone’s body before you’ve received any indication that it is welcome, you have got flirting very, very wrong.
The process of flirting actually starts before speaking, particularly if you’re approaching someone you don’t know, or not in a setting where romance is explicitly possible, such as a date. If you want to strike up a conversation with someone, pay attention to the nonverbal cues before approaching.
Women often literally use props such as books and headphones to put up a barrier between themselves and unwanted attention from men. This is both us enjoying our interests, and can be survival behaviour, giving us an excuse to avoid unwelcome eye contact or conversation. So pay attention. Observe whether the woman is absorbed in her own activities, or whether she has made eye contact with you – repeatedly. Anyone can glance in your direction accidentally, so repeatedly looking at you and smiling is a stronger indication that a conversation opener might be welcome.
But an opener is just that – an opener. From your first “Hi, how are you?”, notice if the other person is not only responding, but doing so enthusiastically and signalling that they want the conversation to continue. There’s a chasm of difference between a one-word answer and a flowing conversation where the other person is not just responding, but prolonging it by expanding upon the topic of conversation and asking you questions – and observing this difference is vital.
Girls are conditioned from childhood not to be rude, forceful, or blunt, particularly to men. As adults, many women have experienced rejecting a man only for the man to get verbally or physically aggressive, and so we learn to de-escalate, to remain polite and try to exit on a pleasant note for our own safety. This is important, because it means that relying on women explicitly saying, “No, I’m not interested, go away” is not enough.
You have to pay attention to the situation, body language, facial expressions, if their reaction is enthusiastic and reciprocal.
You can literally even ask this, without forcing the person to reassure you. After a brief back-and-forth, simply say something like “Was I interrupting, by the way? I don’t want to impose.” This gives them the opportunity to politely tell you they must go or are too tired to chat, without it being a big uncomfortable moment.
Or, they could say they’re happy to chat for a few minutes, in which case, great! During your conversation, don’t be focused on an end goal, such as getting a phone number or a kiss. Focusing on an end goal will prevent you from being present in the moment, and being yourself, which is really what’s going to attract people. Pay attention to both the other person and how you’re feeling; whether you find this person interesting and engaging and funny or if they’re not really captivating you at all.
At the point where conversation is flowing freely, you can move on to creating moments for brief, non-sexual physical contact. The briefest touch on the hand or arm for emphasis during conversation creates a connection without being violating. But again, observe their reaction and wait until it has been reciprocated before doing it again or proceeding to more lingering touches, to make sure they are comfortable with it.
These steps may seem elementary, but what they do is ensure that you become conscious of the implicit and explicit signs involved in consent, which will not only make it easier for you to spot who is interested in you, but will serve you greatly if that connection continues.
These combined acts of observing, opening up opportunities, and waiting until the other person enthusiastically responds and reciprocates is a process that can be applied to later flirtations, romance, and sex.
And when you’re unsure, ask. Checking in is never inappropriate. Practise asking questions like “I’m enjoying chatting with you, would you like to get together sometime?”, “You’re very pretty, would you mind if I kissed you?” – or, if things move towards sex, “Can I touch you here, is that okay?”
Or, be the one who makes things explicit. If you’re flirting with someone and think it’s going well, say “I like you.” Their response in the moment will usually make things clear.
And even if it turns out they’re not interested in you, which will happen occasionally, take it gracefully, be polite, and back off. They may not be into you, but you will have been respectful. And that’s in everyone’s interest.
Roe McDermott is a writer and Fulbright Scholar with an MA in Sexuality Studies from San Francisco State University. She’s currently undertaking a PhD in Gendered and Sexual Citizenship at the Open University and Oxford.
If you have a problem or query you would like Roe to answer, you can submit it anonymously at irishtimes.com/dearroe