Ever caught the eye of a handsome stranger across a pile of 3-for-2s in your local bookshop and wished you could strike up a conversation? Or maybe you’ve got chatting to someone in a supermarket and it’s led to happily ever after? If Hollywood blockbusters and American TV shows are to be believed, single thirty-somethings are forever meeting potential partners in the dairy aisle and securing dates in art galleries. But does this kind of chance encounter ever happen in real life?
Social anthropologist and relationship expert Jean Smith is living proof that it does. Jean has travelled the world studying human behaviour, looking in particular at how humans flirt. Jean herself has met partners simply by striking up conversations in cafes and at bus stops, and for the last seven years has been passing on her skills and experiences through her own interactive flirting seminars and tours.
In your twenties it was easy to get chatting to people in bars and clubs, but once you get to a certain age, and would rather have a nice sit down somewhere quiet, trawling bars losses its appeal. This can leave single women wondering just how to meet like minded men. So, in the name of ‘journalism’, (honest), I recently decided to test out one of Jean’s ‘flirting tours of London’, hoping to pass on some top tips to single women everywhere.
After I’ve signed up by email, Jean leaves a message on my phone, in a wonderfully confident voice that already has me a little bit in awe and a little bit in love. I am told to meet the group at a specific bench in the foyer of the National Portrait Gallery at 6.45pm precisely. Any anxiety I felt previously turns into excitement. I feel like a spy. Will there be a code word? Should I take a briefcase full of secret papers? Perhaps I just need to get out more…
Jean has talked to men and women all around the world about the flirting techniques they use, and has discovered some interesting differences in the motivations of people who come on her tours. “In Chicago,” says Jean, “the women who come on the tours are looking to find a husband. It’s as simple as that. In London though, it’s very much more a ‘hey, I just thought it might be fun!’ attitude, which is what makes the tours so great. It’s really just a bunch of open minded people, looking to try something new.”
That certainly seems to be the case in our group. The 14 women who gather in the foyer represent a wide range of ages and nationalities, but have plenty in common – they are all lively and interesting, up for a bit of adventure, and certainly not on the prowl for husbands. We huddle excitedly in a corner of the gallery for Jean to set the scene. The evening, she assures us, is not about picking up men. It is about keeping an open mind, really looking at the people around you and ultimately having fun. Flirting is a gift, you are offering something – a smile, a brief chat – with the aim of making the other person feel good about themselves.
For our first task we have five minutes to spread out, wander around the gallery, and just smile at people. Sounds simple, but there is actually a music recital going on downstairs, and the rest of the gallery is pretty empty. The few lone men must think it’s their lucky day – 14 separate women smiling at them in the space of a few minutes.
If all this sounds a little scary, all I can say is don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. When the 14 of us regroup on the steps outside, everyone is looking very pleased with themselves. Even the women who didn’t manage to get a smile back look happy. Our next task is to make our way to Tesco, stopping on the way to ask directions somewhere. We all set off eagerly and with much giggling.
Unfortunately Tesco isn’t actually very far away, and I am nearly there before I spot my target – a single man outside a pub. “I dare you to ask him where Tesco is,” says Annisa, who has been brought on the tour by a friend and is thoroughly enjoying herself. I hesitate – the Tesco is literally next door to the pub – but my new found brazen confidence spurs me on. I position myself with my back to the store and put on my best innocent face. “Excuse me,” I say, “I’ve been told there is a Tesco near here, but I can’t find it anywhere. Do you know where it is?”
“Well yes,” handsome pub man replies, “it’s right there behind you!”
“Oh gosh, so it is – silly me!” I smile, and walk confidently into Tesco, trying to ignore the other women from my group sniggering nearby.
Inside the store, we are challenged to take things to the next level. We’ve done smiling, we’ve done directions, now we are asking opinions as a way to get chatting to a fellow shopper. I ask if there is an aisle we should target that is more rewarding than others. “The best aisle,” says Jean, “is the one you shop in most. Remember we are looking for like-minded people!” With this in mind I head for ‘wines and champagne’…
What Jean teaches ultimately is ‘the art of starting a one to three minute conversation’. It may not sound terribly sexy when you put it like that, but really that is the foundation of all social interaction. We may not like small talk, but it is a necessary evil in the process of establishing a relationship with someone new. “When you just think of it is a one to three minute conversation,” explains Jean, “you take off all the pressure. If it leads to something else then fantastic, but if it doesn’t go anywhere it doesn’t matter. You can just say ‘it was nice talking to you, enjoy your evening’ and walk away. Nothing lost, nothing gained.”
My one to three minute conversation with an incredibly attractive man over the champagne actually goes very well. He spends some time talking me through my options and making recommendations (he is a Moet man himself) and I in return tell a half truth about celebrating the birth of my sister’s baby. She has actually had a baby, but it was a year ago. Still, it’s always good to celebrate these things.
When the tour is finished we all bundle, shivering but jubilant, into a nearby pub. There is a real sense of triumph in the air – not least because we have finally been allowed inside in the warm. A camaraderie has grown very quickly, and I am sad to have to leave to catch my train, just when it seems the real fun is going to start.
I look around as I leave the pub at a group of women who three hours ago had been strangers and who are now making plans for dinner and debating where to go next to test out their new skills. We may not have collected a stack of men’s phone numbers, but we have all picked up a renewed enthusiasm, a fresh perspective on London and a whole new group of potential friends. And to top it off, I even get someone to smile at me on the way home on the tube. Now that’s what I call a successful night.
Jean runs regular flirting seminars and tour in London. For more information visit www.flirtology.co.uk.