What is flirting? Can you flirt without intending to? Can you flirt by dressing a certain way, by walking a certain way? Is flirtatious behavior culturally relative? Could you flirt with a robot?
Ah the glories of summer. Though lots has been happening behind the scenes at Philosophy Talk -- much of which you will hear about very soon -- not a lot has been happening on this blog of late. But now that our summer more or less hiatus draws to a close, we will be in the studio more often, producing more live shows. That should mean more blogging too.
I can't honestly say that today's show is about an age-old philosophical question. In fact, as a philosophical topic, flrting is, like, so last second. As far as I can tell, it was put on the map by today's guest, Carrie Jenkins, and her mate Daniel Nolan in a pair of dualing articles. You can download Carrie's by clicking here and Daniel's by clicking here. Also, be sure to check out Carrie's blog Long Words Bother Me, where she mostly doesn't flirt, but does serious philosophy.
I don't profess to have a well worked-out theory of flirting. In my youth, before I settled down, I was nothing like a master flirt, though I tried hard. So I don't even speak from rich experience. But I'll offer a few quick takes just to get the juices going before this morning's show. I'm sure Carrie's thinking will be much more sophisticated than my own feeble attempts.
I start out thinking that flirting probably has a sort of "Gricean" structure. By that I mean a couple of things. First, it seems to me that you flirt with someone by intending to flirt with them. It's one thing to cause sexual arousal in another person by a look or a walk or a word or your tone of voice or the tilt of your head. But unless you intend to cause arousal by that means, it doesn't seem right to my ear to say that you are flirting with them.
But it also doesn't seem right that merely intending to cause arousal by a certain bit of behavior -- verbal or non-verbal -- suffices for flirting. First of all there's the point that you might intend to cause arousal but be so clueless as to how to go about it that you utterly fail. A clueless and crude teenage boy who thinks that mooning girls is a cool way to flirt, isn't really a flirt (though maybe he's an attempted flirt, according to Daniel Nolan). He's just crude and obnoxious.
More interesting -- to me at least -- than cases of attempted flirtation that fail to arouse or intimate sex or romance because they are so inept are cases in which you do succeed in causing arousal by a behavior that's intended to cause arousal, but in which you, nonetheless, don't flirt. Psychologists have long known that sexaul attraction is facilitated during states of strong antecedent emotional arousal -- whatever the antecedent emotional state. There's a famous and widely cited study that compared guys crossing a scary bridge in a beautiful setting who were approached by a woman claiming to be doing research on beautiful places with guys on a secure bridge in a similar setting approached by the same woman. The woman asked a few questions, gave them a questionnaire, and gave them her number in case they had follow up questions. The guys on the scary bridge rated the woman more attractive and were more likely to call her afterwards than the guys on the secure bridge. Clearly the guys on the scary bridge were more emotionally aroused than the guys on the secure bridge, but they (mistakenly?) attributed their arousal to the presence of the woman.
Well what's that got to do with flrting, you ask? Well now that you know about this study, if you didn't already, here's a way to arouse a potential partner and cause that person to be interested in you. Take your target on a roller coaster ride on your first date. He or she will find you more attractive and be more interested in you than he or she otherwise might have been. Suppose you do this intentionally. Though you are manipulating your partner's level of sexual arousal by behavior intended to do just that, it doesn't seem right to say that you are flirting with with your target just by inviting her or him on the roller coaster ride. (Although, once you get the person on the ride your flirtations may be more successful.)
This brings me to the quasi-Gricean part. I think you flirt only when: (a) you behave in ways intended to intimate the possibility of sex or romance and (b) you intend to make that intention manifest to the other.
I'm not sure this is enough to constitute flirting. But it seems to me that if you don't intend to make it manifest that you intend to be intimating romance or sex then probably you are not flirting. You may be doing something else sexually charged. But you're not flirting.
Here's another quick thought about the "speech-acty" character of flirting. It seems to me that flirting is sort of like two speech acts in one. On the one hand, there's a kind of self-presentation involved in flirting. I present myself as potentially available to you. But in that self-presentation, I thereby invite you to present yourself to me as available to me. if you don't take up the invitation, I have flirted with you, but you haven't flirted with me. If you do take up the invitation, we're flirting with each other. Suppose that after you have openly declined my invitation, I continue to flirt with you -- that is, continue to present myself as available and thereby invite you to so present yourself to me. My flirtation turns into something else, it seems, though I'm not sure exactly what. An unwanted advance? Rudeness?
Suppose on the other hand, you accept my invitation to present yourself to me as available. But suppose that I decide I don't like you so much after all. I give you the buzz off sign. What then? Are you being similarly rude or obtuse or overly aggressive if you don't get the message? Was I being a mere tease? Once I begin a flirtation and you take me up on my invitation, am I or am I not entitled to take my invitation back without sanction? Or is it taking it back like refusing to let you in the door when you show up with your invitation to the dance?
Of course, there must be some limit, some off-ramp. To begin to flirt isn't to commit to carrying all the way through to romance or sex. To flirt is only to initmate a possibility. As the flirtation develops, we each get to decide at some point or other that the merely possible will not, in this case, be actualized. Or so it seems. But how exactly we manage that in a mutually agreeable way, now that's a tricky question.
[added after show.] I also think it's the fact that a flirtation intimates a mere possibility -- a possibility whose non-actualization is also presupposed as a possibility -- that lends flirtation an air of what we might call intrinsic playfulness. It's partly because it's made mutually manifest that this may or may not go any further that flirting sort of is bound to have a playful air. If flirtation were always intended to get you all the way to romance or sex, there would be a kind of intrinsic seriousness to it that flirtation lacks. Of course, at some point when there's mutual and continuing uptake, things can get serious indeed. And surely we want that out of some our flirtations.