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Language lessons.

Last fall, I spent about two months doing research in Dortmund, a city in Germany's rust belt. You might call it the Cleveland or Pittsburgh of Germany. Since I didn't know many people, I picked up all the brochures I could find about events in the area. One, from a cultural center on the outskirts of town, advertised a weekend workshop on how to flirt.

The course description read:

Flirten ist eine im Grunde alltagliche Sache. Es dient nicht nur der Paarbildung, sondern kann in vielen Situationen benutzt werden, um gute Beziehungen zu anderen Menschen herzustellen. Manche Menschen sind wahre Meister in dieser Disziplin, andere wiederum trauen sich nicht und bringen in bestimmten Situationen kaum ein Wort heraus.

In diesem Workshop werden wir uns mit viel Spass und Gelassenheit mit unseren (un-)bewussten Hemmungen befassen, eigene Reaktionen betrachten und naturlich ganz viel uben (flirten).

Which is to say:

Fundamentally, flirting is an everyday affair. Not only does it play a role in forming couples, it can be used in many situations in order to establish good relationships with other people. Many people are true masters of this discipline; others, in contrast, don't have faith in themselves and hardly get a word out in certain situations.

In this workshop we will deal with our (un)conscious inhibitions in a joking and relaxed manner, consider our own reactions and, of course, do a whole lot of practicing (flirting).

I wondered if I should check it out.

Most of the Germans I knew chuckled, "Why not, if you have no other plans?" An acquaintance suspected my motives: was I going to look down on the awkward, hapless Germans? He was pretty sure that flirting courses were American imports, like everything else that smacked of self-help, and what was the point of my learning second-hand and in translation? I told him I am more open abroad, for tourism excuses curiosity. Another man smelled manipulation. "People are after tricks and ruses, and then they wonder why their relationships don't last!"

There must be a range of meanings for the verb to flirt, since it calls forth such contrasting, even contradictory reactions. And what's most interesting about flirting is this fluidity. Sometimes it seems a form of seduction directed toward a future sexual encounter; then it turns goalless, into a diffuse but intense type of interest. Occasionally it smacks of disingenuousness, if not outright dishonesty.

I wonder if the German flirten is more charged than our word, for I don't think of the activity as so morally dubious - anymore. In 1969, when I'd just graduated from high school, I probably considered it a sign of female over-dependence on men. Now I wouldn't say it's practiced only by women or just for sexual attention. My flirting is more general and ecumenical. I've widened the definition, until it includes much everyday play (like ironic comments about work or the proverbial banter by the watercooler) that makes time go a little faster and takes some boredom out of doing errands and other chores. I'm not naive about ambivalence, and I'll admit to mixed motives - sure, there's a chance of winning (or losing) affection. But if I considered it always, or even mainly, part of a chase, it would stir up. more anxiety in me and probably feel a lot less pleasurable. While some may use its charms to serve an end, like finding a partner, I think it can be enjoyed and valued for its own sake.

That put me in a minority in the workshop, however. In spite of the course description's claim that flirting "can be used in many situations in order to establish good relationships with other people," there were only three participants who looked at flirting as a source of mild pleasure in daily life: we were the oldest in the group, 39 to 44, and already in relationships. For the others, from their mid-twenties to mid-thirties, flirting was for finding a mate and hence a whole lot less fun.

Flirting was something you did in discos and sidewalk cafes and on commuter trains, in order to meet a person you found physically attractive. The encounter is laden with high, often unrealistic expectations, and success or failure is accorded great importance - a charged situation, which we three exceptions agreed we'd rather avoid.

"Picking up a stranger - that's advanced-level flirting," said our instructor, a Dortmund psychologist in her mid to late thirties named Susanne Schonschor, "because you have to start from scratch, without knowing what you and the other person might have in common."

She set up role-playing exercises which were easier. A customer chats with a salesclerk, for instance: context establishes some initial topics, and it's your choice whether to dally or not. I was given a scene in which a new renter meets a neighbor. As the girl next door, so to speak, I was chatted up and invited to jog in the woods by a man who smiled a bit too often and too brightly. I played hard to get, noncommittal.

"why did you say you didn't jog?" asked a woman in her mid-twenties afterwards. "You seemed to be holding back!"

"But why shouldn't I take my time finding out who he is?" I answered. For me, flirting is best unpressured; I like a leisurely getting-to-know-you, partly out of caution but also to extend the pleasure if it's present. I thought I'd been nice to talk so long with my new neighbor and agree vaguely to take a walk with him sometime. After all, I was pretty sure to see him again. A next step was not certain, but fantasy feeds on possibility.

There was a time when I had been in more of a hurry to get past the initial stages. Now I savor them. I guess I tend to what Schonschor calls an uncommitted flirtation, in which you don't invest too many hopes in the relationship. But that doesn't mean that you don't put energy into it. It's part banter, part body - an art that requires intelligence and control. Or a sport, with rules (attract, withdraw a little, lure again), best played with a partner who knows how to appreciate a move (a glance, a line) and parry.

"The first round, the next - it's like a dance." That was Schonschor's metaphor. But not everyone who signed up for her course seemed comfortable trying out new steps. At a make-believe cocktail party, one young man faced me with only his head - the rest of his body turned sideways. When I suggested that he rotate just a few degrees toward his interlocutor, he turned red and said, no, he'd worked out this stance deliberately. I swear I wasn't really coming on to him, yet suddenly I had become threatening.

Many people are ill at ease showing or accepting interest, noted Schonschor. So we trained. In another exercise, we divided into pairs and had to find at least one thing to praise in another person. (It worked best if you meant it.) The master flirts among us seemed never to run out of compliments - while I didn't hear what they were, busy with my partner, I noticed that they stopped only when Schonschor ended the game.

What I liked about her method was its generosity. "Your flirting is a compliment to your partner. If she or he doesn't accept it, it's not your fault!" was one of her precepts, written up on the board and included on a sheet of instructions to be taken home. That's more than a good defense against rejection; it's advice to err on the side of giving more.

"In a good flirtation, your sense of self-worth is not dependent on the other person's reaction or recognition," Schonschor taught us. But that proved easier to accept in theory than in practice. Why had I giggled when signing up for a weekend workshop in flirting? Maybe because I know this is no innocent pleasure.

The most disturbing part of the two days, for me at least, were the exercises in rejection. First came scenes in which two people (not necessarily engaged in flirting - they could be doing business or exchanging confidences) had to turn away a flirt who wanted to join their conversation. Then came more intense one-on-one situations, in which someone was assigned the rejector role. "Be polite!" was one of Schonschor's injunctions, and I didn't notice anyone who violated it. But two young women were visibly hurt by male rejection, even when it was prearranged. One was taken aback by her own reaction: she said she knew we had been role-playing, but found she was shocked and deeply offended when her scene-partner in an imaginary disco didn't want to chat with her. "He might be waiting for his girlfriend," I suggested. To which another young Woman responded with anger and sarcasm, "The dream of all German men: two women at once!"

She turned out to be the second person willing to admit she'd been wounded in this exercise. When her partner, playing a stranger on a commuter train, didn't want to talk with her, she said she wanted to come back at him with a cutting comment, if she could think of one. I tried to tell her that I would never respond to strangers on New York subways, that it's always worth allowing for motivations that have nothing to do with you as a person. Maybe he's tired and just wants to get where he's going with as little effort as possible. Maybe he's met enough disturbed people on the train already and is cautious with someone he doesn't know.

"That might be true for New York City, but this is Dortmund!" She was impatient with my arguments, hardly looked me in the eye after that. Obviously I had grossly underestimated the way that theatre affects actors. I should have been more sympathetic to the real pain she had felt while playing with rejection.

For she was right about the danger in a game of dares. It dances - to use Schonschor's metaphor - on the edge; its promise is also a threat. The unpracticed should beware: only with time does one develop the ability to take rejection without flinching.

I suppose that master flirts are, by definition, skilled in the art of self-protection. They know that if they seek, they'll lose at least as often as they find. So they have reasons in their pocket why failure wasn't their fault but yours. If you're lucky, they'll follow Schonschor's rule: "When snubbed, be friendly here as well!" and see you off with "Thank you anyway for the pleasure of your company," as she advises. Unfortunately, this politeness sounds not just old-fashioned but utopian. In my experience, no one will tell you off like rejected flirts: they're only too glad to point out that they didn't really want you anyway, and they can be remarkably specific on the reasons why.

I admire Schonschor: she knows how to protect herself against these dangers. "Make jokes about your obvious shortcomings! You can't hide them anyhow." This precept wasn't very well received by most of the workshop participants, it seemed to me. Self-irony isn't big in Germany. But I recognized the strategy immediately: it's a sine qua non of schmoozing in New York. Wit and daring as a form of self-defense - sure, I've known that form of flirting since high school. The main problem with it is that it too often succeeds. You get attention and desire - more than you need, from people you don't really care to spend a lot of time with. Was it Jenny Holzer who said, "Protect me from what I want"? Smart woman. I'd rather not get an "A" in a flirting course - it could give me a lot of headaches.

Because rejecting is really no fun. It can be done with more or less tact, of course. So perhaps we should have practiced it more. Less time and effort on how to entice (which we're probably better at than we think) and more on how to untie (where we can cause a whole lot of pain - and probably already have). How to suggest that you would, under other circumstances, like to, but.... And those dots must be really well done. "Sexual regret," Nadine Gordimer called it. Another smart woman. I hope that topic is covered real thoroughly in the advanced course. I hope there is an advanced course.
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Title Annotation:workshop on flirting
Author:Rosenberg, Karen
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Date:Jul 1, 1998
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