Flirting with success

Francesca Gentille holds forth on the fine art of making eye contact, mirroring, transmitting scent, heat and wavelength.

Published July 12, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

If you've got it, flaunt it -- or so the old clichi goes. But what if you don't got it? This was the question that plagued Francesca Gentille when she was in junior high and trying to figure out what made some girls more popular than others. Gentille, 42, says she studied the physical behaviors of the in crowd -- their posture, their voice levels -- and began to imitate. Years later, she's teaching many of the techniques she picked up through observation in workshops on flirting. No longer shy, Gentille considers herself an expert in the ways of making eye contact, engaging in conversation and walking the fine line between too aggressive and too withdrawn. I met with her to discuss the finer points of flirting at her home in Piedmont, Calif.

How did you come up with the idea for these workshops?

I started out teaching sacred sensual dance, and it became clear that what makes dance sacred is the intent of it, but what makes it sensual is the flirting aspect, which is the energy work. This is being able to actually sense the energy between you and someone else and play with it, tease it in a sense. In some of my private sessions, my student and I would often focus entirely on what flirting is. One of my students said, "You really need to be teaching flirting."

How do you define flirting?

I would define flirting as the art of reading the energy of another person and bringing one's full presence, or energy, to that person in a way that matches them or interests them.

What do you mean when you say energy?

We tend to think of energy as this New Age thing that only people who live in Marin might understand. But we all have the experience of it, like if you've ever felt something weird in the back of your neck or your back, turned around and somebody's staring at you. On some level you knew that. Or if you've ever walked into a room and just known that your boss is mad at you even though nothing's happened yet. I like to think that we're electromagnetic systems. We really do transmit our perspiration, our scent, our heat levels, and we transmit a wavelength.

What's something you teach in your workshop that people can do to
improve their flirting technique?

There certainly are concrete things you can do, like a warm smile and an open direct gaze, not leering or withdrawn. For women, sometimes a sidelong glance or moving away a little -- either with the eyes or the body -- and then coming forward again builds that energy of enticement, that dance of flirting. For a man, it wouldn't be as effective to do something like that! It's more about having calm, strong presence.

What are some common mistakes men and women make when flirting?

Women can be too shy and have their energy be so low that they're not noticed, or women can be too seductive. They think, I want attention and I want to engage a man in getting to know me, so what I really need to do is be sexy. And what they get is men interested in them sexually, but they don't get men interested in them as a person.

Men, too, can have that small energy, where even if they're attractive, they're not being noticed in the party or in the club. Or their energy can be so powerful or strong that it becomes predatory. Instead of gazing in a friendly manner, they're staring someone down. They make the mistake in thinking nice guys never get the girl -- that's one of the male myths of flirting -- so therefore they have to be really powerful. What women are actually attracted to is the confidence. We see that somebody has walked into the room with his shoulders back, his gaze open, a smile on his face, and we're drawn to that. We don't know that this may be a ploy he uses and that he's really a slimy person.

Conversely, women wonder why guys always go for the bitch. Once again, The woman who comes across to other women as very selfish, as someone who uses men and tosses them aside -- what men see is the confidence. They see someone who's not needy. Her shoulders are back; she looks very confident. They think, this is somebody who is going to be fun to be with. Somebody who's not going to be hard work.

Who attends your workshops? Are they people who have a hard time dating, or married couples wanting to flirt with each other again?

It's the whole range. It's married couples who want to work the energy so there's that spark again between them like there was in the beginning. And we get expert flirts, who are always getting more information, like a doctor or a teacher. Even the experts have their failings. A woman might be very good at attracting attention, or getting an initial conversation going, but she's not good at taking it further than that. Somebody in my workshop talked about flirting so well that she made other women jealous.

What about the person who's not good at reading flirting? A woman starts flirting with a guy, but the guy's just not getting it, not sensing it.

In my experience there are two things you can do with somebody who's not getting it. You can give up, or you can change what you're doing.

You mentioned people who keep their shoulders back. Is this something people need to think about, or does it tend to come about naturally?

Some people are naturally good flirts. But for myself, I started out in junior high wondering why some girls were popular and I wasn't. I literally started to watch what they were doing with their bodies, their eye contact, their conversations. I encourage people to watch people they feel are very successful at flirting, and mentally take notes. I don't flirt very consciously -- I've done it for a long time -- but there were points when I would say, oh I need to look at this person's eyes and smile. In a bar situation -- they've done studies -- unless a woman looks up and holds a guy's eyes and smiles, he will not come over to her.

People don't want to be rejected.

Right. One of the things that I will sometimes do consciously is what's called body parody, or mirroring. You don't want to do it to the point where it's spooky, but enough to give a sense that two bodies are in alignment. If you watch couples, or even close friends, you'll see that over time as one shifts his body into a new position, the other person will also shift into a somewhat mirrored position of what his is.

It seems like that would help you in situations other than flirting.

It's great for job interviews.

Is there clothing that's better for flirting?

I always recommend that men check with their female friends about this. It depends on the kind of person you want. If you want an elegant woman, chances are she's going to like an elegant man. If you want a girl who likes hiking and dirt biking and stuff like that, she's going to probably want someone who looks more casual. But don't just stay with one look. Try the jeans and the casual shirt, then try something really fancy and see what kind of responses you get.

One mistake that women make is dressing too sexy, because all a guy is going to think about is getting her in bed. A mistake guys make is not thinking about it at all: I need a pair of pants; I'll just grab one. I need a shirt; I'll just grab one. It just doesn't go together and it doesn't read that they're a casual, sporty kind of guy, or an intelligent, computer kind of guy. It doesn't read like anything. Who's going to be attracted to something they can't read?

What about flirting that's not physical, like e-mail flirting?

You can flirt in any medium -- over the phone, through written word, and in some ways you have to be a little bit more thoughtful than if you're talking to someone in person. Because in person, if I say something stupid but I'm smiling at you, you might just let that slide. One man in my workshop talked about how he would be doing e-mail flirting and then it would get to a point where it fell apart. I haven't read his e-mails, but my sense is that he got too pushy. You don't want too much innuendo in your phone, e-mail or personal flirting unless what you're looking for is just sex.

One of the exercises we do in my workshop is we have people write down what their goals are in three categories. There's the for-me column: If I'm flirting with you to get laid, to get a relationship, to feel good about myself, that's about me. There's the for-us column: I'm flirting for both of us to have fun or to get to know each other better. And there's the flirting for you because I want to see how many people I can make feel really good about themselves; think of it as altruistic flirting. I tell people to take that for-me column and put it up on a wall in their bedrooms and forget about it. Trust that your higher self, the universe, fate, God, whatever, is going to be working on that for you. Then focus on the for-us column, the for-you column. Because if I'm focusing on how we can have fun, how I can make you feel better about yourself, I'm going to be so much more successful at the for-me column.

By Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

MORE FROM Jenn Shreve

Related Topics ------------------------------------------