What Happened to Good Old-Fashioned Flirting?

From Washington Post

Here’s a proposition for you: Bring back flirting.

Flirting, the delicious art of saying nothing and everything, is disappearing. Dinner parties are filled with earnest conversation. Compliments are left unsaid. That sexy little undercurrent that used to charge a great party has been replaced by the dull drone of political correctness. A New Yorker attending a small dinner in Washington sat through an evening of A-list chatter, then reported to her friend: “Not one man flirted all night.”

What a sad state of affairs. Flirting is a grace note in life, a charming social skill that every grown-up should know how to do properly--Republicans, Democrats and everyone in between.

“This is a talent,” says Lisa McCormack, breaking into a laugh. She’s managing editor of Rising Tide, the Republican National Committee’s quarterly magazine, and a great flirt. “I love people who give good flirt. They make my day. Actually, that’s what flirts do--they put a bounce in your step.”


Or listen to Democratic consultant James Carville:

“To me, it’s not just acceptable--it’s desirable. It’s an art form. Feminists have done a lot of really great things, and I salute them, but one bad thing they did is diminish the art of flirting.”

So it’s come to this: We’re scared to flirt. We’re not sure of the rules anymore. For all sorts of good reasons--more women in the workplace, more sexual freedom, crackdowns on sexual harassment, women in greater positions of power and that nasty Lewinsky scandal--flirting has become a complicated business. No one wants to offend, no one wants to say the wrong thing, no one wants to get sued.

“You used to be able to flirt in a very unthreatening way and to tell someone they looked nice,” says author Christopher Ogden. “But one has to be very careful these days that you don’t cross a line--and you don’t always know where that line is.”


No one, it seems, wants to admit to being a flirt.

“It’s got such a bad connotation,” says author Kate Lehrer, a Texas charmer who has been described on occasion as a brilliant and engaging flirt. “I don’t really flirt. I want to make people feel comfortable and good about themselves. I like to please.”

Businessman John Damgard is, according to a friend, “the Isaac Stern of flirting.” He approaches conversation to entertain and charm. He listens. He genuinely likes women, and they line up to chat with him. Does he think of himself as a flirt? “I’m just a boring old trade association guy,” he says.

Some women say Orrin Hatch (yes, that Orrin Hatch, the Republican senator from Utah) is a fabulous flirt: He focuses like a laser beam, and women just blossom.

“I do try to be nice to everybody,” says Hatch, blushing.

Charlotte Hays, editor of Women’s Quarterly, says where she is from, Greenville, Miss., people know how to flirt.

“You can watch women at parties cozy up to guys and start batting their eyes. You don’t see that in D.C. The main thing isn’t to be cute for men. Here, it’s more professional. That’s the deal in Washington: You want to be taken seriously.”

So the women are busy being serious, which traditionally means they don’t get to be sexy at the same time. And men are busy proving they’re taking women seriously. So everyone pretends not to notice a well-toned body or well-turned phrase. No wonder we don’t know how to flirt.


What, exactly, is flirting?

Etiquette consultant Letitia Baldrige: “Flirting is not obvious. It’s understated, subtle, witty, teasing and sophisticated. It’s getting close to someone of the opposite sex and making that person aware of you in the best possible way.”

Ogden: “Sometimes a compliment is just that. A flirt is a half-step up from a compliment, but it’s still a long step away from a proposition.”

Carville: “There’s a distinct but real difference between flattery and flirting. Flattery is just saying something nice to someone. Flirting is more focusing on the opposite sex. Flattery is, ‘You really look beautiful tonight.’ Flirting is saying, ‘That is a gorgeous watch.’ . . . ‘That’s a nice necklace.’ Stupidity is ‘That’s nice cleavage you’ve got there.’ ”

There’s a subtle mix of skills involved in flirting. Charm, of course. Flattery. Focus. Small talk. Eye contact. Playfulness. Humor. And just the tiniest hint that you find the person attractive. Nothing overt, nothing pressured, nothing approaching a pass. Just a self-contained moment.

“Attention without intention,” as Oscar Wilde once said.

If there were a master class in flirting, power broker Vernon Jordan could teach it. Jordan moves through a room like a hot knife in butter--charming men and flirting with women.

“I really like people, and it begins there,” he says. “I’m a very social being. I like conversation. I find people fun and exciting. And I like women, but I like them all: I flirt with the pretty ladies, and I flirt with the not-so-pretty ladies. I’m an equal-opportunity flirt: the old, the young, the fat, the skinny, black, white--all of them.”


‘Flirting Is Not About Sex

This is what makes Jordan so good: He finds something about every woman to compliment. He notices their hair, their earrings, their dress. He smiles as if he’s genuinely glad to see them. He teases. Because he’s married (to Ann Jordan, a charmer in her own right), his flirting is more fun and less complicated than if he were single. “Flirting is not about sex,” he says. “Being nice or kind or gentle with the person does not mean you’re asking them to go home with you.”

The best flirtations are like a good game of tennis: Both players lob and return volleys for the pure pleasure of it.

Nancy Holmes, editor-at-large of Worth magazine and a world-class flirt, says: “Most people have flirting all mixed up with sex, and that denies the game itself. . . . Flirting should never have a morning after.”

Holmes wrote that 22 years ago, when the Pill and the sexual revolution had all but made flirting and courtship seem precious and redundant. But flirting is never redundant. Biologically, it is the first line of defense in the mating game, a way of culling the woulds from the maybes and the you’ve-got-to-be-kiddings. Historically, men and women interacted primarily in the social sphere, and flirting was part of a prolonged courtship process.

Today there’s an unofficial ban and general confusion about who can do what with whom and under what circumstances. Flirting occasionally leads to seduction, but after the first kiss, it’s not just flirting anymore. So flirting has become like drinking during Prohibition. Which gives us bathtub-gin flirting--passable but hardly smooth. Good flirting should be like good champagne: a bubbly treat.

Even enthusiastic flirts get tongue-tied on the topic of office flirting. Nope. Don’t go there. Not a good idea. Flirting in the office is strictly forbidden by the gods of Better Safe Than Sorry.

“Many feminists know how to flirt and like to flirt,” says Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women. “Flirting is not necessarily a sexist sin. But just as I would not wear clothes to the office that are appropriate for dancing at a club, I wouldn’t bring the same kinds of interactions to my office that I would have at a party.

“I think women can be more relaxed at work when we don’t have to question whether the relationship with a supervisor or a colleague is becoming uncomfortably sexual,” she says. Flirting “is not a good idea because it’s too easy to be misinterpreted. But the truth is that flirting only crosses the line to harassment if the attention is unwelcome.”

If you believe the Wall Street Journal, the post-post women’s movement is secure enough to flirt at work. Perhaps overly confident, in fact. But women--especially younger professionals--use both their professional skills and personal charms on the job, the paper reported earlier this year: “Sometimes it is unabashed flirting. Other times, it is teasing, bantering, a direct look in the eye. Just like men, these women are confident about their business skills and not shy about showing it. Just as men feel no need to mask their masculinity, women are letting their femininity show.”

The comfort level depends on age, class and personality. Anecdotal evidence reveals that Washington is more conservative than New York or Los Angeles, law offices are more careful than software start-ups.

Twenty-somethings--especially high-tech types working 80 hours a week--figure that if they don’t date people on the job, they’ll be single for the rest of their lives.

Karen Leahy, a 23-year-old billing supervisor for a cable company, says there’s plenty of flirting on the job. “With friends your own age, work peers--there’s no threat in that,” she says. But flirting, she says, is reserved for the specific purpose of coupling up.

“Most young people meet at the bar and spend the first hour flirting with each other,” she says. “I don’t think there’s old-fashioned courtship, but there is flirting.”

Co-workers and peers have an easier time flirting than bosses with subordinates.

But these are dangerous waters, matey. One must be very, very careful. “By my definition, flirting is appropriate everywhere because there’s nothing invasive or manipulative about it,” says Susan Rabin, a relationship therapist in New York and the author of “How to Attract Anyone, Anytime, Anyplace: The Smart Guide to Flirting” and “101 Ways to Flirt.” She also conducts flirting classes.

Office flirting is fine as long as it’s not overt, she says. Compliments should be about the body of work, never the body. No comments about personal life. No sex talk, jokes or innuendo. No touching. Never push. Never pressure. No means no. Since millions of co-workers meet, flirt and fall in love, someone must be doing it right.

The same rules apply for e-mail and other forms of cyber-flirting, she says. “There’s a false sense of intimacy” that often leads to explicit exchanges. “Don’t say anything you wouldn’t say face to face,” advises Rabin.

Use common sense, but basically Rabin says go for it.

“We sensationalize the 1% negative and the rest of us suffer for it,” she says.

Some folks--because of cultural backgrounds or marital status--are less inhibited. Foreign diplomats, with their polished social skills, arrive in this city and dazzle.

“I think Europeans are better at it,” says Belgium Ambassador Alex Reyn. “They can do it in a smoother way. The Southerners--Italians, Spanish and French--are the best. I think it has to do with climate.”

But even those veddy proper English can make quite an impression. Michael Townshend, director of international affairs for BP Amoco, has a rich British accent and a twinkle in his eye. He claims he never flirts.

“No, I don’t--but other people may think I do, particularly in the United States,” he says. “When you say something in an unfamiliar accent, there’s a lot more eye contact because you’re trying to understand each other. I’ve always been brought up that you cannot have a conversation without eye contact, you must always be polite, you must always be engaging, and you must always listen. Now, how that’s interpreted could be seen as flirting--or may not be.”

Refined to a Discreet Set of Moves

The fact that he is married makes it simpler. In fact, some of the best flirts are part of a happy couple--marriage draws a line that should not be crossed. Carville, who was 49 when he wed, has refined flirting to a discreet series of nuanced moves:

“If you’re a single flirt, you always get the conversation about sex one way or another,” he says. “When you’re married, you never do. You just don’t.”

The two-party flirt: “You’re standing with a couple. You say to the man: ‘Man, you’re a lucky guy.’ It acknowledges the woman’s sexuality in a clean, proper, fun way. And the guy feels great too.”

The third-party flirt: “You’re standing with a couple and another guy. You turn to the other man and point to the husband. ‘How lucky is this [son-of-a-gun]? It’s flirting to the woman, and flattery to the husband.”

Notice he never says anything directly to the woman. Some might take offense at that. Most appear to be flattered, says Carville.

It works because deep down we’re attention-starved egomaniacs. The shrewd people--call them charming, call them charismatic, call them flirts--understand and use it to their advantage.

Carville’s best tip: “My roommate from law school taught me this, and it’s the most valuable life lesson I ever learned: ‘Just hang on every word they say.’ And that changed my life.”

At age 12, managing editor Lisa McCormack was first told that she was a great flirt. She has a knack for making a man adore her by focusing on him. She knows that a good flirt flirts with the person, not his title or his wallet.

“Ronald Reagan wouldn’t let go of me after I complimented him on his tuxedo shirt at a state dinner,” she says. “It wasn’t my charm, mind you. The president of the Free World was just so thrilled someone noticed his horizontal shirt pleats that he couldn’t help himself from sharing every detail--where he bought them, how they were made, how many he owned, and how they were great for taking on foreign trips because it meant he didn’t have to worry about packing and perhaps losing his studs. . . . The conversation ended only after Nancy Reagan almost literally dragged him away.”

Was Reagan flirting? Maybe. Was she flirting? Yes, in the best possible sense of the term.

“It’s a gift to give to people,” she says. “You’re recognizing them as an individual, and you’re making them feel good about themselves. They walk away from you feeling smarter, clever, more interesting than before they spoke with you. They can also feel sexier, but it’s sexy in a light and a refreshing way. It’s the difference between pudding and souffle.”

McCormack recently concluded that both of her children are going to be world-class flirts too.

“When I recognized the flirting gene had been passed on to my children, I was taken aback but terribly pleased. I was like, ‘Yes!’ None of the great flirts that I know are pessimistic, depressed, petty or nasty. There’s a love of life and people that I think underscores the whole raison d’e^tre of flirting.”

Great flirts invariably have a great sense of humor because love can bring great joy and great sadness, but half the fun is getting there.

In other words: Flirt.