Sex life: Flirting across a language barrier has been unexpectedly liberating

I used to think my personality was inextricably linked to my words, but I've recently learnt how much can be said in mannerisms and gestures  
November 1, 2023

Over the years a lot of my brothel clients, especially the east Asian and southeast Asian ones, have been non-English speakers. I’ve grown accustomed to having sex with men whose only phrases to me are “no English”, “sleep” (directing me to lie down), “doggy” (another direction) and “thank you, good service.” Often, I find the silence we lie in together after and around the sex restful. There’s no pressure for me to prattle, ask them about their life, feign interest in their interests. Sometimes we’ll have a haphazard chat over a translation app, but most of the time they are happy to just be together, skin against skin. Body language is enough to navigate the half hour or hour we spend together.

I am a words person, though, and in my friendships and relationships I had thought that my humour and charm rested on the way I use them. It has only been through slowly learning a second language in adulthood, and having to accept feeling like a child in it in some ways—unable to express exactly what I want to express, reaching for the right word and being unable to find it, looking for new ways to describe something that in English I would’ve moved through instinctively—that I’ve realised that my personality is also in my mannerisms, my gestures, the tone in which I speak. I knew this about other people: that it’s often the way someone speaks, as much as what they say, that makes them compelling. But it took experiencing it for me to realise that my wit wasn’t entirely in my word choice—that I could make someone laugh across the barriers of language and culture, that I could land a joke without wordplay. 

Recently I’ve been flirting with someone in my private life across a language barrier, and when we message I feel as if I’m communicating in hieroglyphics, as we express things to each other largely in emojis and gifs.

I’ve always thought a language barrier in dating would be impossible to breach—how can you really know each other when that stands in the way? Surely you need a strong base of verbal communication to build on. Maybe that is still true for very serious relationships, where you want to see if your life plans and values are compatible for the future. But for the initial stages, for something nice and casual, when I am still grieving the loss of a friend and am unable to emotionally commit to anything sustained—I’ve found that the language barrier releases me from interrogating meaning. 

I’m used to endless conversations with other women about what we mean to each other, where we’re going, where we’re at; an inescapable ouroboros of analysis that eventually—and exhaustingly—becomes just conversations about conversations. With her, there’s no point discussing any of that, because it would be too confusing for both of us. Instead, I have to take everything at face value. Do we have fun when we’re together? Yes. Do I want to see her again? Yes. They’re the only questions that I can pose and answer.

It’s also freed me from obsessing over word choice in messages, both my own and the other person’s. Shared language gives us the illusion that we know someone, that we understand their thought processes and can predict their behaviour. But the reality is that people can still be opaque to us, even with the same language. You never really know what is going on in someone else’s head.

I have spent hours of my life crafting the perfect message, hoping to elicit a certain emotional response, or to gain clarification or closure. And even when I’ve combed over word order and choice, shifting this and replacing that so the words are as accurate an expression of my mindset as possible, people have still interpreted them in ways that I’ve been unable to predict, or have responded in ways that have confounded me. With her, I’ve let all that go, embraced the not knowing that actually exists in all relationships and feel like I’ve achieved something when I make her laugh.