Do Bostonians know how to flirt?
by Erin Souza
| February 09, 2009
A look at the Hub’s dating game
If I had a buck for every time I heard a friend, family member, or colleague gripe about Boston’s crappy dating scene, I’d probably be one of the wealthiest writers in the biz. Though I’m in a committed relationship, I’ve often found myself observing my single friends’ behavior, like an anthropologist doing field research. I stand back, drink in hand, and watch.
I’ve closely studied these interactions, searching for clues that could shed light on this local quandary. The sad hypothesis? Bostonians, on the whole, are bad at flirting. In fact, a Match.com survey of more than 2000 of its members ranked Boston dead last in a list of the nation’s most flirtatious cities.
It isn’t that big a shocker. Boston has a reputation for being a cold city. We’re more buttoned up — literally and otherwise — than our cosmopolitan counterparts. Can we blame this on our deep-seated Puritanical roots? Or perhaps, residents of this beacon of higher education are — dare we say it? — too self-absorbed to bother with flirting.
Flirt or flight
Flirting is innate; it’s embedded in our psyches, according to psychologists, and is like a universal body language. Women bat their eyes, stretch their necks, and draw attention to their mouths. A man widens his stance and brings the focus to his chest and abs. The very essence of flirting is that it’s ambiguous, non-direct, and nonthreatening. A non-verbal cue, after all, is a lot less blunt than a “So, come here often?” doozey of a pick-up line.
The word “flirt” even has a noncommittal undertone; it comes from the now-obsolete French word meaning to touch lightly, usually with flower petals. “Flirting is a playful way to put out your sexuality,” says self-proclaimed flirt Jessie Orbovich, bartender at the Liberty Hotel’s Alibi. “It’s gentle, fun, and not so direct.”
Some evolutionary psychologists, according to the Britain-based Social Issues Research Centre, have argued that the ridiculously large human brain is an advanced flirting tool — the ultimate enticement to woo potential partners. In other words, it’s the human equivalent of a peacock’s ornate tail. Some animals have brawn; we have brain. (Yes, even the yeah dudes swarming Faneuil Hall watering holes every weekend have large human brains. Who knew?) It seems a bit counter-intuitive that we over-educated Bostonians would shy away from this sort of flexing of our smart-and-sexy muscle, doesn’t it?
Not really, according to Elena Pellegrino, an Arlington-based mental health therapist who, until about a year a go, held flirting workshops for Boston singles. “There is a more conservative thought process here in general,” she says. “People in Boston are more concerned about status and reputation.” Perhaps Bostonians are too busy thinking about MBAs, PhDs, and plummeting stock portfolios to indulge in a little mild flirtation.
The Great Divide
Virginia native and former Floridian Orbovich thinks so. “People in Boston are more uptight than our counterparts in other cities.”, she says. “Here, people immediately ask, ‘Where did you go to school?’ or ‘What do you do for a living?” That, she says, is not flirting. “I think that’s more like an interview!”
A local twenty-something male, who recently traveled cross-country, echoed that feeling: “Women around here are more business and career-oriented than their counterparts in other regions of the country,” he says in an e-mail, “and this, in turn, leads to a business approach to dating. It sucks the fun right out of it.”
Pellegrino chalks up our apparent inability to flirt to the pressure Bostonians place on achievements and status. “I think there is a lot of pressure to achieve, whether it’s through your career or financially. People are afraid to go out and get rejected,” she says, “so a lot of people just try to take the safe road” — that road being the one where they just don’t take the risk of flirting at all.
Pellegrino’s stint living in San Diego is her basis for comparing Boston to California. Her verdict? “People in the Boston area are more concerned about what people think [than Californians] are. On the West Coast, people are a little more carefree.”
History appears to play a supporting role in that relative conservatism. Look to our Puritan roots and the archaic chastity laws on the books in Massachusetts: rules against fornication (punishable by imprisonment for three months or a fine of up to $30 — seriously!) and “against resorting to restaurants or taverns for immoral purposes,” top the list of laws that still stand even if they haven’t been enforced for decades. (So not only was that drunken make-out session on the dance floor at Sissy K’s a hot mess, it was illegal, too.)
Wilfred Holton, associate professor of sociology at Northeastern University who teaches a course on the sociology of Boston, admits to not having flirted in quite sometime and doesn’t know if we flirt more, less, or just as much as other city-dwellers. But if there’s a trait that could be tied to our alleged cold-shoulder mating behavior, he suggests, an old blue-blood mentality.
“There’s a reputation, at least for the old, traditional groups in Boston — those whose ethnic backgrounds go back a long time — that there’s conservatism in public behavior,” Holton says. “You had cold-roast Boston in the early 20th century, and people were very standoffish and very hard to get to know.”
But pointing a finger at Boston’s Puritan roots as a determining factor in how we seduce is a bit outdated, according to Holton. “Everyone was divorcing himself and herself from the Puritan roots soon after the Revolution,” he says. “Though some of that probably does still hold, but that’s a very small group.”
And we’re no longer that homogeneous community of centuries past. “We’re half non-white now as a city,” says Holton. “So many people have come from elsewhere, so it is hard to generalize or even find very many Bostonians who have not been tremendously influenced by other experiences.” And, undoubtedly, other parts of the world.
Despite what the cynics (and I include myself in that horde) say, of course Bostonians flirt. We are human, after all.
Need a little guidance? Elena Pellegrino offers some flirting do’s and don’ts:
Ditch the large group of friends and head out with one wingman, or solo. “Make yourself approachable and look like someone who’s going to be willing to flirt back,” she says.
“Body language speaks volumes,” she notes. Make direct eye contact and smile.
Throw out the rule books. Forget waiting three days to call or not making the first move, urges Pellegrino. “Sometimes you really don’t have to play the game; just go with your gut.”
The best approach to flirting in any city, according to Pellegrino? “Give out what you’d want someone to be giving back to you,” she says. I think we’re smart enough to handle that.