It was a disaster waiting to happen.

After 20 years of marriage, George K. sallied back into the dating frenzy in Los Angeles. He tied some gold chains around his neck and splashed on strong cologne. He bellied up to a nice-looking brunette and shot an exaggerated wink to get her attention.

"Hi there, doll," he announced. "George is my name and insurance is my game. Wow! You must work out 20 hours a day to have a body like that. Say, what's your sign anyhow?"

Needless to say, George met with little interest from the brunette, or for that matter, any woman that night. Although most men are not as out of touch as George, many are mystified about how to express interest and attention in a way that will elicit a positive response from women. And others may be concerned about actions which may be interpreted as harassment.

Three Common Mistakes

Human relation experts agree that flirting can drift over into harassment by:

  1. Coming on too strong
  2. Paying insincere compliments
  3. Getting too personal by making sexual comments

Mark Stevens, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California, often leads workshops for men on how to express interest in a woman without appearing overly aggressive or harassing.

"Too often, guys adopt an approach that angers or humiliates women," Dr. Stevens says. "One of the most popular myths is that women usually say 'no' several times before they say 'yes.' Men in our culture have been taught that a feminine 'no' is really a 'maybe' and, that with a little effort, the 'maybe' will turn into a 'yes.'"

Separating Everyday Behavior From Fiction

Perhaps you remember that scene from Gone With the Wind where Scarlet O'Hara protested Rhett Butler's persistent advances by beating her fists on his chest. But as the story plays out, a few forceful but ardent kisses caused our heroine to melt in his manly arms.

Unfortunately, too many people confuse fiction with real life. In more recent times, Butler's persistence might have ended, not in romantic bliss, but in charges of sexual harassment.

Says Dr. Stevens, "Men are incredibly confused about what they are allowed to do when meeting women. In my workshops, guys always ask, 'Am I allowed to ask an attractive woman out on a date? Am I allowed to compliment a woman on how she looks? Am I allowed to flirt at all?' And women have many of the same questions, as well as some answers."

Identifying What Women Want

Dr. Stevens says that many women in his workshops feel that men who are sensitive to the issues of harassment come across as sexy. "Women like guys who can be vulnerable, tough, and sensitive, depending on the situation," says Dr. Stevens.

"I suggest to men that they should use their voices more and ask permission," Dr. Stevens says. "If you want to hold her hand, ask 'Is this O.K.?' 'Does this offend you?' The worst that might happen by using this approach is that you'll be rejected." He also believes that women should change, too. "They should take more initiative in approaching, asking out, and making the first moves towards intimacy."

Reading Important Preliminary Signs

Before anybody does any touching at all, experts say that men need to recognize the often unconscious courtship signals women cast when they are interested. It may be a sad fact to some, but as in much of nature, it's often the females who pick males.

A Look and a Smile

The most important sign is basic but often overlooked. The number one signal is eye contact, accompanied by a smile.

When a woman wants to meet a man, she often casts him a long look, glances away, and then returns the gaze again. If the male object of these glances is astute, he will close the distance and say something that does not put the woman on the spot. Even a man that is shy and standoffish can establish himself as strong and confident just by leaving the pack and making an appropriate advance. And forget those oh-so-clever-pickup lines. One university survey revealed the most successful opener is "Hi. What's your name?"

Good Conversation

Men who have mastered the art of flirting make small talk that does not include the word "you." They comment on the food, the color of the rug, the furnishings, or the music. The idea is for two people to talk about something they share in their environment. If things are going well, the woman is likely to show an open palm, lick her lips, turn her body to face the guy, play with her hair, or playfully run a finger around the rim of her glass.

Up Close

Guys who want to show they are strong and confident can then take a bold step forward. When Americans talk casually to each other, they usually stand about two feet away. But a man can make a statement of interest by moving in and standing only six inches away. Many men also go into a grooming mode—straightening their tie, playing with their cufflinks, or slicking their hair back. All this shows interest and confidence.

Making Contact

It's usually safe on first meeting to touch a woman between the shoulders and the wrist. So although it's technically safe to give an interesting woman a manly squeeze on the biceps, a light touch on the forearm is probably more enticing. But remember that virtually all women like male strength to be tempered with intelligence and sincerity. So compliments should be heartfelt.

Advice From the Professionals

Author Rich Grosse has written eight books on flirting, spoken at colleges and universities, and organized several flirting conventions.

"The easiest, safest way for men to demonstrate their strength and sensitivity is to take the lead and plan out the whole first date," says Grosse. Susan Grosberg of Boston, who also leads flirting workshops, takes this approach a step further. "Keep it safe by going to a well-lit, public place where there will be no opportunity for any type of misconception or misunderstanding. If you want to kiss her good night, do so outside of her front door and be prepared to go straight home. A first date is not necessarily an invitation for a late-night necking session. Women appreciate men who don't trample on their personal space too soon or too quickly."

In short, the key to success in the world of dating and relationships is to be aware of the messages and cues that women are sending, and know how to broadcast some of your own in a way that is clear and direct, but not overpowering.