It is an unusually sunny, if chilly, Monday afternoon and I am on day one of my mission to overcome a lifelong fear of flirting that has left me, at an age I am not prepared to reveal (but over 50), single for more than four years.
A busy riverside park may not sound the ideal place to embark on a crash course in flirting. But my task today, as detailed in social anthropologist Jean Smith’s book Flirtology, is not to throw myself at the first vaguely presentable age-appropriate man I encounter. It is just to approach a stranger and ask a simple question, such as, “Do you have the time?”
If I can pull this off today – and repeat the exercise for the next five days – I will, Jean promises, have taken my first small step towards a new way of living. And, if I can successfully complete three further challenges in her book (culminating – can you imagine? – in actually asking an attractive stranger for a drink/ dinner/dirty weekend), I could have found my dream man (Bill Nighy).
As easy as this first test might sound, I am nervous. Thankfully, I have a useful accomplice to help me: my dog. With perfect timing, Zorro drags me towards a man who, accompanied as he is by a very lively Labrador, doesn’t look too frightening. “Excuse me,” I blurt out. “Are dogs allowed off the lead here?”
The man looks confused – mainly, I suspect, because his own dog and indeed most of the other dogs out on walkies are bounding around off their leads. “Yes,” he eventually mutters in an “is-this-womencompletely-stupid?” kind of way.
Clearly, this is not going to be the start of a beautiful relationship, although Zorro (let off his lead) and Lucy the Labrador are really getting on (in fact, almost getting it on). The next four days follow a similar pattern: Zorro doing much better with strange dogs than I do with strange men.
Jean Smith’s book isn’t just aimed at older women. It is directed at any single person of any age who is weary of the way in which technology has blunted our ability to socially interact with each other in the real world. Jean’s premise is that we are far more likely to find love in the local park/ pub/cafe than we are on Tinder, if we could just put down our iPhones, look around us and relearn the ancient art of flirting.
It is estimated that just under 50 million single adults in the US have tried online dating, yet only 5 per cent of Americans in marriages or longterm relationships say they met online.
Another US study revealed that a significant proportion of the people who have tried online dating have never actually gone on a date – a category that I fit right into, having (urged on by a friend) signed on to a site last year. The men who “liked” my profile were either clearly in need of a carer rather than a partner, or just wanted uncomplicated sex (“looking for a woman who’s foxy/ playful/uninhibited”).
There is, of course, another reason why men and women today are wary of being overtly flirty. In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations and the emergence of the #MeToo movement, they are increasingly aware that a harmlessly aimed smile at a work colleague could be misconstrued.
My own fear of flirting is directly linked to the fact that sexual harassment (verbal and occasionally physical) was a part of my daily life back in my youth, when I worked in a male-dominated industry. Which probably explains why I have only ever had two boyfriends: the first I was married to for more than 20 years, and the second I lived with for 10.
According to Jean, the fear of being misinterpreted is making both men and women avoid the face-to-face interaction that is much more likely to lead us to meet “the one” in the gym or the workplace than on the internet. Which is why she is so passionate about re-educating both men and women in the art (and science) of flirtology.
Challenge number two seems only marginally more difficult than the first: this one, to help build your confidence, involves complimenting a stranger a day for five days in a row.
Grateful that Jean warns against being too forward in this exercise, I just about scrape through on days one to four, but embarrass myself horribly on day five when I tell an impossibly handsome 20-something barista in Starbucks that he has “the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen”. I’m so mortified by the look of horror on his face that I leave the shop without my coffee (or my dignity).
Two weeks in, I am beginning to realise that until now I have been walking around with my eyes tightly closed to the romantic possibilities that exist around me. And while I’ve yet to see a stranger who comes anywhere close to my dream man, I’m feeling more outgoing and smiling a great deal more than I used to.
Crunch time, though, turns out to be challenge number three: putting myself in a social situation and making a direct approach to an attractive man who glances at me across a crowded room. I must, at the very least, end the evening with the mobile number of one, but preferably two, alluring men.
This is going to be tricky, because I live in an area where absolutely everyone is married, and the very few single men of an appropriate age that there are have none of the qualities I’m looking for.
Thankfully for this task I have the ideal accomplice. No, not my dog – but my friend Belle who, while happily married, could give masterclasses in flirting. Belle organises a girls’ night out (well, a “women of a certain age” night out) .
I put on a dress and high heels and accompany Belle and Alex and Sue to the chosen bar. But the lights are dim, the place is half empty (“Things don’t kick off here until midnight,” the barman tells us) and, you guessed it, Belle looks fabulous and is the only one of us to receive more than a single cursory glance across the uncrowded room.
The idea of going on to the next challenge, boldly asking a stranger to go on some kind of date, is impossible. I call Jean to ask her where I have gone wrong. My main problem, it seems, is having too limited a view of the kind of man I would like as a prospective partner. I have to lower my standards in order to broaden my horizons, something I am not sure I can do.
But Jean is not entirely negative about my chances of eventually graduating in flirtology. She is even impressed with the way in which I tackled that first task (asking a stranger a question) and encourages me to pursue this.
“Dogs are the ultimate flirting tool,” she tells me. “They make it easier to start conversations with people, but they also help you to connect with others who like dogs.”
So, while I might not yet be the ultimate flirt, I do have the ultimate flirting tool. Who knows, on some sunny afternoon I might just bump into a fellow dog-lover – and Bill Nighy lookalike – during walkies in the local park. Here’s hoping.
Six signs someone's flirting with you
- Humour Are they trying to target you with their jokes, trying to create a shared space between you? If so, it’s a very good sign.
- Body language What does their body language tell you? Positive signals are if they are squared up, facing you, with their feet pointed in your direction. The feet are a helpful guide: if they are angled towards you, it shows the person is into your conversation. Angled away? Chances are they are planning a quick getaway. Similarly, if they have their arms crossed, they’re not really into it.
- Touch When someone touches you, there is a high chance they’re flirting. Touch also releases oxytocin, the hormone we are flooded with when we are happy. So if someone is reaching out to you, it’s a pretty good indicator.
- Attention This may seem obvious, but if they’re paying more attention to you than everyone else, it’s a very good sign.
- Proximity When you first spot someone you’re interested in way over on the other side of the room, and then, suddenly, you find them much closer to you, they have probably moved location for a good reason.
- Eye contact If they’re scanning the room over your shoulder, it is unlikely they are focusing their flirtatious efforts on you. But if they’re repeatedly catching your eye, and signalling a spark, it’s fair to say you have their attention.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and Sunday Age on sale October 14.