The New Rules of Flirting: Featuring YOURS TRULY!
The New Rules of Flirting
The Science Behind the Wink and the Smile; Men Overestimate Women's Interest
By ELIZABETH BERNSTEIN
Tamara Wilson considers herself an equal-opportunity flirt. She banters playfully and purposefully with her butcher (who sharpens her knives at no extra charge), with security officials at the airport (one let her onto a flight even though she'd left her ID at home) and her female UPS driver (who now leaves the packages on the porch).
"I've used my big, blue eyes and smile to get everything I ever wanted," says Ms. Wilson, 52 and the owner of a Seattle marketing firm. "Flirting opens doors."
Flirting can cause problems, too. Ms. Wilson was no longer invited to a colleague's exclusive Christmas party after she engaged in some racy repartee with a married male guest. And she says she may have lost clients because they misunderstood her "verbal volleyball."
Is it still OK to flirt? Many of us like to flirt on occasion with friends, co-workers or passing acquaintances. When you are in a committed relationship, though, flirting is more complicated. What constitutes acceptable flirting depends not only on your intentions, but also on how your significant other feels about it. (Hint: If you are keeping it secret, you are probably flirting with disaster.)
How can you tell if a person is flirting, or just being friendly? It isn't easy. The uncertainty is what makes it exciting.
Experts define flirting as ambiguous behavior with potential sexual or romantic overtones that is goal-oriented. In other words, we flirt with a purpose. But because we're testing the waters, we don't let on what that purpose might be.
Most of us know flirting when we see it, though. It may be verbal, in the form of compliments, bantering and teasing, or it can be a smile, a steady gaze, a toss of the hair or a hand on the arm. And, of course, it can be an email or a text, with all those smiley, winky faces.
You can thank evolution for all of it, including the cheesy one-liners. ("Going my way?" a nice-looking man in a suit recently asked me in Miami, as I got into my convertible.) Scientists say flirting developed to further the human race, by helping males to find a mate and females to evaluate a potential partner and his commitment before moving forward.
Research shows people flirt with one of no fewer than six different reasons. Some people still are looking for a mate, of course. But we also like to flirt because we enjoy it. This kind of flirting "is kind of like racquetball," says Dave Henningsen, professor of communication at Northern Illinois University whose research and reading of the literature identified these six goals. "It's fun, and we do it together so we build our relationship."
Sometimes we want to explore what a romantic relationship with the person might be like. Or we want to reinforce or increase intimacy in a relationship we are already in. We may want to boost self-esteem—whether it's our own or the other person's. And some of us flirt to get what we want—a dark art that Dr. Henningsen refers to as "instrumental flirting." (I "admired" a pilot's watch at the gate before a flight once and found myself upgraded to a much better seat.)
Flirting with your spouse can keep a marriage healthy, says Brandi Frisby, professor of communication at the University of Kentucky. Her research found committed partners flirt with each other to minimize conflict and communicate as if in a private world. She also found partners who flirted with each other were more satisfied and committed to each other.
Outside a relationship, though, it's easy to misread cues. In a 2009 meta-analysis of 15 studies, Dr. Henningsen, of Northern Illinois University, who co-wrote the study, found men often overestimate the female's interest and interpret flirtatious behavior as more sexual than intended.
Dr. Frisby, of the University of Kentucky, has looked at flirting differences between the sexes and found when women flirt in a sexually suggestive way, men find them more attractive. But men who flirt this way are seen as pushy and less attractive.
Maybe this is what went wrong for David Bakke, who is 46, single and the editor of a personal finance website. He recently told an attractive pharmacist at his local drugstore in Atlanta that he noticed she wasn't wearing a wedding ring. "She explained that one, it was none of my business, two, that she was only there to fill my prescription, and three, that my flirting efforts were highly unprofessional," he says.
And so Mr. Bakke learned a valuable lesson: "As a male, you must be very careful of the extent to which you flirt with someone," he says. "If you overextend yourself, so to speak, you could ruin a golden opportunity."
Bonnie Russell, a publicist for attorneys from Del Mar, Calif., says attending high school in Waco, Texas, she learned to flirt from "big-time, Texas-size flirts." She banters playfully with everyone: men, women, children, couples in line at the movie theater, the policeman who wrote her a ticket (it didn't work).
Ms. Russell admits to a few mishaps. Once, she says, she was loudly upbraided by an Air Force Second Lieutenant for not "respecting an officer" after she failed to realize that he wasn't flirting back. And at a party, the wife of a man with whom she was flirting suddenly appeared and icily informed her that she was flirting with her husband. Ms. Russell says her response was to laugh good-naturedly and reply: "My, you have good taste."
But Ms. Russell has had her flirtation successes, too, such as the time she wrote a "fan email" to a defense attorney who had been interviewed on TV repeatedly about a case that went on for months. Ms. Russell told him she admired his compassion, respect for the victims and directness with reporters—and added that she thought he was handsome, too.
Only after the man wrote back and asked who she was did she mention that she was a publicist for attorneys. "But you certainly don't need me," she added. He hired her.
"Sometimes you get your way, sometimes you don't," says Ms. Russell. "But flirting is a fast, inexpensive way to have a better day."
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