By Martha Beck:
O, The Oprah Magazine | From the September 2007 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
We’d been waiting 30 minutes for someone to take our order in a busy Mexican restaurant when my friend Cathy decided to take extreme measures. “Watch this,” she whispered. Then she tugged the clip from her hair, opened a collar button, and tossed her head like a frolicking foal. Almost magically, she went from being simply beautiful to what is referred to in the vernacular as “like, totally hot.” Three waiters rushed our table like linebackers. Cathy fluttered her lashes at one, cooing, “Hon, could we order now?” It was a virtuoso performance of attraction in action.
For me, this was like watching documentary footage about something (“Mating Behavior Among Bipedal Primates of the American Southwest”) that I’ve never personally experienced. It’s not that I totally lack skills like Cathy’s. She can toss her head and attract men; I can—to cite just one example—toss fried chicken and attract cats. But I could never use feminine wiles the way Cathy can. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a single wile. I used to enjoy pitying myself for this, until one day I realized that everyone for whom I’ve felt genuine sexual interest eventually expressed reciprocal interest in me. While shortchanging me compared with Cathy, Mother Nature still provided me with the instinctive ability to make the connections I really wanted. Now, if you have Gisele Bündchen problems (your Manolo Blahniks keep skidding in puddles of drool left by lustful admirers), please turn directly to an underwear ad and enjoy the company of other genetically blessed people like you. This column contains instructions on seduction for the rest of us.
Flirtation 101: What to do if it doesn’t come naturally
Scientists tell us that females of all cultures make sexual connections through sequences of specific flirting behaviors. The ethologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt captured this on film some 30 years ago, with a camera that appeared to point in one direction while actually shooting in another. He found that women of all languages, classes, and religious backgrounds attracted men through the same gestures. This was further documented by psychologists who spent months scientifically lurking around in lounges, watching couples hook up. As Psychology Today‘s contributor Joann Ellison Rodgers described the flirtation ritual: “Women smiled, gazed, swayed, giggled, licked their lips and aided and abetted by the wearing of high heels; they swayed their backs, forcing their buttocks to tilt out and up and their chests to thrust forward.”
In researching this article, I recently tried enacting these behaviors in a local Starbucks. Sure enough, I attracted immediate male attention: An elderly gentleman asked me if I needed medical help. The answer was yes. I think I ruptured something. The bottom line (pardon the pun) is that buttock tilting and back swaying come about as naturally to me as spaceflight. Though flirting is supposedly wired into our brains, my brain appears to have shorted out in regard to giggling and licking my lips. And yet even I have stumbled upon a set of seductive behaviors that work surprisingly well for me. If you share my chronic back spasms and total lack of sexual self-confidence, you too might find them useful.
Step 1: Identify a specific person with whom you really, truly want to have sex
After our waiter spilled all over himself serving Cathy her enchiladas, I asked her what it felt like to exercise such awesome sexual control.
“It’s not that great,” she said with a sigh. “In fact, it can get lonely. You have to learn to get past casual sex and create lasting relationships, and that isn’t easy.”
I stared at her. She might as well have asked me how you get past calculus to create a mud pie. I associate the word casual with khaki pants, not carnal pants. Why? Because for some reason, I just can’t help indulging in forethought before getting to foreplay.
This isn’t true for most people: Sexual signals usually zip right past the rational brain, because as Rodgers puts it, if two people “immediately considered all the possible risks and vulnerabilities they might face if they mated or had children, they’d run screaming from the room.” Now, that I can understand. To actually have sex, I must be not only in love but also in full legal possession of the other party’s medical records. The advantage of this approach is that what you miss in casual thrills, you gain in long-term compatibility. That initial spark of interest leads not to the nearest motel room but to the prolonged scrutiny you would give an unrecognizable substance before deciding to include it in a cake.
If you consistently wake up next to people you no longer respect, try doing deliberately what I do involuntarily: Hold in your mind a vivid picture of a genital wart. (The Internet provides plenty, and I am here to tell you, they’re the opposite of pornographic.) Superimpose this image over the dashing smile of that cute guy at the bar. This should give you pause—a pause you can use to investigate whether the dashing smile is backed up by kindness, humor, honesty, and other qualities you probably want in a mate.
If you do this, you’re on the verge of discovering something amazing: Simple, sustained attention can be more powerfully seductive than all the eyelash-fluttering, tongue-flicking, back-swaying displays that make men want to fondle the likes of Cathy and prescribe seizure medication for the likes of me.
Step 2: Lust for the other person’s subjective experience
Here is the secret of sexual success for the confidence impaired: While people will decide to have casual sex with you based on how you look, they’ll decide to have meaningful sex with you based on how you see. The reason I’ve managed to make the connections I desired is that I’m fascinated by people’s stories. Beneath the small-talk surface, every life is a fascinating novel, so I always follow the suggestion from Proverbs 4:7, “With all thy getting get understanding.” This directive means to stand under, in the relatively lowly position of student, and let whomever we’re trying to occupy the high ground of teacher. And—this is key—the body language we use to do this overlaps significantly with the biology of flirting.
Anthropologist David Givens, the author of the book Love Signals: A Practical Field Guide to the Body Language of Courtship, says that a crucial sexual-attraction message is “I am harmless.” We communicate this with “submissive displays,” such as turning our hands palm up, tilting our heads, exposing our vulnerable necks. A tilted-head half-shrug is typical of sexually attracted people having their first conversation. It’s also a posture you’ll unconsciously assume when you’re trying to understand another person’s experience. I suspect this is a major reason so many clients fall in love with their therapists: The counselor who tilts her head while gazing quizzically at a patient, trying to see into his soul, may unwittingly be signaling that she’d also like to see into his pants.
Throughout my adolescence, I had terrifying encounters with innocent, well-meaning boys who interpreted my intense curiosity as sexual interest. A handful told me in so many words that, despite my obvious flaws, they had decided to accept me as a mate. In this way, I learned that detached, genuine interest in another person’s inner experience is, if anything, more seductive than the hair flips I will never master. This realization was almost worth the time I spent hiding behind trees and under staircases to avoid those poor misguided fellows.
Step 3: Get a Life
Speaking of watching people, reality television provides an interesting barometer to indicate which behaviors humans find most fascinating. Some programs, like The Bachelor, have no real point except to show gorgeous individuals attracting or rejecting one another. Personally, I find them marginally less interesting than having my teeth cleaned. I favor reality shows in which people do things that require skill, talent, or daring: crab fishing, singing, clothing design, Latin dance. The popularity of these shows suggests I’m not the only person tuning in. Generally, the harder the participants have to work, the more interesting the process.
Even when cameras aren’t rolling, people love to watch others work hard, learn skills, and take risks. Remember the old Peanuts cartoons in which Lucy mooned endlessly over Schroeder, whose only interest was the piano? That stereotype is based in truth: People who are mastering something that fascinates them become fascinating to others. If you want to capture people’s attention, put your own attention on something that has nothing to do with them: oil painting, cooking, wildlife rescue. The more you get lost in what you’re doing, the more interesting you’ll become.
Best Practices: The one-two-three punch combination
If you use the three steps above in quick succession, you’ll become an attention magnet. It’s like a trick move in martial arts: Target your person of interest, focus entirely on them, then abruptly divert your attention. Pow, pow, pow!
These steps allow any flirtatiously challenged person to bypass the whole complicated, alarming world of sexual tension and attraction among normal people. You can do the dance of seduction without even meaning to—simply by letting yourself be openly drawn to people, their stories, and your own deepest fascinations.