It has been my experience in the church that flirting is implicitly frowned upon. Growing up, I never heard a youth group sermon denouncing flirting, but in advice columns and articles written to youth and singles, flirting is usually cast in a negative light. Although flirting at its purest is a natural way for two people to express chemistry and attraction, it often leads to confusion, manipulation, and drama. Women naturally interpret a man’s playful attention as romantic interest, and when that doesn’t result in a date, hearts get broken. Men likewise can get their hopes up when a girl flirts back at their overtures, then crushed when the girl says she just wants to be friends. Not surprisingly, the church would rather have its young people avoid all of the emotional turmoil, and so we end up with exhortations to “man up” and “take the lead” (for men) and “be available” (for women).
This advice sounds solid, if a bit staid (I always imagine an unsmiling man somberly informing a woman, pre-selected for her pristine Christian character, that he would like to court her for the possibility of marriage, and the woman gravely agreeing. Then they both wanly smile off in the distance, content in following God’s Will For Their Lives). It’s a complete picture, just one stripped of color. But how does this work in practice?
Consider the following scenario: Regular guy Mario attends a hip, modern church called The Pillar. (It used to be called Sandals until someone realized that that was the same name as a Caribbean vacation company.) Mario starts noticing that an attractive young woman attends the same Sunday school group. Mario finds out, through strategic eavesdropping, that the young woman is named Peach. After a few weeks of observation and finding Peach to pass muster, Mario begins talking to Peach on Sundays. Peach is friendly but doesn’t give any obvious IOIs. Mario wants to date Peach. What should he do? If he shows “initiative and leadership,” he could be LJBFed. If he waits around for clear IOIs, he will be accused of lacking initiative and leadership. Mario decides that LJBFing is a fate worse than death, so he doesn’t ask Peach out. Peach, meanwhile, has her own conundrum. She likes Mario, but she wants to avoid a reputation for being a flirt, so she doesn’t overtly encourage his attentions. She also thinks that Mario might just be friendly, and flirting with someone who is not interested back would be embarrassing. She decides to wait for a more clear-cut signal. Mario and Peach continue in their holding pattern, at least until bad-boy Wario shows up, flirts up a storm with Peach, swoops her away, and leaves Mario grumbling that Wario is stupid and ugly and Peach is a jerk-lover like every other girl.
But what if Peach had flirted with Mario, only to turn him down when he asked her out? Why would Peach send such mixed signals? Well, it’s possible that Peach saw Mario as someone “safe” who would never ask her out. I don’t know what it is about the feminine psyche, but a lot of times it’s much easier to flirt with someone you have little interest in romantically than to flirt with someone you have a crush on. Maybe it’s because you usually feel more self-conscious around a crush, and you also don’t want it to be too easy for the crush to get you, because otherwise, how do you know if he’s actually interested in you? Plus, again, women don’t like feeling like they are chasing the guy, and Approaching + Flirting = Chasing.
So what is the answer? I don’t know. I think it’s wrong to deliberately dangle the carrot in front of someone you have no intention of feeding it to, but at the same time I don’t think it’s a good idea to be so unreadable that no one figure out what you’re thinking. Alas, there is no foolproof way to avoid bumps and bruises on the road to love.