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updated 2/9/2006 5:23:16 PM ET 2006-02-09T22:23:16

Flirting may be an invitation to chat, or it may mean nothing.

It should be innocent fun, but if taken too far, flirting can get you named in a sexual-harassment complaint.

Dr. Katharine Esty, a founding partner of Ibis Consulting Group in Waltham, Mass., says flirting is acceptable in the workplace only if both parties enjoy exchanging quips.

"It's a gray area," says Esty, who holds a Ph.D. in social psychology. "The issue leaves a lot of men feeling like they're walking on eggshells. They know the obvious things, like no touching, but even a compliment can be loaded. Saying something as simple as 'I like your sweater' may be considered inappropriate by some people."

So how is the poor, clueless cubicle dweller to know what's going on and what's acceptable? By recognizing the context of the flirtatious behavior. That, sad to say, requires having a clue — or at least the savvy to get one.

"Men and women are gathering information about a potential partner and asking a basic question: 'Should I go forward and explore this?' " says Dr. Monica Moore, a professor of behavioral and social sciences at Webster University in St. Louis. "Men often have the impression that if a woman flirted with him once, then it's good for all time. They fail to realize that flirting is a process, and that a woman constantly reevaluates the situation."

Those twinkling eyes aren't bedroom eyes. Early on, big baby blues just say, "Hi." Think of flirting as a verbal fan dance, where you reveal bits and pieces of your personality in what you hope is in an enticing manner.

The banter can end at any time if either side finds an insurmountable roadblock to developing an ongoing relationship. For example, he hates dogs, or she can't stand baseball.

"Each side takes turns indicating interest or lack of interest," Moore says.

The key to successful flirting is simple: r-e-l-a-x. Don't talk endlessly about yourself or work, and be open to the other person. Remember that how you respond often tells the other person as much about you as what you say.

"Much flirting involves nonverbal behavior," Moore says. "Facial expressions and gestures are used to attract a person's attention. But there isn't a dictionary for nonverbal behavior. The meaning of open palms or crossed arms depends on the context. You can't say crossed arms indicate impatience or lack of interest, because the person may just be cold."

Flirting can be learned, but it shouldn't degenerate into a string of stock one-liners. Keep the conversation G-rated, and keep flirting to a minimum on company time. Remember, even the most innocent exchange is red meat for the office gossip. Chat at lunch or after work. (See: "Kiss 'N' Tell Via E-Mail.")

It isn't necessarily linked to good looks. Flirting requires an open, easygoing and inviting manner — not a killer bod.

Men generally do a decent job picking up on nonverbal cues, but many over-interpret and read interest into what a woman intends as simple kindness or politeness.

Be aware of your company's sexual harassment guidelines, and stay in tune with the other person: If he or she doesn't enjoying your quips, stop immediately. If the person doesn't enjoy your stopping by to chat, knock it off.

Legally, the victim of sexual harassment can be a man or a woman. The harasser can be a supervisor, an agent of the employer, a co-worker or even a nonemployee. And here's where it really gets tricky: The victim doesn't have to be the person receiving the unwanted attention and could be another person who finds the conduct offensive. That underscores the need to keep things low-key and lighthearted.

"Know the rules of the game, and pay attention to the interaction," Esty says. "If you understand the ground rules, you'll be safe. Flirting is one of the great pleasures of life — if you don't get any red flags or nos."

When in doubt, read your company's sexual harassment code. Mom-and-pop companies and major corporations, such as Exxon Mobil, General Motors and Bank of America, typically have written guidelines.

"Flirting is about timing, getting out there and interacting with enough people to find the right one," Moore says. "Flirting is people having a good time, and it's absolutely, stunningly beautiful."

© 2012 Forbes.com

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