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COMMITMENTS : With a Wink and a Smile, Flirting's Back

August 01, 1994|BARBARA BRONSON GRAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Eye contact. The quick quip. A double-entendre. A well-placed compliment. A funny retort. They're all part of flirting, which is making a comeback after a couple of bumpy decades, experts say.

The '70s and '80s were a bad era for the art of flirting. Psychologists say that because social and sexual rules were looser, there was less of a need to meet others slowly and carefully. But now people are more interested in approaching relationships with caution, testing the waters before diving in.

And flirting isn't just for those looking for love. Marty Westerman, author of "How to Flirt" (Price Stern Sloan, 1992), says flirting reflects an openness and a playfulness that is commonly seen among children, spouses, seniors and strangers, as well as singles.

"Flirting is the art of being disarming, of being friendly, honest and open," Westerman says. "Flirting is for everyone."

Susan Odegaard Turner, 40, a self-employed health care consultant in Thousand Oaks, says she flirts all the time. "I start by making eye contact; I can usually tell by looking at the other person if that elusive chemistry is there. Then I make a one-line comment, or answer a question with a double-edged meaning. If he is a flirt, he will respond in kind," she says.

Turner, married with two children, sees her flirting as a harmless form of social banter. "It's fun and it's safe; you don't die of flirting. It's a game with the prize being the interaction itself," she says, adding that her husband doesn't mind.

Jerald Jellison, professor of social psychology at USC, sees flirting as an invitation to come closer. "We spend a lot of our lives letting people know they can't approach us; flirting serves as a signal, a request," he says. "It becomes a playful activity, a way to have fun, give flattery, tease."

What we call flirting may be a way of dealing with ambient sexual tension without taking it further. The ambiguity that is part of flirtation is part of what makes it interesting, Jellison says. The suggestions are so subtle that they can be either ignored or enhanced, depending on how things transpire.

Some people flirt by paying a great deal of attention to someone, showing intense concentration, offering slight smiles, and nodding their heads in agreement, says Jellison, who admits to engaging in that form of flirting. "It's a way of saying, 'I'm interested in more,' " he says.

Westerman says flirting is more common is societies with strict and clear social mores--perhaps because the risk of having an overture taken too far is typically reduced.

For some, flirting is not so much about connecting with others as it is about building themselves up. Deborah Hendlin, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Irvine, says many find flirting increases their sense of attractiveness and their ego strength.

Some people, however, take flirting to an extreme, which can be a sign of deep-seated insecurity and a persistent need to affirm themselves or mask their sense of inadequacy, Hendlin says. Author Westerman claims such people are easy to spot: "You know when someone's working too hard at it."

For some, flirting is effortless and unconscious, but for others, it is an art they have to struggle to learn. One divorced man who is in therapy with Hendlin is easily discouraged about his attempts to connect with people. He reports regularly to Hendlin about how the flirtee he approached failed to respond with even a laugh or a smile.

Flirting is not just for the young. Hendlin says seniors are usually very good at flirting, perhaps because they have attained a level of comfort with themselves and some of the normal sexual protectiveness of youth is down.

For some, the risks of flirting outweigh any potential pay-back. In an age in which sexual harassment is increasingly an issue in the workplace, Westerman warns office flirts to limit themselves to people they know well and feel comfortable with. He also cautions them to stop making flirtatious comments if they are not reciprocated and to avoid touching others without their permission.

Theresa Halzle, an Agoura-based free-lance photographer, says she considers herself chatty and outgoing, but says she is very careful not to flirt, especially in work situations.

"I think flirting has to do with sex, and I'd rather be unencumbered," she says. "I think of flirting as high school girls with their hair swinging, or going up to a guy at a bar, and saying 'Hi,' while arching your back ever so subtly. When others flirt with me, I laugh--without trying to make them feel embarrassed--and always make sure I insert a positive comment about my husband and children."

Turner--the frequent flirter--has experienced the downside of over-flirting. At a party, she says, a concerned spouse joined the discussion and shot a few pointed comments at Turner and took her husband quickly from the scene. She has also had to stop bantering to make the point that she was not interested in pursuing the relationship to a more intimate level.

But more typically, Turner knows which people in her work and social circles are comfortable with flirting, and she sticks to them, she says. And her husband "flirts, too, but more subtly," Turner adds. Sometimes even with her.

Hendlin says flirting doesn't have to stop when you're married.

"The looking, talking to them in a certain way, smiling, the banter and 'in' jokes"--this is the kind of flirting that makes marriage more fun and exciting, she says.

"Flirting within a marriage can be a way of saying we have a secret relationship," Jellison says. "In social settings, when (you) are separated from each other across a room, you can send a special smile that says, 'I can't wait until we're alone together.' "

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