An imaginary videotape reveals the secret. Remember Wicked Willie, the cartoon penis with a mind of his own? Meet Wee Breastie, the pushy little bosom who knows how to get a girl what she really really wants. Minutes before the conversation proper, Wee Breastie springs into action. Under cover of "getting another beer", WB manoeuvres Me right up close to the object of her fancy and rubs herself gently on his arm.
No one notices. Not a word is said. Me returns innocently to her chair, a bottle of beer in hand.
Monica Moore of Webster University, Missouri, has been studying feminine courtship strategies for over 20 years. "Women's flirting behaviours are extremely subtle," she explains. "But women, we find, initiate courtship around 70 per cent of the time. They look at the guy and they look away. They look at the guy and they look away. They look at the guy and they smile - and that's an invitation for him to approach her ..."
The Breast Touch is one of 52 common come-ons Professor Moore has spotted in years of secretly taping women in US bars. It's a rare move, she says: she sees a lot more of the Eyebrow Flash, the Pout and the Lipstick Lick. "But you're right, the woman will pretty well always touch the man first. And when she does, she'll make it look accidental, although we believe it's purposeful. Though it's difficult to know for sure ..."
"Oh, the Breast Touch, it's a classic," groans the handsome Alexander, of whom we will be hearing more. "It's an extremely effective way of letting a bloke know you like him, and it's ambiguous, so it's safe. I'm sure it's not accidental, though. It happens too often for that ..." "You're wrong, Alexander," Me coyly flutters in reply. "I genuinely never knew I was living in the clutches of Wee Breastie, until I recognised her mischief-making when I read the research." Which is completely true.
How conscious are we really of the ways we flirt at parties? And, more pressingly for the social season: how often do we let our self-consciousness get in the way of a good flirt? In my search for the truth, I gathered together a team of experts: the sultry Peter Bull lectures in psychology at the University of York, and is one of the UK's leading experts in non-verbal communication. Gorgeous, pouting Stella Duffy is a writer, comic and flirting nonpareil. "Alexander" - not his real name - was recommended to me as a male flirtee bar none. And Monica Moore, as we know already, is a top Professor d'Amour. What advice, I wondered, can experts offer my friend Margery - a gorgeous, dynamic and adorable modern woman who, like many gorgeous, dynamic and adorable modern women, is a total chat- up klutz? Wee Breastie nippled in to gently guide me as I organised their tips.
FLIRTING ISN'T PULLING Eyes turn when Stella sidles into a party, on a puff of panne velvet and gingery-blondy curls. And the sighs are seismic when she turns to leave again, in the company of her steady girifriend. "Bye, men!" she chirps, pausing to flick a last imaginary speck from a final masculine lapel.
"I like playing, and that's all it is, it's play," Stella later explains. "And yes, it's true that since I've been in a relationship, I've found it much easier with people I barely know. I also notice men talk to me more once they know I'm gay. I think they're fascinated, and yes, I find that fun."
"Maybe I was too desperate until I got that dose of herpes," Margery chips in. "But there's nothing like a suppurating vagina to take your mind off, um, the obvious goal. And then, you can have conversations with all sorts. It's like, you can relax and enjoy yourself with the pressure taken off."
"I don't call it pulling," Alexander charmingly objects. "I just like talking to women, and it's a challenge, to see what sort of a conversation you can have. It isn't not sexual, but it's not necessarily leading anywhere ... If there's a really strong attraction, it just works like magic."
FLIRTING ISN'T WORKING
"My heart sinks when strangers ask me what I do," says the professionally quite successful Mr Mark. "In fact, I think about my job and how I hate it when I don't want to come during sex. So no, talking about work isn't a turn-on. I'd rather talk about the weather, to be quite frank."
"It's simply rude," complains David Williamson of Debrett's, publishers of Elsie Burch Donald's definitive - but sadly superceded - guide to contemporary etiquette. "Manners are about putting everyone at ease, regardless of age or rank. If someone does ask you what you do for a living, we suggest saying, 'oh, not that boring old question' ... Though it may emerge spontaneously, if the conversation is going well."
FLIRTING ISN'T PLOTTING
"Hello there, Margery," a dishy colleague bats. "Who's that?" I ask my lovelorn pal. "He's gorgeous," she moans; "But I can't talk to him because I can't remember his name! ... Hey, YOU could ask him and sneak back and tell me ..."
High-powered women of a feminist inclination tend to be great at self- deflating gossip, girly plotting and pranks. And yet, when they meet a man who seems to like them, they can't see him as the naked ape he longs to be for them. They're already seeing him as a character in one of their self-deflating tales: "... So she went and asked him his name for me, and he started chatting her up instead!"
Surprise, surprise, eh?
High-powered women of a feminist inclination, it helps if you simply talk to men, all by yourself, without getting your mates in to act as decoy ducks. This may feel strange at first, but the awkwardness should subside with time.
FLIRTING CAN BE LEARNT ...
"Your friend may have a skills deficit," considers Monica Moore. "Teenagers learn flirting by copying the dominant girl: but if you had a traumatic adolescence, maybe you missed out on hanging out with a gang." Professor Moore herself teaches flirting workshops, based on the 52 signals of her original study. The 52 signals have even been taped by the Learning Channel in the US.
"Being receptive to cues can certainly improve with practice," Peter Bull suggests. "Oh, there are giveaway signs," Alexander heartbreakingly grins. "They do this thing with their eyes. A sort of excitement, it's hard to describe ... So you try to be sensitive to that. Otherwise it can be offensive, giving someone attention they don't want."
"Do the bollocks they tell you to," is Stella's sterling suggestion. "Like how asking people about themselves makes them think you're wonderful? I thought, oh, that's so obvious. But then I tried it, and it works."
Dr Bull is dubious about self-help guides which claim you can insinuate yourself inside a chap's affections by following a simple set of rules. "There's the risk of non-verbal leakage. You may give out contradictory messages, which becomes confusing." "You can flirt up one side and down the other, but if a guy isn't interested, he isn't interested," Professor Moore sensibly adds. "He has to find you attractive first."
FLIRTING ISN'T PLAYING HARD TO GET
"It's obvious, really. If you don't look open and friendly, no one's going to dare to approach you." Thus speaks the Love Prof of Missouri.
"Playing games is lying," Stella Duffy considers, "and if you're lying from the beginning, you've had it from the start. Besides, no one I know would be stupid enough to fall for that sort of rubbish. Who wants a sulky Byron when you could have Oscar Wilde?"
So you can stand about sucking your cheeks in as much as you like - but the only men you'll meet are ones with a women-who- suck-their-cheeks- in kink. Junkies, essentially, or guys with a thing about mending broken birds. And no, that doesn't mean James Herriott's adorably tank-topped friend.
BUT IT'S NOT BEING A PUSHOVER EITHER
"Of course I get rejected," confesses Alexander. "Statistically it's bound to happen, because everybody always has a choice. And yes, it hurts, but it gets easier as you get wiser. You make an effort to grow up and learn from your mistakes."
"It goes back and forth and back and forth, from the woman to the man," Monica Moore rhythmically rocks. "Each has a choice whenever it's their turn. So maybe the woman was signalling interest to begin with: but she's free to change her mind later if she likes."
"Tell 'em you have to change your tampon," Stunning Stella suggests. "Men hate that. Works every time."
A GOOD FLIRT IS A WIN-WIN SlTUATION
"The terrific thing is," as our chat-up coach points out, "these behaviours make you more attractive. Smiling and laughing is attractive to anyone. People look for the person who seems to be in love with life - and, who knows, maybe in love with them!"
"Ooh, I like a bit of flirtation," says the comfortably partnered Mr Mark. "Showing off, nuzzling up a bit closer than you're meant to: it's good for the self-esteem, it gives you a happy glow." "Shameless, I was shameless," says a distinctly shinier-looking Margery. "I don't think I fancied him, but maybe I did ... Oh dear, I feel all giddy and feather- headed. Oh dear, I just don't know!"
So there you have it, chat-up klutzes: just put on that frock and have fun. And if you feel a tugging sensation at the front of it, let it lead you where it may. She's sexy, she's upfront, but she won't get you caught if you don't want to be. Throw away those Rules, forget that fusty self- help. With Wee Breastie working for you, all you'll need to lean on is the manly arm of your choice. Just so long as you understand, of course, that the choice of manly arm was originally WB's.
8'Non-Verbal Courtship Patterns in Women: Context and Consequences' by Monica Moore; Ethology and Sociobiology 6 (1985). 'Courtship Signalling in Early Adolescence: Girls Just Wanna Have Fun': Journal of Sex Research, 32/4 (1995). Professor Moore will shortly be publishing her findings on rejection.
'Wavewalker' and 'Calendar Girl' by Stella Duffy are published by Serpent's Tail.