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The Human Condition: The wrong side of flirty

Has being PC made us forget how to have fun? asks Hester Lacey
These days, a woman is unlikely to have her bottom pinched, while a man is just as unlikely to find himself on the receiving end of coquettishly fluttering eyelashes. These techniques have long disappeared into the realms of Carry On films. But while most would say good riddance to such heavy-handed displays of interest, it seems that even light-hearted flirting is a dying art in the Nineties.

A new survey, carried out for Martini, has shown that only 11 per cent of people have any confidence in their flirting skills - and even they may be wasting their time, as 90 per cent of those questioned confessed they can't spot when someone is giving them the glad eye.

Excessive political correctness is partly to blame, according to Kate Fox, social anthropologist at the Social Issues Research Centre, an independent think-tank based in Oxford, which analysed the Martini survey. "Flirting has had a bad press," she says. "I've spent the past few months researching the subject of male/ female interaction in academic journals, plus we have a social monitoring facility at the research centre, and these sources confirm the survey results."

She believes that this "flirtophobia" is the vanguard of an American influence that is creeping across the Atlantic. "In America there is even stronger evidence that flirting is a dying art," she says. "It is part of a wider phenomenon that has been identified as the culture of pervasive anxiety. Americans are in a constant state of worry about their lifestyles and flirting is one of the casualties." Admiring glances and light-hearted banter, she says, are not classed as offensive by most people. "Most people are instinctively quite good at knowing where the boundaries are."

One of the keys to flirting in the Nineties, says Fox, is body language rather than chat-up lines. Psychologist Susan Quilliam has just published a new book, Body Language Secrets Omnibus (Thorsons). She agrees that flirting is not what it was. "Over the past few decades people have become wary because they are afraid they will get into trouble." She also believes that, these days, people are simply not receptive to attempted flirtation. "Even if signals are being sent out, we just don't believe they are for us."

David, 30, would agree. "Often when I've been out with friends, they say on the way home, 'Oh, she really fancied you,'" he opines. "Why don't they tell me at the time? I always assume women are just being friendly - I don't like to read too much into them chatting and smiling, in case I make a fool of myself."

In the Martini survey, 36 per cent of respondents believed women to be better flirts than men, but there are still some enthusiastic male flirts out there. "I'm not sure I like the term 'flirting'," says Martin, 29. "But if you mean things like smiling and making eye contact, and being friendly, then yes, of course. Life's too short to be a miserable bastard, and if you can spread a little happiness along the way, why not? I flirt like mad, and I've never had my face slapped."

And there are still female flirters about to meet him half-way. "It is enormous fun," says Anna, 31. "So few people pay compliments that when I say something like 'Nice haircut, you look really handsome' you can practically see someone blossom and that gives me a thrill. It's also to do with banter, which is my middle name. It's just an exaggerated form of being charming."

However, she concedes there are rules. "I never flirt if there are just two of us - it all takes on too much significance. But I flirt in public, at parties, at work. My flirting is all fairly harmless in that it's not coarse - I would never be obviously sexual, that is just naff. The secret of good flirting is to make the other person shine, not scare them to death."

And, adds Fox, even the timid and conformist Americans are fighting the "culture of pervasive anxiety". "Now you can find flirting classes all over the place in the States," she says. "And people are flocking to them."