Soon after arriving in Paris, I was approached by an older man at a cafe. With my blond hair and toothy grin, I was clearly a foreigner and at 29, a still-prime target. He asked if he could join me. “Actually, I am engaged,” I said, a fact I was very excited about just weeks after becoming betrothed.
“But zees is nuh-sing in France,” he replied with a sly grin. Nothing? I was shocked.
I had, of course, heard how forward French men could be. Tales of infidelity in France are legendary and I naively assumed I had encountered a world-class lothario. But I knew nothing then about the French art of la seduction and how what might seem like a come-on to a young American can actually be a benign and entertaining part of the game of life à la Française.
I soon realized that flirting in France is central to the way men and women relate to each other. Good natured flirtation is expected and welcomed, assuming one follows the rules of discretion and good taste, bien sûr.
After nearly four years in Paris, here are a few things I’ve learned.
Flirting is fun: Men and women here view “le flirting” as a normal and deeply enjoyable part of daily life. It is a skill to be deployed in all situations – from casual supermarket encounters to exchanges with grumpy fonctionnaires – that can often assist in getting what you want. It can be as simple as holding eye contact for an extra beat or receiving a discreet nod of approval on the street. Much of it centers around light-hearted banter – the ability to engage in witty repartee and deliver a smart remark at just the right moment. Once mastered, the Parisian game of flirtation can be yet one more pleasure added to the day.
The French admire beauty: French women work hard to look attractive and expect that men will notice (although they may or may not return their attention). Men, for their part, feel it’s their job to admire women and to express their appreciation – and not just to women under thirty. As one male French friend put it, “I meet eyes with a woman to acknowledge her beauty, whether it is present or past. If the look is returned, it may be appropriate to speak, but that is never taken for granted.”
Not just for singles: Single American men and women flirt at parties, bars and clubs (and online and via text, so I’ve heard.) Married people do not flirt at all unless they’re scumbags who routinely cheat (or want to cheat) on their spouses, right?
Not so in Paris. At a dinner party a few years ago, I watched a French friend flirt openly with my husband. We were seated with a large group and all enjoying multiple verres de vin. I watched (glared?) across the table as she laughed at his jokes, touched his arm, even talked about how “beau” he is. Hmm.
Being a loyal gentleman (often unaware of his own charms), he was flattered by her attention but claimed not to really notice. “Flirting with me?” he said when we got home. “No waaaay….” It was only later, after coming to understand the French, that I realized her gestures were quite harmless – a normal part of male/female rapport.
As time goes on, I figure, why not enjoy a little attention and appreciation from a stranger? That little frisson of pleasure that comes from a playful exchange can enhance the joy of daily life and even add a spark to your own relationship.
Provided it doesn’t go too far (unless that’s the point, of course) I say, vive le flirting. As a French friend explained it, “The French are always trying to seduce everyone. It’s just for ‘le fun!'”
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