Ever since the playground days we’ve been told that boys tease girls they like. When we get too old for hair pulling and meet someone we’re attracted to, it’s all about the banter.
But if you think about it, it’s pretty strange that the way we’ve become accustomed to expressing fondness for another person can also be understood as…well, the complete opposite. There’s something unhealthy in the way derogatory flirting has become normal in many western societies, and perhaps it’s time to cut it out.
We see it in every movie and TV show out there. Sexual attraction and romantic interest often go hand in hand with joking insults, verbal sparring and the masking of the protagonists true feelings with a “hard to get” facade. When we fail to respond to someone’s flirting with award-winning, witty banter, it’s seen as a short-coming. The inauthentic, joking style of communication has become a precise and practised art that, somehow, should also come naturally.
It’s a complicated system with simple rules: If you like someone, pretend that you like them a little less in order to make them like you more, even though they’ll also pretend that they like you less in an attempt to make you like them more.
According to writer Mark Manson, this causes more problems than it’s worth. Derogatory flirting, he writes, is designed to muddy the waters of intention and emotion, both crucial components of any sexual or romantic relationship. “It distorts sexual interest, undermines consent, needles the other person into being insecure around you,” he writes, “and not to mention is absolutely exhausting to keep up”.
In addition to causing numerous confusion headaches and potential emotional fatigue, this style of flirting is dishonest. It allows very little opportunity to actually open up to another person, which could become problematic further on down the road when you really are exposed to their real personality or intentions.
It doesn’t help that we’re all also really bad at being flirted with. According to Mail Online, in an experiment on heterosexual pairs to test how well men and women could determine whether they were being flirted with or not, only 36 percent of men and 18 percent of women judged correctly.
Jeffrey Hall, author of ‘The Five Flirting Styles’ and associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas told Mail Online that “if you think someone is not interested in you, you are probably right, they are not interested, but if someone is, you probably missed it”. While women do worse than men when it comes to understanding the signals, all the participants in the study did did better at knowing when they weren’t being flirted with (this at least, might be good news) than being able to tell when they were.
“It doesn’t appear to be the case that men have some intuition about women and women have some intuition about men,” said Hall, “but it does seem that women are just a little more clear if they are interested or not.”
The question is then why on earth we’re playing so many games and making it so hard for people we like to understand us? Being more direct and authentic will not only make our lives easier, and less awkward. But, according to Manson, attracting a partner through honesty and vulnerability allows you to “find out who you’re dealing with early on: their values, their intentions, their comfort level with their own sexuality, their beliefs about men/women and sex”. This in itself can save a tremendous amount of time and, and possibly even a fair amount of heartache.
And that’s without discussing the emotional damage teasing someone because you’re into them can do. Our words carry weight and meaning, and when that meaning is ambiguous ( as is the case when “you’re getting fat” means “I like you”) it can easily be misconstrued. It lowers the self esteem of the party who’s hearing it, and ensures that they’ll feel unsure of both themselves and the speakers true feelings. In general, it creates a nice comfy breeding ground for insecurity, and honestly, we’ve already got our social media feeds doing enough of that.
While making yourself vulnerable emotionally is probably something people all over the world are nervous about, in Manson’s opinion, this culture of derogatory flirting is particularly prevalent in English-speaking cultures (particularly former English colonies), where being rejected by someone is considered shameful. He cites the fact that in many non-English language countries, like Italy, men are more inclined to be upfront about telling a women she’s beautiful, even if he’s going to be rejected because of it. Hall echoes this by saying that “people aren’t going to [flirt] in obvious ways because they don’t want to be embarrassed”.
Manson writes that while every culture has its own unique challenges and problems, our western, English-speaking culture is repressive in that it inhibits open communication through shame. He adds that it should come as no surprise then, that the English-speaking countries have the highest divorce rates in the world. The epidemic of shame around sexual and emotional interactions that has permeated our cultures has resulted in “weird and inefficient strategies of displaying affection”, like the flirtatious bullying we see in the media and in everyday life.
No matter which way you look at it, the landscape of flirting is far more tricky to navigate than it seems. As much as we try to deny it, and pretend it’s something we’re all innately capable of, we’re all wasting a lot of time and effort on strategies that do not serve us. In fact, the situation has gotten so bad that tech companies are developing accessories to help us determine whether or not somebody is checking us out.
If you don’t feel like throwing a bunch of money away on wearable tech in order to secure your next date (and perhaps more dates after that), it may be a good idea to challenge your cultural programming and be up front about your feelings towards your potential bae. Tell them that you like them, tell them why you like them, and stop running away from a good thing because that’s how the game is usually played.
The only way we can fix the parts of our culture, like this one, that are undeniably broken, is by recognising them and making concerted efforts to act against them. By being a little more honest and vulnerable, you’ll probably stand out from the rest of competition sliding into his or her DMs, and make a good impression. Yes, it might sting a little if you get rejected, but at least you’ve saved a whole lot of time by not struggling through days of meaningless banter. Ten points to you.