I have had so many mishaps in my attempts to charm guys. Poet Matthew Dickman calls it the “slow dance” — the bizarre and confounding ritual of meeting new people, figuring them out, and constructing this polite world of casual conversation and discreet sexual cues, pulled over our primal animal instincts like a blanket. We call this “flirting.”
Sometimes the mishaps work. Sometimes saying the wrong thing leads to the right thing. And sometimes a perfectly executed flirty conversation sends you home alone. There is no formula, no surefire way to make sparks fly. Chemistry depends on the strange alchemy of place and chance.
Although there are no hard rules for success, there are some important things to keep in mind. Here’s my guide to flirting — enjoy the dance.
Every time you talk to someone, it’s a win — even if they’re not interested. Consider it a practice run. It’s not easy to talk to strangers and everyone needs practice. Every time you build up the courage to introduce yourself and make small talk, you successfully complete a trial run for the times you do this and it clicks — the times when you start flirting and they flirt back. You never know who they’ll be.
Every level of social interaction, from casual flirting to long-term romance, depends on gaze. It’s one of the most primal and intimate things humans do, which is why so many of us avoid it.
Meet their gaze and hold it for second so you both acknowledge that you’re looking at each other. That “I was just scanning across the room” routine where you casually look elsewhere doesn’t work. If you start chatting, look them in the eye when you’re talking to them.
When you meet someone new, ask what pronouns they use (pronoun options include gendered pronouns like “he” and “him” and “she” and “her” and nongendered pronouns like “they” and “them”). If someone is confused by the question, politely explain by telling them your pronouns and seize it as a teaching moment.
Genderqueer cartoonist Archie Bongiovanni (who uses they/them pronouns) explains: “You can’t assume anyone’s pronouns based on their gender presentation, haircut, clothing, makeup or no makeup, because the truth is anyone who presents any way can use any pronoun.” Don’t assume someone’s pronouns — ask.
Asking is not just polite — it also sends a clear message of your politics. Guaging their reaction will give you a hint about whether or not they’re worth chasing.
If you can make someone crack a smile, you’re off to a good start. Cracking a joke calms nerves, eases tension, and makes people feel comfortable. You don’t have to be a comedian (my sense of humor is terrible). A funny observation about the place or about yourself is all you need.
There’s a queer dance venue in Brooklyn called Sutherland (named after the iconic character from Anderew Holleran’s pre-AIDS gay novel Dancer From The Dance) that requires attendees to check their phones at the door. It’s refreshing to be there — you have to talk to people (they have paper and pens at the bar in case you want someone’s number). Don’t let your phone be a crutch or inhibit you in a place where you’re supposed to be sociable and meet people.
Life isn’t a romantic comedy. It’s rare to click with someone the first time you meet them. In the real world, flirting happens easier over multiple interactions. It’s easier to flirt with guys you see at the bar every weekend, or that person who comes to the gym at the same time you do. Build up your confidence, say hello, strike up a light conversation, ask a question or two, and let that be it. Too much too fast (like in most movies) feels uncomfortable.
Once conversation ignites, be playful and sincere, and give them compliments. Not overtly sexual ones — this is the stage where you’d call someone “cute,” not “sexy” (this may not be the case at certain cruisy bars with a more sexual atmosphere). Compliment their clothes or their shoes and say it looks “cute” — that’s pretty much all you need to do. The word is an instant signal that communicates your interest without being too forward.
Flirting is generally considered something that happens in the realm of “small talk” or “lighthearted banter.” That said, don’t turn this into a long conversation. Give them an exit ramp quickly in case they want to do something else (or keep doing what they were doing before you walked up).
If you’re at a bar, tell them you’re going to run to the restroom or get another drink (ask if they want one, of course). This gives them time to either find friends, compose an exit narrative (“I’m going to go look for my friend, but it was nice to talk to you!”), or ghost. If they’re still game to keep chatting when you return, you’re off to a good start.
It’s hard to remember names. My English friends say that one common Brittishism is an aversion to asking someone their name more than twice. “After the first conversation, if you don’t remember their name then and there,” one friend said, “your only option is to never talk to them again.”
Get over that. I’m half-Deaf, which means I both forget names and fail to hear them in the first place. It’s always OK to ask someone to repeat their name. Doing so confidently will actually be impressive.
Many people do this — myself included. We look at everyone in the room except the person we think is cute, and we avoid them at all costs. This is not a successful flirting method — no one thinks to themselves, “Aha! That person who won’t look at me actually likes me!” If you present disinterest, they’ll think you’re disinterested.
Since exercise consumes the majority of my non-working hours, a great deal of my casual human interacton happens in gyms. The best way to strike up convesation with a gym-goer is to ask about the workout they’re doing. Gym people love talking about their lifts. While we all generally act stone-faced and disinterested in everything around us, I’ve never met someone in a gym who wasn’t friendly after I got their attention (you may have to wave — many people work out while listening to music).
I’ve never bought the claim that people are mean to those they like. Our longstanding cultural tradition of telling young girls that boys who pick on them “have crushes on them” teaches women from an early age to recognize affection as abuse and to give mean men a free pass — a cruel facet of our patriarchal culture. One way to guarantee my permanent disinterest is to be rude, judgmental, or mean.
Cruising is not the same as flirting, which is small talk with the intent of conveying romantic and sexual interest. Cruising is a nonverbal, wordless way of saying one single phrase: “Let’s fuck.”
To the wrong person, or in the wrong environment, cruising will seem forward and uncomfortable, which is why it’s best to keep cruising to cruisey places like sidewalks of gay neighborhoods, gay bars, gay-heavy gyms, backrooms, dance venues, sex clubs, and so on.
The Victorian-era narrative that coy women say “no” until their suitors keep badgering them to “prove their affection” is a relic — an antiquated instruction for young, unmarried women. It’s 2018. No means no.
Advice writer Mark Manson has written an important piece called “Fuck Yes Or No” — a vital rule of thumb that applies to all levels of the dating world, from flirting to sex to long-term relationships: If someone isn’t giving you an excited, eager “fuck yes!” then they’re giving you a “no.” There is no grey area — grey areas are “no.”
This means you shouldn’t worry about someone who’s giving you “mixed signals” or try to win anyone over. You should want someone who goes after you — not someone who plays hard to get. Why should anyone have to convince someone else to be with them? What does that say about you? That’s not how healthy sex works — you should never “convince” someone to have sex with you. That’s not how good dating works — they should be in or out. If you’re trying to casually flirt, they need to be flirting back. If they’re not, give up and move on.
Good listening skills is the most beautiful characteristic, and people with it are worth keeping around. Be a good listener — pay attention and respond to what they say. This is why eye contact is so important. Averted gaze makes you seem disinterested or like you’re trying to leave.
The space between 5 and 18 inches is considered “intimate” and therefore uncomfortable for new people. Keep a comfortable distance, but lean in slightly to show you’re interested. Gestures like crossing your arms in front of your chest, looking elsewhere, and leaning away are nonverbal cues that you’re closed off, disinterested, or trying to get away. Having “one foot in the door and one out” is a phrase with real merit — when we’re trying to leave a conversation, we tend to have one foot pointed to the conversation and one foot pointed away from it.
Flirting isn’t cat-calling. Flirting isn’t barraging someone with sexual comments. Flirting isn’t immediately addressing someone’s body — you don’t go up to someone and talk about their butt. Be respectful — even if you’re not looking for anything more than a hookup.
There is a time and place for fast, hard, anonymous sex (backrooms, sex clubs, loud circuit parties, and so on). Even in these places, we do some nonverbal flirting before tucking away to a dark corner. These spaces still require respect — you don’t go up to someone and start touching them, no matter where you are.
You wait for cues — someone has to give you a “fuck yes.” They have be dancing on you, getting in close, touching your arms, kissing you, grinding you, and giving you eager signals before you go there. There are many nonverbal ways of giving someone consent. If you’re not sure, hold off and let them lead.
This is the equivalent of extending a hand with no pressure to take it. They may or may not contact you — the choice is theirs. You never want to back someone into a corner.
When guys ask for my number, I think, “Shit, do I really want to give my number to a stranger? What if he’s possessive or weirdly clingy?” But I don’t want to be rude. I’m backed into a corner and forced to give my number, which is a turn-off.
When guys offer their numbers, I’ll usually take them, even if I’m not really planning to contact them. The offer makes it more likely that I will.
As queer people, we tend to classify each other. Our culture has so many subgroups and labels, terms and scenes. Is he a jock? Are they midtown gays? Those guys are bears. That person is femme. Those are muscle gays, they wouldn’t be into me. They’re a Silver Lake pig, they wouldn’t be into me. They’re WeHo gays, they wouldn’t like me. They’re grunge babies from the Lower East Side, they wouldn’t be into me.
Stop making assumptions like this — and stop classifying people based on how they look. The unfailing truth about humans is that they surprise you when you least expect them to. You never know if someone is interested in you until you present yourself. That’s it.
With one deaf ear and some hearing loss in the other, loud places and large groups are uncomfortable and difficult for me to communicate in. If someone says “What?” repeatedly, speak up. It’s embarassing to ask someone to repeat every sentence. If they can’t take a hint and speak louder, I’ll politely stop the conversation.
When you encounter Deaf folks, don’t get uncomfortable and walk away. See if they have a pen (many keep one) and write on a bar napkin. There are many ways to communicate nonverbally, and if you’ve been to a loud circuit party, you’ve used them.
Many people disagree with me on this, but I like to get important stuff out of the way as soon as possible. I tell people almost immediately that I’m HIV-positive and undetectable, and have mastered the art of inserting this personal info into casual conversations. Doing so makes my HIV something lighthearted and easy to talk about. No one needs to step lightly over it — it will come up sooner rather than later.
If I detect any fear or ignorance about my status, I’m disinterested and moving on. There are few things I can’t change about myself, but my status is one of them. I use it to weed out the people I don’t want to take home.
If you don’t want to date or fuck Republicans (I don’t) or have an aversion to Vegans or only date people with certain horoscopes — whatever you think is important — get it out of the way quickly so you can spend time and energy on the right people.
Take the Bible’s advice: Love does not boast. Neither should you. Being sincere and asking about their hobbies and interests and work is sexier than talking about yourself in an attempt to impress them. It’s not impressive to go on about yourself — it’s off-putting. Don’t make snap judgements or down-putting statements, or immediately tell someone what to do with a problem. That doesn’t make you seem knowledgable or trustworthy — just insensitive and abrasive. Be sincere. Be yourself.
We come to each other as equals, each with our own tools and defences and insecurities. Being attractive is not about hiding those insecurities or puffing yourself up to seem more than you are. We’re all just looking for real people — be one.