On Flirtation

Why do they think up stories that link my name with yours?
Why do the neighbors chatter all day, behind their doors?
I know a way to prove what they say is quite untrue.
Here is the gist, a practical list of ‘don’ts’ for you.
Don’t throw bouquets at me
Don’t please my folks too much
Don’t laugh at my jokes too much
People will say we’re in love!

It is quite possible that I don’t know what is meant by flirting.

This is only slightly facetious. I know it means something like “behaving as though you are attracted to or trying to attract someone.” It is also sometimes referred to, fabulously, as coquetry. But, what does it mean?

I am reminded that in middle school I sat down a friend of mine to figure out once and for all what was meant by this flirting I kept hearing about. And, I secretly hoped, whether it was happening to me. He searched the cafeteria with his eyes and then pointed. “There,” he said, “that is flirting.” From my vantage, it was a girl talking to a boy with some level of animation. “It looks like they’re talking,” I said. “No,” he tried to clarify with exasperation. “It’s, like, how they’re talking. You just know they’re flirting.”

I found this extremely confusing. I think I even laughed, being very sure that this flirting thing was much more obvious than that. If I couldn’t see it with all of my preteen arrogance then flirting simply wasn’t happening. And I wasn’t missing out on anything.

Nearly 20 years later and in this time of romance known as cuffing season, I find myself once again applying my overly analytical mind to this instinctual social code. I study performance, after all; surely I can understand an embodied practice so central to culture. I’m trained to read the body in space and all that it transmits through layers of implied or projected meaning. I know what flirting is and what it looks like.


Don’t sigh and gaze at me
Your sighs are so like mine
Your eyes mustn’t glow like mine
People will say we’re in love!

I’ve been known to speak ill of the Golden Age musical. Especially the hokey Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. Very particularly Oklahoma! However, the corrosion of youthful indiscretions has eroded me into a soft old thing, so I find myself adding “Ten Minutes Ago” and “Shall We Dance?” and, most recently, “People Will Say We’re in Love” to my listening rotation.

It took a few listens to Daniel Fish’s enchanting rearrangement of “People Will Say We’re in Love” for me to realize that it was, in essence, a flirting song. A song about flirting. A song in which two characters were flirting. And a few listens further to begin thinking about how I was, in a sense, in my own strange flirtation with this here piece of music.

How did I know this? And, why would it occur to me that I was flirting with a piece of music?


Evacuating its subtext and insinuating performance, the song seems to be romantic leads Laurey and Curly negotiating how to avoid the gossip that has bloomed around them. Each thinks the other is the one at fault. Both are quite specific about what the other should stop doing immediately. It is in playful contrast to Ado Annie’s delightful “I Cain’t Say No,” which in all its sex positive glory is a song about what desire can be for the individual hellbent on getting hers. Instead, Laurey and Curly are indulging in what we, the audience, know will be their inevitable romantic resolution, so the song allows us to sit in the delectable potential of what is to come – not the getting, but the getting there.

What makes “People Will Say We’re in Love” a flirting song, in other words, is not its confirmation of romantic desire, but the evasion of confirmation, the plausible deniability, and the youthful rush of maybe, maybe, maybe.

Getting at that subtext requires both Laurey and Curly to do a bit of performance analysis. Not to get too ahead of myself in a semiotic interpretation of Oklahoma!(!?), but they are reading the signifiers against what is most certainly signified to prolong the sweet agony of being unsure. Laurey, for instance, boldly lays out that she and Curly are both sighing and gazing at each other in much the same way with glowing eyes. Of course, she argues, this would lead the townsfolk to say they’re in love as this is how one performs being in love. She’s not necessarily in love, it’s just the cultural norm. And, if I wanted to get even deeper in this analysis unnecessarily, I would argue that avoiding recognition from the community allows Laurey and Curly to evade hegemonic regulation of their obvious affection for each other, but this ain’t that kinda essay …

In thinking this through, I have discovered two things: first, flirting is a dance around denial and, second, I am thusly flirting with “People Will Say We’re in Love.”

I can deny all I want that Oklahoma! of all musicals would make me sway ever so slightly and bring stars to my eyes and make me daydream about two-stepping in a barn. I can deny that I am weak to the good ol’ boy charms of my Southern raising and the occasional twang of country music. But, sweetheart, they’re suspecting things … Don’t make me sway, don’t bring stars to my eyes, don’t make me daydream – people will say I love Oklahoma!

Some people claim that you are to blame as much as I
Why do you take the trouble to bake my fav’rite pie?
Granted your wish, I carved our initials on that tree
Just keep a slice of all the advice you give, so free.

In the fancy footwork of this denial twist, there remains the question of where that denied feeling finds its steps. We’ve gotten artistic, so let’s get a little more academic: What is the phenomenological, affective experience of flirting? How does it begin?

I often think to myself that I’m flirting with an idea for a play or an essay or a research project. This is metaphorical and literal. It does no disservice to either my writing or my romantic interlocutors to say that this flirting – whatever it is – comes from the same cosmic impulse. As Audre Lorde has written, “within the celebration of the erotic in all our endeavors, my work becomes a conscious decision — a longed for bed which I enter gratefully and from which I rise up empowered.” I seek out this erotic in everything I do with a feverish devotion.

For me, reading critical theory can be a romantic process. One part scanning the room for an attractive face. One part fanciful amusement as we start to get along. One part hair-pulling frustration trying to understand how the author really feels.

It is when I stumble upon one such attractive face – a particularly moving or strange passage – that I begin to feel … something. Attraction is the most obvious word for it. I stop. I study it. I read it again and again trying to locate what it is exactly that keeps bringing me back for more. I highlight. I write it down somewhere. I transform it into aesthetic, performative content for social media. (Instagram official) It takes up more and more space in my mind. It sparks associations with music and poetry and other art.

And then, the fantasies. What could we be together, you inexplicably attractive idea? We could be a mind-blowing story. We could be an unforgettable transformation of the mundane. We could be the answer to a long sought-after question. We could be that magnum opus that shakes me to the core and shifts my orientation in this strange world of ours.

When I put pen to paper – so to speak – the denial is over and my matrimonial intentions are revealed. Fascination consummated and flirtation done. But, the traces remain and I am constantly pulled back to the rush of that first feeling; sensuously shaping the then-unknown into something that makes sense to someone else. That legibility is its own reward, but it is undeniably delicious to take my time with this total sensation beyond words.

But, maybe, I’m using elaborate metaphor to excuse my procrastination. Just another denial twist.

Don’t dance all night with me
Till the stars fade from above.
They’ll see it’s alright with me
People will say we’re in love.

Have you ever seen that film, The Kiss?


You’ve probably seen it without realizing. It is an 1896 Edison recording of the final scene from The Widow Jones (1895), a musical comedy. The two lead actors sit together and move the corners of their mouths ever closer together as they recite a dialogue we can’t hear. Their mouths become so close together that it is a burlesque of cliché flirting – it is so obvious that they want to kiss each other that they are all-but kissing each other, but they continue to banter ad absurdum. When they do kiss it is suddenly formal with the gentleman taking a step back to groom his moustache and then – ah, the culmination!

It is intriguing to think through how controversial this scene was when it was staged. The controversy being the kiss itself and not, necessarily, the absurd kissing burlesque that precedes it. However, that burlesque is the part that interests me. It is a moment when the physical expression is in excess of the words that could reasonably describe it. I can continue trying to write out an explanation for why the desire is obvious and clear and leading to that kissing culmination, but it would not capture what you can see and sense in the recording. The kiss, on the other hand, speaks for itself both as a gesture and as a phrase: “the kiss.”

I thought of this film when a friend of mine and I were recently lamenting all that is lost through dating app culture. It struck me that while we can apply the term “flirting” to exchanges on dating apps, its use in those cases has lost much of the instinctual play we can see in “The Kiss.” There is no plausible deniability once you have swiped right or liked a person’s profile. Fascination culminated. Flirtation done. Sure, you can have the banter that leads to a kiss on a Tinder date, but you begin the date with a mutual agreement of attraction.

And this brings me to the most nerve-wracking section of my contemplation. A consideration for what flirting with someone means to me, less this understood agreement of attraction. Because in all honesty, I can’t recall a time when the thought “I am flirting with this person” or “I intend to flirt with this person” has crossed my mind. Instead, it is more akin to my intellectual flirtations: I find myself unconsciously returning again and again to someone as they take up more space in my mind.

With that unconscious return comes moments and movements that are better described than explained:

A smile that I can’t control.

Heart beating fast and hands shaking.

A trill through my middle that feels like music.

The briefest brush of hands and being close enough for thighs to touch under a table.

Remembering not the look of their eyes, but the way it felt to gaze and be gazed at.

But, surely you know what I mean.

I think this is why flirting has never been a useful word for me or my own behavior, apart from its fun metaphorical uses. The affect and actions I might otherwise associate with that word feel like they slip over the edges of the term. And that’s just the way I like it.

I like living in the unspeakably romantic and pulling others into it with me, the whole way whispering: maybe … maybe … maybe.

Starlight looks swell on us
Let the stars beam from above!
Who keers if they tell on us!
Let people say we’re in love!

It turns out, I might know something about what is meant by flirting, but I’m simply resistant to it. It is not sufficient for my stupidly intense imagination.

While I have argued that flirtation is about denial and that that denial is what makes it so appealing, I think that that is also the quality that makes it unappealing to me. Because, creating such a stark divide between the growing potential of love and the love itself seems dishonest. In fact, I think we are constantly falling in a manner non-linear. Romance is not a progress narrative, but, indeed, one of those Oklahoma! two-steps. In, out; back, forth; closer and further apart.

After all, Laurey and Curly use a reprise of “People Will Say We’re in Love” to declare their intentions to marry. They hardly change the lyrics; they simply have a new softness and a literal harmony indicating a phase change. Because it’s all the same romantic material, but performed in a new way.

The nature of English and our limited vocabulary to capture this romance two-step is the real frustration. There are semantic nuances between flirtation and tryst and fling and relationship and love – but, what’s the use? People will just say we’re in love.

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