Since Helen of Troy, women have found that flirting will get them what they want.Readers, I have a dark confession: I live to flirt. Not flagrant, purposeful, succumb-to-me-now flirtation (though this has its place), but trying to be pleasant, smoothing things over, making-the-world-go-round type of stuff. Thus far this week, I have flirted with Swiss train guards, a posse of shy schoolgirls, a Gallic chef, two salesmen, one of my closest friends and an airline pilot. None of this had anything to do with eroticism. Rather, it was an attempt to charm the poor blighters – by which I also mean: charm something out of them.
Happily, the world of science has come forward to confirm my credo. Girlish wiles count for much, according to a coquettish little study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Researchers set up experiments to measure the effects of feminine charm within negotiations. They defined this beguiling quality as a management technique available to women, combining warmth and friendliness, flattery, playfulness, and a certain sex appeal. Such behaviour was discovered to boost economic benefits, improving the prospects of bargaining success by up to a third.
Professor Laura Kray, of the University of California, Berkeley, who led the investigation, confirms: “Women are uniquely confronted with a trade-off in terms of being perceived as strong versus warm. Using feminine charm in negotiation is a technique that combines both. The key is to flirt with your own natural personality in mind. Be authentic. Have fun. That will translate into confidence, which is a strong predictor of negotiation performance.” To which I say: “Ha!” and “Tra la la”, while lightly touching your arm.
The platitudinous celebrity answer to how they would change the world has traditionally been: “Secure world peace.” At a microcosmic level, I would argue that flirting does just that. It is a form of politeness that should be aimed at man, woman and child to make the world a happier, more harmonious place.
To deploy another platitude, one might call it “emotional intelligence”. And if women hold the advantage, then lucky us. Which is not to say that chaps are powerless in the flirting department. The most charming men are also the most dangerous – one would do anything for them, anything, and with rapture. Bill Clinton – whom I once had the pleasure of meeting at an impressionable, Lewinsky-esque age – has this quality in spades, despite his bouffant hair and reek of tomcat.
However, women shouldn’t be embarrassed that strategic flirtation is largely a female preserve. One can be a feminist and a flirt. Indeed, long before the dawning of the feminist era, charm had the status of our most ancient weapon.
Helen of Troy was the world’s earliest and most epic flirt. Carried off by force as a child – her marriage dictated by geopolitics – Spartan Helen was history’s most charming pugilist, working with the means available to her. Even stiff-shirted Hector was won over.
After 10 years of bitter siege, her cuckolded husband charging towards her to take a bloody revenge, she bared her beautiful bosom – less “Kill me now”, more “Get a load of this”. Cue an immediate volte-face. What would otherwise have been the world’s most benighted couple went on to live together very happily, Helen wrapping hirsute, clodhopping Menelaus around her pretty little finger.
Eleanor of Aquitaine secured the thrones of France and England in such a way, and was not averse to flirting with her uncle or sons when necessary; a strategy that made her the most powerful woman in the world at a time when they were expected to be mere walking wombs. Commoner Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV and grandmother to Henry VIII, became mother to a dynasty by fluttering the lashes on her “heavy-lidded eyes like those of a dragon”.
Her great granddaughter, Elizabeth I, ensured that flirtation became her reign’s chief metaphor, creating a rhetoric within which female authority could flourish. At the age of 64, she could be found flashing her snowy bosom Helen-like at the French ambassador, despite her “very aged” face and tombstone teeth. Baroness Thatcher was often compared to Gloriana, both in terms of coquettish prowess, and the self-aggrandising ends that it served. Like her august predecessor, Thatcher flirted as much as thundered.
Still, such wiles are not without their perils: witness Anne Boleyn’s seven-year flirtation, followed by a rapid demise. Nor are they without their risks: for every artful Baroness Thatcher, there is an Edwina Currie, clumsily vamping into the void.
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