The French flatter; the Brits are crass. So says a social anthropologist in this review on cross-cultural flirting techniques in Europe.
“Basically we are descended from a long line of successful flirts and it is hard-wired into our brains,” social anthropologist Kate Fox told AFP. “If we didn’t initiate contact with the opposite sex, then we wouldn’t reproduce, and the species would die out.”
Those searching for a soul mate or just for a bit of fun may welcome some guidelines to help sharpen their skills, ready for a bit of banter and eyelash battering all in the hope of catching one of cupid’s arrows.
But beware of injury to tender parts. For the subtle rules of flirting vary so much, that foreigners are often caught unawares unsure if they are being courted or insulted.
British girls, used to the drunken pub environment back home, can be taken aback during trips across the Channel to France unused to a sudden rush of compliments and open flirtation.
Flirting in France
“Frenchmen are less sexually obvious, there is less banter and they are more direct. They’ll say cheesy things like ‘you have really nice eyes’,” said one young journalist. Although, as dating expert Jean-Baptiste Trannoy says such compliments work well not just in France, perhaps we can all take note.
It’s also perfectly acceptable in France for men to walk up to a stranger in the street and ask them to go for a coffee, even at the risk of being knocked back. But it’s also important to be aware of ongoing debates about street harassment in French cities, says Jean-Baptiste, and such approaches should be done in a tactful manner; cat-calling should not be confused for flirting.
While draguer is French for ‘picking someone up’ or ‘hitting on someone’, the word séduction is something of a faux ami. It can mean persuading someone to go to bed with you, yes, but it is also used more generally in the sense of charming other people of either sex.
The French are always trying to seduce everyone — in this second sense of the word — and this can mean that men and women often flirt in a casual, good-natured way without a sexual proposition necessarily behind it. Of course, the tricky part for foreigners is learning to tell the difference.
Flirting in the UK
In Britain, flirting tends to be alcohol-fuelled to cover up fears of intimacy and rejection; although, as dating expert Jean-Baptiste Trannoy reminds us of the reference ‘Dutch courage’, it would be fair to say that alcohol-induced flirting is common in many parts of the world.
“The British male is either reticent, tongue-tied and awkward, or boorish and crass, and he usually consumes too much alcohol. English male flirting tends to be very circuitous, and involves a lot of insults rather than compliments,” said Fox.
“I’ve had to explain lots of times to foreign friends that ‘silly cow’ can really be a term of endearment,” added the Oxford-based researcher who has just published a book Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour.
Flirting in the Netherlands
In the Netherlands, touching strangers, even just a friendly hand on the shoulder in the pub, is a big no no. Regardless of culture, says Jean-Baptiste, touching too early during any interaction can trigger defense mechanisms. Approaching or complimenting a stranger in the street can also reap the same reaction in the Netherlands, although in Jean-Baptiste’s experience doing so in Amsterdam has been well received and resulted in a date more often than not, at least more so than in other countries he has visited.
Cantina, a 30-something American woman working for an international organisation in The Hague with three Dutch boyfriends under her belt, said: “In the Netherlands you have eye contact and approach men, they don’t approach you.
“At home (the US) you just stand there and they come to you. Here you have to be more aggressive,” said Cantina, who was voted ‘biggest flirt’ in high school.
Flirting in Sweden
In Sweden visitors may be deceived into thinking that flirting does not exist, since two strangers rarely exchange glances, a wink or a telling smile.
But come the weekend, Swedes, both men and women, let loose. Don’t expect sophisticated romance though, as it’s not unusual for an inebriated Swede to immediately ask the woman who has caught his eye if she wants to have sex.
On the other hand, dating expert Jean-Baptiste Trannoy advises that more subtle flirting is well-received by the Swedes precisely because it’s less common practice. Perceived value in any dating situation comes from a large part of scarcity – someone doing exactly what everybody else is doing does not set himself/herself apart nor create interest.
Flirting in Italy
In Italy where men and women embrace with ease at each meeting, foreign girls can be seen as fair game by young Italian males, often frustrated by long, traditional courtships with their Italian girlfriends.
Even though bottom-pinching may now be a thing of the past, women sitting on their own in a Rome cafe are likely to attract more than one rowdy ‘ciao bella‘ and could find it hard to shake off their unwanted beau.
Flirting in Germany
The Germans – ever anxious to get it right – have taken things one step further with several schools offering individual or group lessons in flirting etiquette.
For around EUR 125 students can take part in a weekend ‘Flirt Workshop’ at the Be2 school with teachers Justine Lethem and Volker Dottie saying their ‘knowledge of flirting comes as much from their scientific as well as their practical experience’. Similar workshops are held in many European countries, so it certainly is not restricted to the German stereotype.
What makes the world go round
Fox said the idea of taking lessons in what should come naturally was not a bad one. “After all eating is natural, but we don’t all have good table manners,” she said with a laugh.
For example, knowing when an innocent flirt has crossed the boundaries into sexual harassment is not always obvious, though Fox said that as soon as you begin to get negative signals it’s time to back off.
A recent sociological study in the Czech Republic carried out for the labour ministry found that most people perceived sexual harassment as being ‘a concept artificially imported from abroad’.
“Conversations with hidden erotic meaning, provocative allusions and even rude stories are all part of what makes the world go round,” the study concluded.