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Flirting in northern Europe: A touchy subject

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Stuck somewhere between respect, emancipation and sexual attraction, northern Europeans have a hard time when it comes to flirting. Add online dating apps and recent sexual harassment scandals like #MeToo into the mix, and they are completely lost. Luckily flirting coaches in Germany, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands are there to deconstruct the well-worn cliché that has led to this cross-border clumsiness.

In a 2003 song by German rock band Wir Sind Helden, the cliché was confirmed: “Germans flirt very subtly.” The song was all about a French woman named Aurélie who, as she walked down the streets of an unspecified German city, could not understand why no man appeared to notice her. The fact that Wir Sind Helden dedicated a song to the notion that in Germany, “less is often more” is somewhat telling of a deep-seated cliché: German men can’t flirt.

France qualifies as what anthropologists have termed a high-contact culture, meaning people generally stand closer together when talking and make more direct eye contact. Germany, on the other hand, is more in line with other northern European countries in that respect. It belongs to a group of low-contact cultures, where people maintain more social distance and avoid overbearing interactions.

It may seem obvious, but contact is a prerequisite for flirting. So it’s not surprising that France fares better in this aspect than its northern neighbours, and that Aurélie experienced a culture shock when walking through German streets. But the only way to find out if a cliché holds true is to speak to people who have deconstructed it to its essence: flirting coaches.

“It’s a human problem”

Nina Deissler is a Hamburg-based flirting coach. The 44-year-old has been organising seminars on topics such as flirting and finding a partner for 16 years now, and has written 11 books on the subject. She first became interested in the subject 20 years ago, when she was a student. “I worked in a bar every so often, part time,” she says, “and I noticed that many men had, well, questions. Questions about how they could understand women better, or how they could get to know more women, and I got the idea that there’s clearly a demand for this [kind of information] among men.”

That’s when Nina decided to set up a service whereby men who were interested could set up a meeting with her. In the meetings, she told them how they came across, what they could improve, what a potential partner could misunderstand in their attitude or what they might prefer. In 2002 when she lost her job, Nina decided to start her career as a professional flirting coach.

When asked how to recognise that a German man is flirting, Nina laughs. “That’s a good question!” she says. “German women actually ask themselves the same question.” German men, it seems, wait to be given permission to show interest in a woman. Women, for their part, are also reluctant to show signs, which further complicates matters. “That’s why my job exists,” Nina continues, laughing.

To the northwest of Germany, in the Netherlands, 40-year-old Suzanne Penning is carrying out similar work. She owns the Flirt Company, which offers coaching to individuals and businesses to improve their ability to connect with others. In 2014, around St. Valentine’s Day, the Dutch rail company NS asked the Flirt Company to provide on-board coaching in the art of successful flirtation for commuters between Amsterdam and Maastricht. For Suzanne, “Dutchmen are not flirters… or overpowering with flirting. It’s nothing in between. It’s nothing or everything.”

In Denmark, another low-contact culture, the situation sounds even direr. According to Kay Xander Mellish, author of the book How to Live in Denmark, men do not flirt at all unless they are very drunk. And what ensues doesn’t sound too appealing: “I’ve been in nightclubs where some drunk Danish guy will go from woman to woman like: ‘Wanna come home with me? No, no? Okay.’ Until they get a girl who says yes.” Kay grew up in the U.S. but has lived in Denmark for over ten years, working as a writer and public speaker. “You wouldn’t expect a Danish man to be writing poetry, or buying flowers or anything like that. Usually, if a woman finds a man interesting… she makes the first move, and maybe even the second,” Kay says, in a matter-of-fact tone. Unlike Nina and Suzanne, her job is to understand people rather than change them.

But according to Swedish dating coach, writer and speaker Linnea Molander, men in low-contact cultures shouldn’t always rely on women to make the first move. Linnea assists high-performing women who are, in her words, “doing so well in all other parts of their lives, but who are clueless and stuck when it comes to dating.” The 34-year-old points out how “women are super afraid to make a move as well.” She has studied positive psychology, cognitive neuroscience and coaching, and chose to focus on women because most Swedish dating coaches target men. “There’s also this idea that women don’t have problems,” she says, before adding, “It’s a very human problem.” Linnea sees flirting as “teamwork” rather than the sole responsibility of either party. “Everyone is afraid of rejection,” she explains, “And we both need to do our parts. If we want people to flirt with us, then we need to show people we are available to be flirted with.” But why is the art of seduction so thin on the ground in their respective countries?

Flirting is a fine line

The fear of harassing women or of overstepping the line is a commonly cited reason why men are reluctant to flirt. “It’s not because Danish guys are not interested in women but, you know, they’ve sort of grown up with the idea that they don’t want to […] harass women,” says Kay. Nina confirms that this is the case in Germany, too: “Many men are afraid they might offend a woman.”

The concern isn’t unjustified, especially given that the Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement have put the issue back on the table, front and centre. In 2014, a large-scale study of 42,000 women in all 28 EU countries carried out by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights found that one in five women across the EU had experienced at least one form of sexual harassment in the last 12 months. Yet the issue is a tricky one; the line between flirting and harassment is fine and often blurred. What is considered flirtatious to some may be overstepping the mark to others. It is perhaps not surprising then that many men feel confused about what constitutes appropriate flirting behaviour these days.

Suzanne from the Flirt Company in the Netherlands feels that the current debate makes things difficult when it comes to flirting, as the men who come for guidance are already shy to begin with. “Be gentle, is always what we advise,” she says, “and don’t be afraid.”

For women, the way feminism has been interpreted also seems to get in the way of carefree seduction. “German women are afraid that they will betray gender equality and emancipation if they [flirt],” says Nina. “In Germany, equality and women’s emancipation is strongly driven by a shaming of masculinity. Yet at the same time, there is an attempt to reach equality of status through equality of actions,” the flirting coach explains. According to Nina, despite this rejection of masculinity, many women who want to be successful disguise themselves as men. She sees this as a German trait: “When I go out at night in London, I see almost no women wearing trousers. I also see that French and Italian women generally seem very emancipated, yet at the same time very feminine and self-assured.”

Germany is not alone in this. In Denmark, women seem to prefer to do things themselves rather than letting a man offer assistance. In Kay’s words: “Guys get called out for [being chivalrous], so they don’t try it twice. You know, even something as simple as opening the door.”

Recent debates on equality may have taken their toll on flirting, but Linnea in Sweden has a more positive outlook on the matter: “The more gender equality we have in the world, the easier it will be to flirt. Having this discussion [on equality] creates an awareness and openness that I would say is extremely necessary in order for things to go smoothly.” She goes on to explain that what needs to change is the way in which we flirt. “There is a historically misogynous way of flirting, and we need to find new ways. We can respect each other and have sexual attraction. They are not mutually exclusive. But we can’t have sexual attraction dependent on women being repressed.”

Making it Happn online with dating apps

According to research from the firm App Annie, worldwide consumer spending on dating apps nearly doubled from 2016 to 2017, while in several countries including the United Kingdom, France and Germany, a dating app was ranked number one (ahead of all other types of app) when it comes to overall consumer spending. When using apps such as Tinder, Bumble or Happn, different rules apply and in some cases, more ‘feminist’ ones. On Bumble, it is up to women to make the first move, Danish-style. Overall, it’s less about catching someone’s eye as it is about… well, swiping right.

“When I speak to young people, they’ve often met their partner on Tinder,” Kay says about Denmark. In her view, online dating can be great for those afraid of making the initial contact in real life. “It’s rough in a social situation to say: ‘I see you as a possible sexual partner.’ Whereas on Tinder or other dating apps, you know right away that the person is interested in dating.” But there’s a catch: the fact of being glued to one’s mobile phone can be bad for real-life flirting. “We have phones nowadays, so people aren’t aware of their surroundings,” Linnea points out; certainly not very helpful if you’re trying to make eye contact on a crowded train.

Recent research from the Next Steps project of the University College London has in fact revealed that millennials are having sex later, with one in eight still virgins at 26, compared to one in 20 among previous generations, despite – or perhaps because of – widespread access to dating apps and pornography. Fear of intimacy and pressure from social media are deemed to be the main culprits.

The flirting coaches offer no advice on how to seduce via text and emoji, which is surprising given the prevalence of online dating. Nina is particularly dubious about people’s ability to flirt in the virtual world, despite having first made contact with her own husband via the Internet. In the Netherlands, Suzanne offers some advice on what to put on a dating profile (“be honest, don’t lie about your age”) but overall it feels like unchartered territory.

Can’t take a compliment?

Gender equality and online dating apps aside, there are more deep-rooted, culture-specific reasons why flirtation is not widespread in the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden.

The inability to give or receive compliments is one. “I think the culture in Holland… well, we are not used to receiving compliments,” says Suzanne. “It’s always about striving to be better. It’s not about how you feel, but it’s how you work.” She also notes that people are shocked when they receive compliments, their instinctive reaction tending to be: “What do you want from me?” Nina on the other hand claims that: “German women like compliments. They just don’t know what to do with them.” Kay, too, thinks that Danish women would appreciate a more complimentary approach from their male counterparts, but that “when they actually get one, they don’t know what to do with it.”

Nina also points out that flirting is inconsistent with the character traits of commitment and dependability that Germans are known for. “Flirting promises nothing and Germans like commitment, so being noncommittal is hard for them,” she says. Flirting is not always a means to an end, many people engage in it purely for fun, perhaps even for a little respite from the seriousness of everyday life. But this kind of levity is met with suspicion among the Teutons, which might explain why the verb “to seduce” has a more positive connotation in French (séduire is to strongly attract or charm someone) than it does in German: verführen literally means to mislead someone.

In Sweden, the women Linnea coaches seem unable to strike the right (light) tone when it comes to courtship. “They tend to approach a date the same way they would a business meeting. And the two are very different things. Dating requires emotion in a way that business doesn't. You need to be emotionally connected when you date,” she says.

Practice makes perfect

So what do the experts propose to those wishing to overcome their natural reserve in order to make a connection? “I advise them to practise in their everyday life, and instead of calling it flirting I call it just being unnecessarily friendly to everyone”, says Linnea. She explains what the practice consists of. “Make eye contact with the people you meet regardless if it's a woman, a man, a child [...] and say every nice thing you think of to them. When you already do that with most people it will be much easier to do it with that extra interesting person too."

The Flirt Company suggests similar exercises to its compliment-shy Dutch clients, starting with eye contact and ending with conversation and compliments. “You walk into the elevator, and then just smile at the people in the elevator. […] So make eye contact. And smile and see what happens. And then, try to make conversation, or try to make a compliment, is the next task,” says Suzanne.

Nina proposes similar practical exercises to her German clients, but also provides a fair amount of background theory to mollify people’s existential angst about seeming shallow and non-committal. “I show people alternatives, and tell them contact to other people, which is helpful. It’s nice, even when it’s not strongly binding. It can be a smile, it can be a compliment; it can be anything.”

The other thing she tells her clients is that practice makes perfect. “If they only flirt when they mean it seriously, then there will be few opportunities to flirt. And if you do something very infrequently, you’re not very good at it. At when you’re not very good at something, you don’t trust yourself to do it when it matters.”

Linnea seconds this. “A lot of people think that they can go from not talking to anyone to suddenly being this super charming flirtatious person when they need to. But that is too big of a step. [...] You need to take small steps to train your social and flirting muscles every day,” she concludes.

Many of these flirting exercises would have come in handy to help young German men trying (and failing, apparently) to woo Aurélie back in the early 2000s. But all things considered, she might have been living in a more simple time, before dating apps and emerging sex scandals confused her subtle suitors even more.

Cover photo © Johan Giraud