'Banter', we call it, and it's our main method of flirting.
The key ingredients are all very English: humour, particularly irony; wordplay; argument; cynicism; mock-aggression; teasing; indirectness — all our favourite things.
When we first met, I asked what had led him to choose this profession.
'Well, um,' he replied, 'I read PPE [Philosophy, Politics and Economics] at Oxford, but I found it all rather beyond me, so, er, I thought I'd better do something a bit less difficult.' It later emerged, as he must have known it would, that far from finding the intellectual demands of Oxford 'beyond him', he'd entered with a scholarship and graduated with a First. He was simply playing by the rules, dealing with the embarrassment of success and prestige by making a self-denigrating joke.
Instead, they must say the opposite of what they intend to convey — something at which the English excel.
English teenagers, I've observed, sometimes conduct a special form of group courtship, in which a small group of males will exchange sexually charged insults with a small group of females.
Today, she decodes our unique behaviour in the bedroom.
The notion that the English don't have much sex, or have a laughably low sex-drive, is widely accepted as fact — particularly abroad.
Or, rather, about 50 per cent of us are noticeably deficient in these qualities.
From the perspective of the unfortunate English female, this isn't much of an improvement — unless her own judgment is severely impaired, as it often is, by a similar quantity of alcohol.
The mere mention of the word seemed to trigger a quip, or a witticism or a crude nudge-nudge remark. We don't, not really: it's just that humour is our standard way of dealing with anything that makes us feel uncomfortable or embarrassed.
In other parts of the world, sex may be regarded as a sin, an art form, a healthy leisure activity, a commodity, a political issue or a problem requiring years of therapy. In a study I did on flirting among the English, only one per cent of respondents — aged 18 to 40 — said that they 'never flirted', and over a third had flirted with someone 'today' or 'within the past week'.
And this is the point: there was nothing extraordinary or remarkable about his apparently humble self-mockery. Often, these are non-verbal, or so understated as to be almost undetectable.