The Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev entertains the US First Lady Jackie Kennedy at Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna, Austria, 3 June 1961. Photo by Photoquest/Getty


Everything I know about flirting, I learned from the Cold War

The Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev entertains the US First Lady Jackie Kennedy at Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna, Austria, 3 June 1961. Photo by Photoquest/Getty

by Youngbin Yoon + BIO





The rewards of flirtation go beyond sex or romance. But, as in other exchanges, you have to know where the red line is

‘And that’s why the greatest flirt in geopolitical history is Nikita Khrushchev, ’ I said.

Margaret laughed. She closed her eyes and covered her mouth as she tilted her head back. I took a sip of my tea, recalling a lesson in comedic delivery I had picked up earlier that morning watching a Taylor Tomlinson reel on my phone: ‘Don’t be scared, let it resonate with you.’

Margaret and I met earlier in the year at her sister’s wedding. She was the maid of honour. I was a friend of the groom. We became fast friends, which isn’t surprising. We have a lot in common. For one, we’re both ethnically East Asian but grew up in the States – her, an adoptee; me, a child of immigrants. For another, we’re both Millennial Gen Z ‘cuspers’ in our mid-to-late 20s. We have a lot of shared cultural experience. But, more importantly, we’re both outrageous and incorrigible flirts.

When I say that I’m a flirt, I mean that I’m someone who flirts. I am not someone who just behaves flirtatiously. This is a distinction that the philosopher Carrie Jenkins makes in ‘The Philosophy of Flirting’ (2006). Someone who behaves flirtatiously acts in ways that, by the light of accepted social standards, constitute acts of flirtation. But you can act flirtatiously without flirting: imagine a date stares a little too long into your eyes, not because they have any romantic or sexual interest in you, but because they drift off and stare blankly when others are speaking. Not very flirty, is it?

The crucial difference between flirts and the merely flirtatiously behaved, says Jenkins, is that flirts act under specific cognitive conditions: (1) they playfully act with intention to do things that are disposed to raise flirter-flirtee romance or sex to salience; and (2) they believe that the flirtee can respond in some significant way. The former gets us out of ‘awkward eye contact from self-absorbed dates’ cases. The latter gets rid of metaphorical flirting cases, such as ‘flirting with ideas’.

I stared a little too long, what do you do? You brushed your hand against my arm, what do I do?

I like how Jenkins’s definition can be stretched to accommodate cases of harmless flirting, that is, the flirting two people engage in when they both understand that neither is really interested in romance or sex with the other. In such cases, each intends to perform playful acts that are disposed to raise romance or sex to salience but never actually raise romance or sex to salience.

This is crucial. Regular, serious flirting is an endeavour in delayed gratification. It’s an exercise of building and slow-playing tension until that critical moment. As the great crustacean philosopher Sebastian (of Disney’s The Little Mermaid) says, ‘Sha-la-la-la-la-la/Don’t be scared/You got the mood prepared/Go on and kiss the girl.’ Harmless flirting is not like this. Harmless flirting is an asymptotic endeavour, an endeavour of continual delay. The gratification of harmless flirting is in the creativity and ingenuity of keeping the flirting itself going. I stared a little too long, what do you do? You brushed your hand against my arm, what do I do?

And, again, harmless flirting must never actually raise romance or sex to salience. I can’t kiss you. You can’t catch feelings for me. That crosses the red line. That violates harmless flirting. That’s the nuclear option.

‘How well do you know the Cuban Missile Crisis?’ I asked. She took a second to think.

Margaret and I first met during the pre-wedding festivities. We were at a hotel bar in North Carolina. I was single at the time. She was not. We both knew this of each other. She had arrived first and was already sitting. I approached her first. You must be Margaret. She looked up. I stared a little too long. She smiled. I’ve heard a lot about you.

‘Nothing, like, important,’ she said. ‘JFK.’

‘That’s actually perfect.’ I said. ‘Yeah. JFK and Khrushchev. JFK sent missiles to Turkey. In response, Khrushchev sent missiles to Cuba.’

Margaret’s boyfriend had been sick the night of the wedding party. I teased her. Oh no, you’ve been abandoned. I asked her to the first slow dance.

‘The Soviets sent missiles by ship.’

She said no. Only couples are dancing.

‘JFK quarantined the island to cut them off.’

I dramatically looked around the ballroom and raised my hands in a shrug. And?

‘But one ship got through before the quarantine really got set up.’

I can’t remember now what song we danced to. We danced again later to Taylor Swift.

I like to joke that only very understanding women are into me

‘See, that’s the whole thing. The US sends missiles to Turkey. The USSR sends missiles to Cuba. I stare a little too long. You brush your hand against me. I make a move and you make a move. Back-and-forth, back-and-forth. Obviously, we can’t actually ever do anything. That’d be immoral. There’s a limit. Exactly like the US and the USSR can’t actually ever use nukes. That’d be crazy. There’s a limit. It’s all about getting one step closer until the other side runs out of moves.’

‘OK, OK,’ Margaret said. ‘But what if you have a partner? How do they know they’re special to you if you flirt – even harmlessly – with other people?’

This is a great question. I like to joke that only very understanding women are into me. But that’s a cop-out. I also like to say that partners should trust each other enough to be secure in the relationship. That’s true, but that’s a cop-out also.

‘Do you know who Vasily Arkhipov is?’ I asked.

Vasily Arkhipov might be the only real hero of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that he single-handedly saved the world from thermonuclear annihilation. Imagine that you are a Soviet officer in a submarine. You are positioned right outside the US quarantine of Cuba. You are armed with nuclear torpedoes. The temperature control is broken: it’s 55 degrees Celsius. The batteries are running low. It’s pitch-black inside. You haven’t had contact with the outside world in days. For all you know, World War III has started. The explosion of US grenades sounds like a sledgehammer against your submarine. They’ve been harassing you for days.

Suddenly, an explosion reverberates inside the entire submarine. You feel vibrations wreck across your body. The Americans have stopped using grenades. They’re now using depth charges. One just went off nearby, and it only takes one good hit to tear your sub apart.

What do you do?

I relayed all this to Margaret.

‘So, the standard procedure for launching nukes in the subs was that both the captain and the political officer had to give their approval. But one sub was special because it had the Chief of Staff for the whole flotilla – Vasily Arkhipov – on it, and all three had to give their permission. Both the captain and the political officer thought war had started and wanted to launch nukes. Only Arkhipov interpreted the depth charges as signalling the sub to surface. And he was right. He probably stopped World War III.’

‘That’s cool,’ she said. There was a brief pause. Her eyebrows pulled together, and her eyes wandered to the ceiling corner. ‘But how does that relate to what I asked?’

I should’ve been clearer why it’s Khrushchev, not JFK, who’s the greatest flirt

‘Right,’ I said. ‘I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s about what the flirting means. It’s true that, for most people, behaving flirtatiously means something like “I like you”. It’s something you reserve for only a handful of people. That’s like interpreting the depth charges as an act of war. But I don’t look at flirting that way. I flirt with everyone. I think it’s nice to make people feel good about themselves, that they’re likable and valuable. It’s harmless flirting. What’s important with partners is that they feel special to you, and what I do to let my partners know they’re special to me is different than what most people do with their partners. It’s like using the depth charges to signal surfacing.’

I got caught in the rain when I left the coffee shop. I didn’t mind. I was too busy doing what I always do when I wrap up a social interaction: I replayed the whole thing again and again in my head, kicking myself for what I could’ve done better.

One thing is that I should’ve been clearer why it’s Khrushchev, not JFK, who’s the greatest flirt. There’s a way of looking at it where it’s clearly JFK: he made the move to quarantine Cuba, and then the Soviets backed down by agreeing to remove their missiles from the island (admittedly with a secret deal that the US would remove missiles from Turkey). Seen this way, JFK made the last move. He ‘won’. But, personally, I’m not convinced. Sometimes, what it means to be the best is knowing when to go home. Maybe Khrushchev understood that, had he found one more move to make, there would’ve been no space left for JFK. He blinked because there was nothing left to do but kiss.

The other thing is that I never explained why I like to flirt – harmlessly, obviously – with everyone. It’s mostly about how I grew up. I was an Asian guy in the United States. And, so as to not get into the whole history of Asian male de-sexualisation in the country, let’s just say I was not exactly a hot commodity on the romantic and sexual marketplace. I think I heard ‘I’m just not that into Asian guys’ one too many times.

At its best, harmless flirting is a way to breach that wall. In playfully acting to raise flirter-flirtee romance or sex to salience, even if never to actual salience, I get to be taken seriously as a romantic and sexual candidate. I can see myself in that way. Others can see me in that way. I can see myself being seen by others in that way.

I wondered if Margaret would’ve understood. I sent her a text. It took a few hours, but her reply was perfect:

Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
*eggplant emoji*





13 May 2024