Friday, February 20, 2004

Cross-Cultural Flirting

So, after five years or so Sir Rantalot has been cast back into the dating pool. At this point he’s staying in the shallow end, jumping around trying to get his ankles wet. The thing is, the dating scene has changed. Even if it’s only in the way the furniture shrinks as you grow up. Soon enough your Rant-writing protagonist will be thrust into a new world, one he has never experienced before. A world in which he is single, gainfully employed, and no longer wrapped in the snuggly confines of academia. (How in the world do you meet women out side of school?) But these are issues for later, say, May. The issue today is cross-cultural flirting. (Exit third person narrative)

Washington DC is in fact an incredibly diverse place. I know what you’re thinking, “But Sir Rantalot, you are also from an incredibly diverse place, what’s the problem?” The problem my friend is that in Berkeley diversity is celebrated. In Berkeley even the white people dis on the powers that be, namely, other white people. But DC, indeed the whole East Coast from what I can figure is very different. For example, in California there is a feeling of solidarity between Latin Americans. Out here the Puerto Ricans Dominicans and Cubans see each other as unwanted step-siblings having to share the same bedroom. So what happens when a naïve Puerto Rican kid from CA tries to chat up a conservative Cuban gal from Miami? Well, he makes some witty remarks about racist white people only to find that the gal in question identifies more as White than anything else. Ah-ha! Though I had heard about Republican Cuban expatriates I had never actually met any. Still, at least that one was in my native tongue

The differences are even more pronounced when you find yourself flirting with people who come from an entirely different socio-linguistic background. Being bilingual greatly increases the number of people you can flirt with. Or so I thought. I recently realized that while I can be humorous, and charming in my native language, I’m not so clever in my second. I’ve never flirted in my second language., they just don’t teach that in school. I’ve always followed Anita’s advice form West Side Story, I’ve stuck to my own kind. The issue I’ve encountered recently is one of modality. What happens when the glances, and brief moments of eye contact that are a staple of North American spoken language flirting are an integral linguistic feature in the language of the person you’re flirting with? In my second language eye contact is how you initiate conversation, eye contact is in fact required for communication, it’s the opening signal to any exchange. So what happens when you’re just trying to make that subtle connection from across the room, or you want to steal a private moment in the middle of a group conversation? The effect is the same as if you leaned over to the other person and offered a non-sequitus “So, uh….” Followed by no other remarks. In a group situation eye contact during a group conversation is an interruption. After a couple of these you are reduced to the status of babbling idiot.

Trying to overcome these nuances is a fascinating exercise. Never mind that I don’t even know how far I’d want to take things if ever my flirting proved successful. At this point, after the safety and security of back-to-back long-term relationships I must admit to some apprehension at the idea of waking up with someone new. I had a point when I started this. I think it had to do with not knowing how the hell to meet women outside of school. Yes. That was it. At school you have at least one thing in common with everyone around you. Also, you have a high concentration of prospects in a confined space. Out there in the real world everything gets more complicated. Good luck to us all.

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