Making eye contact.
Aug. 28, 2000 -- Consider the following four exchanges, overheard recently at a cocktail party.
Woman to man: "That's a beautiful tie."
Woman to woman: "I have to know who does your hair."
Man to woman: "You couldn't be any more ravishing."
Man to man: "Beer Nut?"
None of these people knew each other before the evening in question. Some were single, some married. One of the women was wearing open-toed shoes and a dress with a neckline that plunged nearly to her navel. One of the men was slowly sipping a vodka martini. Another man was recently made CEO of an Internet juggernaut and was flashing a very expensive watch.
Question: Which of these people were flirting?
Answer: Who knows? Maybe the tie-lover was actually a fabric designer in the market for inspiration. Maybe the woman desperately needed a bad haircut fix. Maybe the man was making up with his own wife after a hurtful argument. The "Beer Nut" guy could have heard the growling stomach of the stranger next to him -- or he could have been trying to strike up more than a conversation.
If there seems to be much confusion surrounding the flirting issue, it's no wonder: Everyone's got a different definition of what it is, how it's done, and exactly when it's appropriate. Some people have a hard time distinguishing friendliness from flirting, while others decide whether a behavior is one or the other based on their level of attraction. Some say flirting should be banned from the workplace and should be avoided by anyone in a committed relationship. Others, who see flirting as harmless fun, look at life as a great opportunity to turn on the charm.
To make sense of the whole complicated mess, we turned to the experts. Seems they don't exactly agree, either.
According to Susan Rabin, communications consultant and author of 101 Ways to Flirt and How to Attract Anyone, Any Time, Any Place, flirting is an art. It's fun. It's harmless. It's charm and sincerity rolled into one. It's eye contact plus flattery, minus ego. It feels good on the giving and receiving ends. It's friendly -- turned up a notch. Friendly: "Nice to see you." Flirting: "I was hoping you'd be here tonight."
Flirting is not foreplay. It's certainly not sex. It's not infidelity. It's not blatant, forced, or intrusive. It never should cause you to whack yourself repeatedly in the head with your palm to the beat of What Have I Done?
"Webster defines flirting as acting amorously without serious intent," says Rabin. The "without serious intent" part is the key, says the woman who describes flirting as something that can be done nearly anywhere, anytime. (Of course, good judgment is crucial. Flirting with the wrong person -- a stranger in the supermarket at midnight, for instance, who might decide to follow you home -- can be dangerous.) Otherwise, says Rabin, enjoy. "In this age of herpes and HIV, why deprive ourselves of such an innocent pleasure?"
Learning the Three A's
In her coach capacity (she teaches "flirting school" in New York City), Rabin encourages students to master the three A's of flirting: attitude, approach, and action. The right attitude, she says, includes a willingness to flirt with reckless abandon. "Be open and friendly with everybody," Rabin says. "Flirt in the supermarket, at the laundry. If you give everyone a chance, you'll get to know and like a lot of people you wouldn't have thought were your type."
As far as approach goes, if the idea of making the first move causes you to cringe, at the very least be sure you're approachable. You can do this simply by smiling. Make eye contact. Make sure your body language says you're confident by keeping your head up, chin up, shoulders back. Then smile some more. "Most people don't realize how unapproachable they are," Rabin says. So if you want to flirt and be flirted with, send some signals already!
Finally, there's action -- something that eventually you will have to take. "As a noun, 'flirt' is pejorative," says Rabin. "But as a verb, flirting is harmless, necessary fun. It's the first step in getting to know someone, and nothing more." If you're painfully shy, your call to action might be simply getting out of the house and exposing yourself -- not literally, of course -- to as many people as possible. With practice, you'll grow more comfortable in social settings, until eventually you'll find yourself asking probing questions and tossing out compliments like so many Frisbees.
If flirting is so innocuous, is it OK to do it with someone other than your significant other while in a committed relationship? According to Baltimore psychologist Shirley Glass, PhD, you're treading in dangerous waters here. "Flirting is the first step in crossing the line of infidelity," she says. "People who cheat cast out their nets to see who is receptive. If your partner isn't threatened or offended by it, then it's probably good-natured and charming. But if your partner feels challenged or disrespected, your signals are probably too suggestive."
Rabin agrees wholeheartedly with this honor-thy-mate policy, but still insists that if done properly, flirting is the ultimate win/win. "Both people feel wonderful, even if they're not attracted to one another.'' Flirting is definitely not harassment, in which you're imposing yourself on another person and making them feel uncomfortable or even unsafe. Seduction isn't flirting, either, because it has a very real intent. It's important to distinguish the difference. With flirting, Rabin says, there is just one expectation: to have a wonderful time.
Jenna McCarthy is a freelance writer living in Santa Barbara, Calif., who writes regularly for Mademoiselle and Shape.
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