Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

How Do I Tell The Difference Between Flirting and Professional “Niceness”?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m a single female in her mid-20s and I went to a new dentist, who might be in his late-20s/early-30s, for an appointment the other day. He was extremely nice and very conversational. At first I thought he was just being nice (or indirectly flirting with his assistant – who is also young looking and beautiful).

But then he started asking me about food and restaurants, things I like, how long I plan to live in our state.

Then I saw he didn’t have a ring (which I know isn’t always a clue, but I used it) and so I started wondering, “is there more to his nice-ness?”

What are your thoughts? Was he being professional and nice to his new patient? Was he flirting with me and I have to make the move since it is his place of employment? Was he doing it to be nice around his assistant? Or something else I’m not seeing?

Thank you!

– Completely Confused

DEAR COMPLETELY CONFUSED: So this is an easy one, CC: he’s being nice.

Know how I know? Because he’s your dentist. You’re his patient. That means you are legally, ethically and professionally off-limits. It is literally against the rules for him to date or have sexual contact with his patients. Breaking that rule gets his medical license suspended, sanctioned by the ethics board and possibly thrown in jail. There was, in fact, a dentist in Ontario who was put on the sex-offender registry because of a sexual relationship he had with his patient.

His patient, for the record, was his wife.

So no. For many reasons, he was not flirting with you. And if he was flirting with you? Well… then he’s not likely to be your dentist for long. Or anyone’s, really.

(Oddly, this isn’t even the first is “is my dentist flirting with me” letter I’ve received. Did Shonda Rhimes create a show about sexy dentists that I missed?)

Now with that out of the way, let’s talk about the difference between flirting and being nice. This can be a tricky thing to suss out because… well, sometimes the answer to “are they flirting or are they being nice” is “yes”. There are a lot of reasons why somebody will flirt with customers and clients. Most of them come down to money.

Lots of folks in the service industry — especially people who work for tips or commissions — have a financial incentive to flirt. Most people in service industry jobs, especially ones like bartending, waiting tables, the shot girls at bars, even dancers at strip clubs, live and die by their tips. Anything that ups the likelihood of getting a decent tip — which can range from giving a mint with the check or putting a smiley-face and “thank you!” in the bill — can make the difference between being able to pay the rent that month or having to decide which meals they can skip so they don’t get evicted.

It’s also true that people — mostly, but not exclusively men — will spend more money if somebody flirts with them. Men are especially prone to this; it appeals to their ego and encourages them to act out. There are always guys who will want to impress women with how much money they can afford to throw around. This can result in them buying more — which increases the total tab and, theoretically, the tip — so they can show that they’re a big-shot.

There’s also the guy who thinks that tipping well will make him stand out and endear him to the server.

(It will, but not necessarily in the way that he hopes.)

And of course, there’s the gross variant of this who thinks that tipping more will create a sense of obligation; he’s “owed” something because he’s just dropped so much money on her. While you’re more likely to find dudes like this at strip clubs, they’re also known to frequent high-end bars and cocktail lounges.

This isn’t exclusively something women do, by the by. Male servers will also flirt for tips, especially male bartenders. In fact, there’re bars and clubs that’re notorious for hiring flirty male bartenders.

You can also find a variation on professional flirting at stores; a little light flirting keeps the customer entertained and can also encourage them to buy that item that the salesperson told them made them look so hot.

However, more often than not, what we tend to think of as flirting — especially in a professional setting — tends to just be professional niceness. Showing interest in someone is a quick and easy way to build a connection and make them feel good. Making them feel good means they’re more likely to associate that feeling with the brand, the restaurant, the store or the service. It’s one of the intangibles that can make the difference between somebody choosing to go to your practice or the doc-in-the-box down the street.

Of course, not all professional politeness and interest is strategic; some folks are just friendly like that. And of course, there are folks who will flirt because flirting is fun. They don’t mean anything by it, nor do they want anything out of it other than just enjoying flirting with someone.

It can be easy to mistake for flirting in part because, well, someone gives us attention — especially someone we find attractive — it feels great and we want it to mean more. We’re more likely to round it up to flirting because motivated reasoning is a hell of a drug and who doesn’t want to believe that Dr. McHotlips, DDS isn’t into us?

How can you tell if someone is actually interested? Well, to start with, you need a baseline to work from. Are they acting different with you than they do with other customers or other clients? If they aren’t singling you, specifically out for special and sustained attention, then probably not. The bartender who keeps coming back to talk with you, even when the bar is busy, is giving you more of an indication that they like you more than the typical customer… but that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily interested in more than conversation.

Similarly, does their job require them to flirt? Are their wages enhanced by being perceived as being more than professionally interested? Again: the odds are better that this is professional flirting, not genuine interest.

Also: what kinds of questions are they asking? Are they asking typical getting to know you questions, or are they asking questions that might give some idea of your relationship status? Are they acting in a way that you would expect from a person who’s interested in you exclusively platonically, or are they being a little more teasing, a little more tempting? Flirting is, in a lot of ways, the dance of getting someone interested in doing something. It can help to think of flirting as trying to get somebody to jump into the pool that they’re worried may be too cold; flirting is the process of inviting them to dip their toe in and doesn’t the water look inviting? Now to be fair: asking the usual getting to know you questions can be the start of flirting. After all, much as with making small talk, you have to build up to flirting; it’s rarely a good idea to dive right in. However, someone who’s flirting will usually move past those standard questions and towards asking more personal things that might tell them if you’re single, or gauge your interest in them. Asking you your feelings about, say, Perkins, generally doesn’t rise to the level of flirting.

Asking a new client about their life, especially basic “oh, you’re new in town!” questions are all fairly standard. Hell, every dentist and hygienist I’ve ever been to has been chatty like that… made slightly more ironic by them asking those questions when wrist deep in your mouth with sharp objects. Though that is, admittedly, better than the dentist I had who thought it was the height of comedy to ask me “Is it safe? Is it safe?” during check-ups and cleanings.

But over all, the best way to determine flirting vs. professional niceness is ultimately about time. Individual signals don’t mean much on their own and they’re easy to miss. If someone is continuing to send indications of interest over a period of time — let’s say more than 10 minutes, for convenience’s sake — then that’s a better sign that they’re flirting than trying to read the tea-leaves in the questions they ask.

But, again: if flirting would get them into a metric f--k-ton of hot water, professionally and legally? Then it’s best to assume that they’re not flirting after all.

Good luck.

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