FLIRTATION SEMINAR: The following is a conversation between Gawker editor and “Ask a Fuck Up” columnist Brandy Jensen and writer and critic Andrea Long Chu.
ANDREA LONG CHU: I was reading through a number of the “Ask A Fuck Up” columns this morning, and a consistent theme is that you identify yourself as a romantic, as someone who believes in love. And so, I guess I want to start there: what is it? What does it mean to you when you say that?
BRANDY JENSEN: I probably have a more anguished definition of it than most people. I was thinking about this conversation, like, “What am I going to say about love?” and it occurred to me that a bunch of girls I know are getting into religion lately. It’s been a huge trend. And that is just completely foreclosed to me — I’ve just never been able to conceive of God, ever. But I do think I have a kind of religious disposition in a certain way. And I was like, “Oh, no.” What if where that God-shaped hole is, I’ve just supplanted this infinitely demanding version of love that is this thing to which I submit and for which I suffer? Like … Uh oh.
ALC: Oh, wow.
BJ: I think my version of love is something that kind of imbues suffering with meaning and something through which I maybe sanctify the world. I don’t know.
ALC: How? What does love require of you, then, if it’s filling the God-shaped hole?
BJ: Well, I think — I don’t know, I’ve heard various definitions of it. I think what love requires of me is probably something more than I can give. The love that I’m interested in asks things of me that I am not necessarily capable of giving, but that I want to keep trying to provide long-term. People think, “Oh, you’re a romantic, that must be a kind of saccharine, happy thing; you must go around the world with these rose-tinted glasses.” And I’m like, no, that’s not my version of romance. My version of romance is much bleaker. Although at a certain point, I think you just pick your misery, and this is the thing that is going to make you miserable. And okay, I’ve got my thing. I know what it is. And maybe at some point the scales will balance and it will make me almost as happy as it has made me miserable. I don’t know, one lives in hope. What about you?
ALC: How do I define love? Wow. I mean … Well, I probably do have a religious definition of it because I was raised in the Presbyterian church. And, you know, we have TULIP, which is “Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints.”
BJ: Cute little Instagrammy acronym.
ALC: Total depravity — I can’t remember the exact definition, it’s slightly different than what I always think it is. But essentially, the idea is that you’re absolutely no good. You don’t meet God halfway in salvation. You’re completely at his mercy. And unconditional election, you know, means you haven’t done anything. But the way I think about love now, I think it is actually sort of less than — to me there’s a smallness to it that I find increasingly beautiful. Like when you say that God loves creation, or when you say that God loves you or me, it’s redundant, right? Because we know that he does just by definition. Which means when you say that God loves someone, it just means that they exist.
BJ: Yeah, I think that there’s a sort of grubbiness to love that I find quite moving. That it’s just what we can do with and for each other. And that’s kind of the thing that makes being alive with other people kind of interesting to me — this capacity for love. And in its best form, I like being in love, because I think it makes me better. I think I am improved by the experience of being in love. I think I am more open and I am more generous; it helps me better love the world. I’m more curious about things when I’m in love. And so, there’s a kind of elevating aspect to it. But also, yeah, I was being incredibly grandiose about it earlier. I think it can be these small, kind of silly moments sometimes and that’s just as important as the kind of big ones.
ALC: Yeah. There’s love in terms of, you know, friendship. But — I was just reading this this morning — you say that you do want something more than that. That there’s something specific to romantic love that’s irreplaceable.
BJ: Yes, my life is just unspeakably enriched by my friendships. And I certainly wouldn’t want to live without them. But all of that enormous amount of platonic love that I have in my life still comes up a little shy of something that I want for myself, which is, you know, romantic love. There are things that I want to do to people that I don’t want to do to my friends.
ALC: Is it just sex?
BJ: It’s not just sex, but you say “just sex” like sex is some kind of … ?
ALC: I certainly believe that sex is more than just sex.
BJ: I don’t think that that remainder is completely exhausted by sex. It’s sex and other things. But I do think that sex is a large part of it. One thing that often confounds me is that sort of place between friendship and romantic love, which is a place I have lived with various people for a long time … I think I benefit from clear definitions between friendship and romantic love. And so, I often find myself a little bit adrift in this cultural moment when some of those definitions seem to be quite hazy.
ALC: Yeah. As a romantic, do you believe in the cheesy things, like — the cheesy tropes about love, which do have that kind of clarity? A lot of them are about finally having clarity about someone being the one, falling in love at first sight, the fantasy of it had to be you. Trying to endow it with necessity.
BJ: I think a lot of those are rooted in a knowingness, and I think what we would like is to know. Or what I would like is to know, because often I don’t. Another conversation I’ve had with a number of friends is that, I think, often you get to choose between dignity and certainty. When there’s somebody that you think you have feelings for and you hope that they have feelings for you, you can sort of hang on to a little bit of dignity and maybe never really get to know, or you can abandon your sense of dignity and find out for sure. And I have never been one to cling to dignity; I always go with what I want to know.
ALC: I remember one of the first pieces of romantic advice that I ever gave — I was not experiencing romance myself in middle school or even high school, really, but I would sit with people at lunch, and the girls would talk about boys. And the question was always, “I don’t know, does he like me, does he not?” And the answer that I found myself frequently giving was like, he doesn’t know. He also doesn’t know; he’s not holding all the cards. There’s this Schrödinger’s cat thing, and you have to open the box. And the stakes of it are actually kind of low, because if you don’t open the box, then it’s simply not going to matter. You know? So, you have to just go in assuming that there’s a real possibility, because it’s the whole ballgame.
BJ: I keep finding dead cats though.
ALC: Okay, yeah. Tell me about you.
BJ: I’m just, like, constantly getting rejected in these humiliating ways.
ALC: Tell me about that. It doesn’t seem to have caused your commitment to the idea to waver. Or is it wavering?
BJ: Is it really a commitment if you get knocked down and you give up on the whole thing? When I was younger, I thought that it would get easier. I didn’t necessarily think that I would stop getting rejected. I thought that maybe it would start to get a little bit easier. And that, I’ve found, is not true. It still sucks just as much every single time. But I think one thing that does make it easier is that I’m always willing to turn it into a story or into a joke that I can milk for laughs at a bar in a few months.
ALC: I’ve been having conversations recently with friends of mine who are approaching 40 with dread — friends who don’t necessarily want to have kids, but who feel like their market value is about to drop precipitously. And who have, I think, great anxiety about that (these are straight women friends). And of course, what I tell them is that they have not even yet entered the best years of being attractive to women. Like, the forties and fifties are really when lesbians hit their stride, and I think part of it is because of the diminished appeal to men. There’s a freer space.
BJ: Yeah, that’s probably true. I don’t know whether “just don’t be straight” as how to solve being straight is necessarily … but I also sleep with both men and women.
ALC: Well, it’s obviously not good advice. I do think what happens is that straight women hit a certain age when they realize that they are experiencing a form of social dishonor from men that they haven’t experienced before. And they don’t have a framework with which to understand it other than the old maid thing. What they don’t understand is that to an extent they sort of invent being gay. Because there are other people who’ve already been in the world, other women who’ve been walking around without male approval already. But there’s not a good framework for, like — what do you do? How do you deal with that form of loss of a certain kind of social value, other than through the bad kind of romanticism, of just pining and despair?
BJ: There are all these books coming out about reconsidering sex as a site of political debate. And I think one of the problems is that it’s not really something that we can solve now, for us. If we wanted to change things for perhaps some future generation, that’s certainly a laudable goal, but desire is not necessarily something you can intellectualize yourself into or out of, in a way that might be — or that people would like to think would be — helpful to us. And so, yeah, we’re just kind of stuck in some ways. And certainly, as somebody who is, you know, “redacted” age —
ALC: You’re in your late twenties, right.
BJ: Yeah, exactly. The idea that love, and romantic love in particular, no longer becomes completely a site of possibility, and it often becomes a site of regrets or missed opportunity — that, I think, can be incredibly disorienting. It can lead to some despair.
ALC: Are you feeling that?
BJ: I’ve often felt kind of late to my own life in certain ways. I didn’t really get around to things until after other people did. I’d like to not still be on Hinge in five years, certainly. Although I can imagine 25-year-olds also feeling that way, because that’s just depressing … Feeling my aloneness somewhat more acutely over the last couple of years has maybe accelerated that process of — you know, it would be nice to love someone and have them love me back.
ALC: The aloneness is interesting. As you know, I went through a breakup last year, and there was never a point where I was like, “Well, I don’t want to date.” I very much wanted to be with someone again. But it did feel important to have a certain relationship to being alone, in order to be with someone else.
BJ: But — my longest-term relationship is with my own aloneness. I agree, it’s very important for women to figure out how to be on their own. Okay. I did that. I’ve figured it out. I’ve got that shit locked down.
ALC: When you adopt that tone, you’re making fun of self-help, the long-standing institutions of media telling women how they’re supposedly trying to help them deal with being alone, deal with finding a man, whatever. As opposed to, like, Amia Srinivasan, these more expansive considerations of sex — it doesn’t even matter whether they’re right or not, because they don’t actually have bearing on what it’s like on the streets or in the sheets in a present way. I mean, you might read the book and have a certain reaction that changes how you see the world. But fundamentally, the nitty-gritty is actually spoken to better by Cosmopolitan than it is by The Right to Sex. You know, even if the advice is not good, it is meeting the reader on actually a more practical terrain.
BJ: Is this theory versus praxis?
ALC: Well, this is me, saying that there’s something about love that has a relationship to advice. See what I’m doing? I’m circling back.
BJ: This is why you get paid the big bucks.
ALC: It is. One of the things I have noticed as I have gotten older is that more and more of my experience of friendship actually consists of advice, not just about love. It has sort of moved from being — or I’ve moved from conceiving it as — a kind of addendum to a particular subject, and more into its own domain, in just specifically being friends with women. I mean, I don’t know any men.
BJ: That’s not true. I know men who know you.
ALC: Yes, they know me.
BJ: Okay. Wow.
ALC: What I’m kind of coming around to is how you understand giving advice about love, as opposed to theory — whether you want to call it theory/praxis, whatever — but it’s different, and to an extent, it’s a classically middlebrow activity, you know, for women to be giving advice.
BJ: There’s a difference between more philosophical questions, like How ought one to live? and advice, which is like, What should I do? I’ve always said that a large portion of giving advice is actually just giving permission, or at least that’s what people are seeking. They want somebody to say, “My instincts are correct, what I want to do is correct.” And often you have to say, “No, it’s not, those instincts are bad, and you should not do that.” And then, I think a lot of times, and especially with women as we get older, it’s like, “All the shit I’ve been trying isn’t working. Do you have any other ideas?” That’s sort of where you get with advice among friends. It’s like reaching out for something that might work because what you’ve been trying has not.
And so, yeah, advice is a way of giving somebody your regard, of telling them that their problems are important to you, and in terms of the currencies of friendship, that’s very important to say: I take your complaints, your problems, your troubles seriously. I will consider them and I will help you figure out what to do. And whether or not somebody takes the advice is the least important part of the exchange of advice, asking and giving. It really is the kind of sustained regard that matters.
ALC: I think about a Sex and the City kind of situation, the presence of all of these men — this revolving door of forgettable, extremely ugly men on Sex and the City, just startlingly ugly. Are they actually the substrate for what the women actually care about, even though they’re not often good at expressing it directly to each other, which is actually just talking to each other? It’s like the thing that they would actually secretly rather be doing is having drinks or brunch with each other than going out with these horrible men who make them feel bad.
BJ: Well, yeah, like I said, I have come to appreciate when I can turn my humiliating rejections into a story that I can share with my friends.
ALC: Right? So okay, so humiliating rejections. Let’s do talk about — let’s do, that’s very Southern of me — le’s do talk about the apps.
BJ: Let’s do talk about them.
ALC: You were saying to me earlier that you think of yourself as being bad at flirting? Is that right?
BJ: I’m exceptionally good at flirting with people that I’m not particularly interested in. I spent 10 years as a bartender; like, I can flirt. But when it matters — when I really want the flirting to affect something in the world, if I want an outcome — then I tend to get flustered and corny, and I try to be too clever, which is the worst thing you can do.
ALC: Wooing, courting, is what you have trouble with? Let’s do talk about goin’ courtin’.
BJ: I struggle with that somewhat.
ALC: Why do you struggle with it? Or what’s an example?
BJ: I don’t know if I have an example. I just try too hard. I’m not very good at affecting a kind of effortlessness, which is often what people find appealing. I’m also not very good at coming across as in any way mysterious.
ALC: Is this the hopeless romantic actually sort of shooting you in the foot? Because there’s an earnestness that you have trouble setting aside?
BJ: Possibly, yeah. I mean, the extent to which it all becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy is a question I don’t care to think about too much. But yeah — this might sound weird, but I am not very good at flirting in the messages on the apps; I’m much better at flirting when I have a sense of what kind of flirting is going to work for a person. That can either happen via sustained relationships online, or just meeting in person and getting a sense of who they are. There’s a little bit of a black-box feeling when you just match with somebody on an app, and you’re trying to figure out, what is your sense of humor? What do you find funny? What references are you going to get? And so that becomes kind of overwhelming, and I think is anathema to flirting well. It also is very stock, right? Like, this is just like a form flirt. I think to be really effective, flirting needs to be personal; it needs to be a little bit tailored to the object of your flirtation.
BJ: You’re a good flirt.
ALC: I am a good flirt. I am a good flirt in person, but I am especially a good flirt over text. I mean, it’s writing. What the apps mean is that the first interaction tends to be written. Which is correlative to social media too; there’s a democratization of authorship that means, like, everyone is writing something. Everyone is writing.
BJ: And most people are bad writers.
ALC: Yeah, the first thing you find out is how good someone is at writing, and it’s often not that good.
BJ: Do you require someone to be good at writing to be interested in them?
ALC: To be interested in them? Yeah. To flirt with them on an app? No.
BJ: So, you’re flirting with people on apps that you’re not interested in?
ALC: Well, obviously I’m happily in a relationship now. But if I’m on the apps because I’m trying to get laid, or even more than get laid, the most important thing is not actually, is this person “the one”? The most important thing is just that we go out, you know? And so, it’s about being interesting enough to make sure that happens. My basic philosophy of flirting is that when people are bad at flirting, it’s because they think that they need to be attractive to someone, and that the job is to conjure up something that will be attractive. This is wrong. It is wrong because regardless of whether it’s true — obviously, you do need to be attractive to the person in order for it to work — it does cause that kind of fluster, that, “Oh, no, what do I say? How do I present myself?” So, this is wrong. The assumption that you must go into flirting with is that the goal of flirting is not to make someone be attracted to you, but to help them express the attraction they already have for you.
ALC: So, you have to assume that they like you. If they don’t like you, that’s the whole ballgame. And so fine, whatever, right? You were going to fail anyway, it doesn’t matter. You can’t make people like you, and if you could, it wouldn’t be worth it. Right? Because you want someone who just likes you. So there’s no point in approaching it with anything other than the assumption that they like you. Not in a megalomaniacal way, obviously. But you just have to be like, okay, we’re here. We’re doing this. And in the case of the apps, you have at least some tiny proof of that, anyway.
BJ: Yeah, that’s right.
ALC: They matched with you, right?
BJ: At the very least, they did like the great pics that I posted.
ALC: Exactly. But even without that, it doesn’t matter. If you want to flirt with someone, you have to assume that they like you. The meat of it is understanding that people, as I said, are bad at expressing themselves — one, because they haven’t trained themselves to, and two, probably more importantly, because it’s scary. Because it’s scary, as you say, to tell someone that you like them, and it’s scary to show someone that you like them, because it’s risky. And so flirting is trying to create an environment in which it becomes safer for them to show you that they like you. Whereas approaching it from the opposite, what you were talking about at the top — you were talking about being the one to ask, or being the one to be very forward, right? And that there’s the loss of dignity with that. For me, flirting is about providing a safe landing for that kind of expression.
BJ: Flirting is the safety net that encourages you to go out on the high wire or whatever.
ALC: Yeah — I want to give you the opportunity to be intimate with me, I want to give you the opportunity to be vulnerable with me. And to show me that you like me.
BJ: Okay. See, I like that — although again, to return to the idea of writing, that also means that flirting is somewhat about reading, and I feel like I am a bad reader in some of these cases. I will read too much into this sort of thing.
ALC: Let me give you an example. When someone texts, or on an app when someone messages you something like, “You’re so hot,” there are women for whom the automatic response is gratitude, like, “Thank you.” But that is a fundamental misunderstanding of what’s happening here. The person is not paying you a compliment. They are telling you that they’re attracted to you. Right?
BJ: They’re disclosing something about themselves.
ALC: They’re not making an observation — right, they’re disclosing something. For me, if someone messages me on an app and says, “Wow, you’re so hot,” my answer would be “Yes.”
BJ: Oh, damn.
ALC: Which is an extremely sexy thing to say, if I do say so myself.
BJ: Yeah, I mean, that would certainly elicit an effect, certainly!
ALC: That’s the cushion, right? Your expression has landed. And I’m showing you that I’m reciprocating, as opposed to the weird impulse to be like, “Aww, you’re hot, too!” Or “Thank you,” or, you know, like …
BJ: I do the “lol, thanks,” which is kind of middling and awful.
ALC: I don’t know if it’s purely a science, but I feel confident in my ability to more or less always figure out how to respond in that way. You just have to think about why people are talking to each other. And in the case of the apps, we know because we’re on the apps, so it’s a question of trying to respond to what they’re actually saying. But that, to me, is not about reading into it too much. It’s about actually deciding to make a lot of assumptions.
BJ: I mean, I suppose the reading in too much doesn’t necessarily happen until later when you’re texting during the day and that sort of thing.
ALC: Ooh, day texting …
BJ: And that’s when I become a particularly bad reader.
ALC: Do you message first?
BJ: If they’re hot, yeah.
ALC: What about if people have feelings about messaging first versus being messaged first? I have a friend who was just asking me the other day, “How are people going on dates? I have friends who are going on all these dates.” And this is a friend who is beautiful — I know she gets matches, because I’ve been on Tinder with her and in 30 minutes, like three matches happen, which has never happened for me in my life and never will. And I was like, you’re matching with people all the time. And she was like, well, they don’t message me. I’m like, well, that’s the answer to your question then. She wants to be messaged. And none of these men are going to do it.
BJ: Oh, she’s only matching with men?
ALC: Oh, yeah. She’s very straight. She is famously my straightest friend, I think.
BJ: Okay, you have to tell me who this is, after.
ALC: It’s a problem, because she’s a very confident person, but she just doesn’t want — you know, she wants the man to message first.
BJ: Well, I guess part of the anguish and anxiety of the very early stages of any potential romance is that you do sort of feel like you are setting a tone that is going to be hard to alter later. So, it does take on a kind of outsize importance, like, am I going to be the one who’s having to do the work here? Am I going to be the one who’s having to initiate next steps? And I don’t mind being that person because I’m incredibly impatient. I can understand why other people might have some hesitation about it.
You, despite all your expertise of the apps, did not meet your girlfriend on the apps.
ALC: No, I did not. I met my girlfriend through the sheer power of will. But I mean … I do think that I made the apps work for me in the sense that it was about practicing a kind of openness and, like, being ready. The readiness is all.
BJ: Can it make you ready? I feel like I’m too ready.
ALC: Obviously, when you’re on the subway platform and you’re just swiping through, it can be miserable — but it’s just kind of practicing being ready for it to happen. Because you don’t know, and you do need to be ready. I do think that in principle, it’s almost always better meeting not on the apps. But I think you can derive a certain kind of value from it. It was very helpful in practicing flirting.
Wait, okay. I want to see your Hinge profile to think of what I would message you.
BJ: Oh God, okay.
ALC: “Fact about me that that surprises people” — right — “I’m Canadian.” I think if we matched, I would write, “You’re Canadian?????”
BJ: Okay …
ALC: What’s important about that — here, see, I’m gonna derive a principle — is the “fact about me that surprises people.” Like, in order for it to surprise people, they have to already know you. And so, in pretending to be surprised, I’m talking to you like we already know each other.
BJ: You are assuming a level of intimacy for the sake of a joke.
ALC: Exactly. And I think that’s an important move. Again, I am treating you like we know each other. Like you know that. Like we have an intimacy already. I’m assuming the thing into existence.
BJ: I’m gonna take these lessons to heart. I am going to go forth into the world. And yeah, hopefully next time I come to New York, I will be bringing my girlfriend or boyfriend.
ALC: Amazing. Well, that feels like a perfect ending, so …
BJ: Stop recording now?
ALC: Stop recording.
BJ: Okay, who is your straightest friend?
Brandy Jensen is features editor and “Ask a Fuck Up” columnist at Gawker.
Andrea Long Chu