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The Dirt on Flirting

Grandma used to flirt with the butcher. During WWII, when meat was rationed, she’d sidle up to his counter in her finest frock and chat him up for hours.

“Grandpa really liked pork chops,” she told me, “so I’d say, ‘Gee, I’d really like to have those, but I don’t have enough stamps,’ and he’d tell me, ‘Well, I think we can arrange that.’

“I just made him feel important,” she said. “And you’d do just about anything to get more meat.”

I used to blame the desperate times for Grandma’s indecorous behavior. Having come of age myself at the peak of second-wave feminism, I couldn’t fathom using my femininity as a tool to manipulate a tenderloin vendor. Also, I’m uncomfortable with the juxtaposition of sexual tension and ground chuck.

But I recently found myself at the meat counter of my local market, staring in confusion at the oddly named offerings, when a hunky young aproned man leaned over the counter and offered to help.

And just like that, I was righting my posture, flashing my teeth, and complimenting his dizzying raw-cow know-how. No ration stamps. No wartime. Just a dopey damsel in dinnertime distress going all girly and guileful for a gallant gristle-chiseler.

What the flank?!

I asked my friends why we do this.

“Honey, I would flirt with a lamppost,” said my friend Denyse, a mother of two. “If it gets me a discount, then all the better.”

My gal pals flirt with traffic cops, parking attendants, mechanics — all in the name of snagging a bargain, an upgrade, or speedier service. My friend Lena just went on a fishing trip. “I smiled at the guy filleting our fish, pointed to another beautiful, large fish lying at his feet, and asked, ‘Did you really catch that?!'” He gave the thing to her. And another one, too.

Just this week, I twisted my charm dial up to 11 to get a customer-service señor to put a rush on my catalog order. I’m not proud of it. I feel guilty. A little dirty, even, and not in the good way.

Does flirting perpetuate the notion that all women should be treated as potential dates rather than serious consumers? Does every giggle manufactured for an IT guy, every hair-toss performed for a gas station attendant, set women’s liberation back a decade?

I know, I know: There’s no shame in using what you’ve got. But if the best you’ve got within reach is a pouty lip and a knack for playing helpless, then maybe … I don’t know … maybe a little shame is warranted?

Not at all, argues my friend Victoria, who flirts to get bumped up to first-class seats on airplanes. “I do the old-fashioned batting of the eyelashes, like something you’d see in a Doris Day movie,” she said — and there’s not a damn thing wrong with it. “It’s a game. They know they’re not going to have sex with you, but it’s making them feel attractive. They want to please you because you’re pleasing them.”

It’s an excellent point. As a rule, men want to be of use. They want to solve our problems and hoist our boxes (get your mind out of the gutter). They want to be our heroes. They do. So perhaps flirting does them as much good as it does us.

“Let’s not call it flirting,” said my friend Sally. “Let’s call it offering a friendly connection for a short duration. I’m 60, and I still get away with it.”

A word of warning, though: Eyelash-batting may not work as well for male customers. Said my friend Matt, “My mechanic said he’d charge me extra if I started flirting with him.”


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