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Flirting Goes High-Tech

Lifestyle: Suitors send love notes via PDAs, pagers and cell phones. The practice, popular in Britain, is growing in the United States.

September 22, 2002|MARTHA IRVINE | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

On her way home from London, Sara Gartman checked her cell phone and saw the text message from a friend she'd just left: "if we had met earlier and u werent leaving ... " read the line he'd tapped in from his own cell phone.

So much for the old-fashioned love note. In the age of wireless communication, flirting has gone mobile via such devices as cell phones and two-way pagers.

"People say things they don't normally say over the phone and especially in person. I think you're more uninhibited," said Gartman, a senior at Brandeis University in suburban Boston. She spent last semester studying in Britain, where text messaging is already wildly popular.

This high-tech flirting -- often punctuated with smiley-faced and winking "emoticons" -- has its roots in e-mail and instant messaging, the private, online conversation done in real time and, most often, by computer.

As technology improves and expands, however, flirts are increasingly punching in messages on their cell phone keypads. Still others use PDAs, personal digital assistants such as Handsprings and Palm Pilots, to make another kind of PDA -- a public display of affection.

New Yorker Peter Shankman, 30, has landed more than one date that way.

It started when he saw a woman on a plane who seemed stressed as she fiddled with her PDA. Using a function made possible by infrared light, he beamed the word "smile" from his Handspring to her device.

"She laughed and said, 'Thanks,' -- and I thought, why not keep it as a regular thing?" said Shankman, who travels often in his role as CEO of the Geek Factory, a public relations and marketing firm.

Now he stays in touch with his current girlfriend with a two-way pager, a small hand-held device that allows him to send text messages to another pager or even to someone's e-mail.

"Hey, thinking about u," he types in as he waits for flights. Moments later, his girlfriend replies: "Hey, thinking about u 2."

Short message service -- known as SMS and done via cell phones and pagers like Shankman's -- is generally limited to 160 characters. So abbreviations are common in a service that is just now catching on in the United States.

If a British survey is any indication, flirting will soon rank among Americans' favorite reasons to send text messages.

The survey, commissioned last year by London-based Velocity Communications, found that just over 40% of those surveyed said yes when asked, "Have you ever sent a text message to tell someone that you fancy them?" Among the more popular lines to message: "Fancy a drink?"

More than 80% of respondents also said they would use text messaging to stay in touch with someone after a date.

Text messaging is so big in Britain that Web sites dedicated to SMS poetry -- including love poems -- are popping up.

Other companies, such as CosmicCupid.com, provide services allowing admirers to remain secret, or message people they don't know -- one of the few ways to message strangers by cell because you generally need their phone number to do so.

Still others are even developing "virtual girlfriend/boyfriend" services that allow cell phone users to exchange text messages with an imaginary love interest.

The trend toward using cell phones, pagers and PDAs -- common workplace tools -- for flirting has some a little worried.

Mari Florence, author of "Sex at Work: Attraction, Orientation, Harassment, Flirtation and Discrimination," says an increasing penchant for firing off quick messages could make hitting on the wrong person too tempting.

"There's little hierarchy in the workplace anymore. People work side by side; the lines are blurred," said Florence, who runs a small Los Angeles company that publishes pop culture and travel books.

"Now everyone is wired -- everyone can be reached at any given time," she added. "It definitely blurs the lines even more."

For now, flirting by instant messaging and e-mail remains far more common among Americans.

That's how Debra Mulkey, a senior at the University of Texas, kept in touch with her boyfriend in Rhode Island until they broke up. "Although to be honest, I do my best flirting in person," she joked.

That may be a relief for those who prefer finding dates the tried-and-true way. But Shankman -- who says he's just as happy when he meets women through friends or everyday conversation -- makes no apology.

"Any technology that allows people to communicate is a good thing," he said. "I'm sure that when the cavemen hit women over the head, that was a form of flirting.

"Technology has just helped it evolve a bit."

On the Net:

SMS poetry magazine: http://www.centrifugalforces.co.uk

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