The gentle art of Flirting

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The gentle art of Flirting

Two ships passing -- in the night, in the day. A dalliance. Quick glances, here, there, at each other. Some choice bon mots. Badinage. A giggle, titters, a glimpse of crimson. No promises set, no schedules made. Then, just as fast, the ships move on. To other ports, by other ships.


It seems strange to me that there is no word in Korean for “flirting,” even though most Korean women seem to have mastered the art of handling the men in their professional and social lives with a soft touch and flattery. The dictionaries I’ve consulted don’t help; many of them try to translate the term as either a real attempt at a pickup or as sexual harassment.
Flirting, at the right time and the right circumstances, is the passage of two strangers who will probably never see each other again, with a remark that is neither aggressive nor overtly sexual but tells the other person, “I find you attractive.” Done well, the people involved part company with a little warm glow at having conveyed or received that sentiment. It’s an unexpected verbal valentine.
But the circumstances have to be right. Done clumsily, a flirtatious remark can indeed seem crude. A business meeting, for example, is no place to make a remark about a woman’s hair style or nice dress.
Alone in a hotel elevator in New York several years ago, the door was about to close when an attractive middle-aged woman came rushing up. I stuck out my arm to stop the door from closing; she got in, smiled, and said, “You could lose an arm that way.”
“I’m probably not supposed to say this,” I replied, “but that’s the least I’d do for a good-looking blonde.”
She looked at me for a moment, then burst into laughter, patted my arm and said, “You go ahead and be politically incorrect, honey,” as the elevator door opened at her floor and she left.
Is this a universal phenomenon, applicable to Korea? You betcha.
I still smile inwardly over an incident a few months ago in the elevator at my apartment building. As I was descending, the elevator door opened on the 20th floor; I saw an open apartment door and a couple of shopping bags in the lobby. I pushed the “door open” button to wait, and soon an elderly woman came out, locked the door and picked up her bags before noticing that someone was waiting in the elevator.
“Oh my,” she said. “I’m sorry to make you wait. Go ahead without me.”
Inspiration struck.
“That’s all right, grandmother,” I replied. “I’d wait a long time for a beautiful woman like you.”
Long, suspicious look. What’s this barbarian up to?
“What kind of nonsense is that?” she demanded. “I’ve never heard such crazy nonsense in my life.”
“Oh, I think a few years ago you heard that kind of talk so many times, grandmother,” I said.
She shot me a half-suspicious look and grumbled a bit more; I figured the word would be spread to every senior citizen in the building to watch out for the crazy foreigner. But as the elevator passed the fourth floor, she burst into laughter and couldn’t stop. She got off the elevator, laughing and shaking her head and giggling and grumbling about “crazy nonsense.”
A few weeks later I ran into her again outside the apartment building. “Good morning, you crazy fellow,” she said with a big smile, and then turned to her companion to tell her the story amid cackles and hoots of laughter.


It’s a crazy Friday evening and I am queued up with a friend, yearning for a table at TGI Friday’s in Sinchon. When the hostess finally seats us, I notice several female employees smiling at me as they scurry by. Not just smiling, but batting eyelashes at near gale force.
Come to think of it, our hostess did similarly: A healthy greeting, followed by a wide-eyed look that I can only interpret as flagrant flirting.
Grinning back, sputtering rejoinders, I start thinking: O.K., I deserve this treatment. So what if I’m twice the age of these women; their tastes are superb.
As I congratulate my genes and salute my libido, my friend suddenly interrupts this reverie.
“Look around,” she is saying.
I do.
“What do you see?”
“Lots of people stuffing food and drink into their mouths.”
“Anything about those people?” she wonders.
Frowning, I take another look. Oops. They’re all women. Indeed, every customer in the restaurant this night carries a purse -- except me. All have been out shopping with girlfriends and now celebrate their purchases.
Those flirtatious glances aimed my way? They’re looks of sympathy.


I met “N” two years ago during a weeklong membership-training program at my former company. He was Japanese, had an international background and the the two of us hit it off from Day 1. We chatted during seminars, group discussions, dinners. He was trilingual, Westernized and quite learned. What’s more, we had so much to talk about, kid around about and ponder over, including human existence. In fact, our chemistry was so apparent that a male colleague came up to me and asked, “Are you guys just flirting or is this something more?”
The question threw me.
After our week was over, N would be back in Tokyo while I would be in Seoul. How was this going to work when we had so little time to become committed? I realized that N and I could, should and would not become serious. So I carried on the chitchat, insisting N accompany me everywhere, sit next to me during dinner and listen to all my witty stories.
On Day 5, when our chatter took a serious turn, I began avoiding N as best I could. On the last evening, we all went out to karaoke. When N picked up the microphone, he began to sing “Honesty,” by Billy Joel. He pointed at me as if I should somehow feel guilty about my feelings. Blushing, I thought, What’s wrong with some good ol’ fashioned flirting?


I was waiting for a friend near McDonald’s around 10:30 p.m. one night when a guy wearing jeans and a backpack, an obvious expatriate and perhaps new to Korea, appeared alongside me. Like me, he seemed to be waiting for someone. Just as he turned to me, I tried to put on my best Welcome-to-Korea smile.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but do you know if McDonald’s is still open?”
I kept smiling but thought the question strange since people were clearly coming from and going into the place.
“Well,” I finally said, “the answer is yes, if I’m not blind.”
“I knew it,” he said, “you’re a Korean-American.”
He said this so loudly and so boldly he did not give me any chance to speak or to correct him. “Call me Tom,” he went on. “You know, like Tom Cruise.” That line was followed with what was unmistakably a wink, then this: “Would you like some fries?”
By now, my smile was gone and I had begun to retreat.
It’s not that I take flirting to be some sort of sinful act. But this much I do know: In flirting, like a lot of things in life, skills are needed.

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