Today's flirting tools: the smile, the glance the self-help book


Fresno, Calif. -- The pinstriped shirt stands and leans forward with studied nonchalance, his belly reaching the tall bar table just before his belt. He smiles. The plaid blazer grins back, a wide, toothy smile accompanied by a throaty little laugh, and she scoots her chair an almost imperceptible distance toward him.

There are others at the table in the bar this Thursday evening, but for a moment, these are the only two pairs of eyes that count. The blazer tells a joke. It's an aside, really, a trifle requiring nothing more than a chuckle in response, yet the shirt guffaws, spilling out laughter like a kid blowing bubbles.

Flirting hasn't changed. The eyes still have it, whether they're locked with laserlike precision with someone else's or just as carefully not looking into the baby blues of a potential partner. People still flirt with each other, even in an age when AIDS and worries about sexual harassment loom like angry parents waiting for you past curfew.

Yet perhaps what has changed is the preoccupation authors have with the mechanics of flirting. Walk into a self-help section in a bookstore, and the titles on dating, relationships and connecting with another warm body seem endless.

"How to Flirt: A Practical Guide" (Price Stern Sloan, $6.99) boasts that flirting should be fun, not work, and practiced constantly. "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" (HarperCollins, $20) focuses on the trendy "men and women don't talk the same way" theme.

Other authors seem to take an almost warlike view toward the whole subject, offering "More Love Tactics: How to Win That Special Someone" (Avery, $8.95, and yes, it's a sequel) and "Guerrilla Dating Tactics" (Dutton, $20.)

These are books of action, filled with rigorous training exercises. (A tip from "Guerrilla Dating": Stop a person walking on the street and pretend you're looking for an address that's in the direction they're headed. That way, once you get the directions, you'll have a chance to talk as you walk the same way.)

Flirting is work, these military-style advisers seem to be saying: If you goof off in boot camp, you're a goner once you get to the battlefield.

Is all this just a saturation of self-help silliness? Or is social interaction these days something you need to study for, like a midterm?

"We have it naturally," says Marty Westerman, author of "How to Flirt." "We start out with it as babies. Without an adult, we have no food or shelter, so babies learn to flirt. But then as we grow up, we lose the baby appeal."

That's why adults have to develop their skills, he says. You're relearning something you once had. Mr. Westerman includes a section specifically for shy people in his book.

"When every second counts, the answer to how to meet that intriguing person rests in developing the spirit, ingenuity and courage of the guerrilla soldier," writes psychotherapist Sharyn Wolf in "Guerrilla Dating Tactics."

"Guerrilla soldiers are brave, scrappy troopers who owe their success to spotting unconventional opportunities in out-of-the-way places and making the most of each one."

The blue windbreaker is deep in thought, sorting through the books in the computer section at a book store. He doesn't even notice when the gray sweat shirt stops close to him, scrupulously scanning the titles.

The sweat shirt moves closer, and finally, in a soft, library-like tone, asks, "Do you know where I could find something on spreadsheets?"

Everyone knows that flirting isn't just for bars. Think of all those "everyday" places where you can practice: The produce section at the supermarket. Church. Night class.

Or you can try events specifically geared toward singles. "Guerrilla Dating Tactics" includes a battlefield map of a typical singles party with dotted lines and "troop" positions, telling you how to deploy yourself when you're in the "assessment" phase and how to seal the perimeter.

Yet showing up at these venues as opposed to actually talking to people at them are vastly different accomplishments. That's what the books try to teach you: Seize the moment. Don't hang back. If you blow it, who cares? At least you tried.

Sounds like common sense, but sometimes people need a guided tour through life, Mr. Westerman says in an interview from his Seattle home.

In "How to Flirt," he says he tries to take the pressure off by defining flirting in more general terms.

"It's spreading joy around," he says. "It's attention without intention. It's without ulterior motive."

To Mr. Westerman, flirting is the hot-dog vendor who compliments a customer on his tie, or the mother playing coochy-coo with her baby, or the grandson on a lunch date with his grandmother. It's bantering, making people feel special.

This is distinguished from what Mr. Westerman calls "hunting," the specific search for a romantic partner. "The successful flirt has lots of friends," he says. "The successful hunter has lots of trophies."

Too often people neglect their "friendly flirting" skills. When it's time to "hunt" for real, they make a mess of it.

The button-down blue oxford attacks the computer keys with gusto. He laughs. He rereads the message he's typed on the screen, checks it over yet one more time, then hits the send button.

At the other end of the building, the frilly white blouse gets a message arrive on her computer screen. Her heart beats a little faster when she sees it's from the oxford. The blouse keys a quick response. She smiles.

One thing that all the flirting and dating books seem to have in common is lots of advice. Mr. Westerman suggests that if you go into a bar and somebody attracts you, send them a potato chip. "Do something they don't expect," he says. "Then you get the attention."

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