04/25/2013 07:44 am ET Updated Jun 25, 2013

On The Fly: Are You Flirting Or Just Being Polite?

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On my wedding night in a beautiful mountain lodge that we had rented out for the occasion, my then 80-something Aunt Sophie -- a siren if there ever was one -- called the front desk at midnight and asked if Frederic, the 26-year-old French chef who had just fed us a sublime meal and spent much of the evening dancing with her, could please come to her cabin to remove the spider she had just found.

Frederic obliged. He stayed for about 10 minutes, chatted with my aunt, and yes, he removed the spider. My aunt was a fearless sort and I doubt highly that she was intimidated by a spider. She was reading flirtation into an act of kindness offered to a revered wedding guest.

During the morning after at our post-wedding brunch, Aunt Sophie acknowledged as much -- she wasn't stupid after all -- and quickly added that luring a handsome young man to her cabin at midnight would make for a great story to tell her friends back home at Leisure World. She added in a whisper, "But French men actually do prefer older women, you know." She quickly assured us that "nothing happened, of course," and enjoyed watching my new husband's ears turn increasingly redder with each second the conversation endured.

I was reminded of Aunt Sophie this morning when a young man in the office held the door open for me. It was early morning and it was just us in the office. He looked me in the eye and said "Hey, how ya' doin'?" In an Aunt Sophie-like response, I beamed back "Great!" and immediately processed the exchange to mean that my new diet was working and that my husband was indeed telling the truth when he said I looked good in this dress. The young man was just being polite and I read it as flirtatious.

Perhaps you think I lack the self-awareness appropriate to the situation. And perhaps you think I simply read too much into it. But I also do believe there's a difference between what happened decades ago at my wedding and what happened this morning at my office.

Like my aunt, I appreciate a good harmless flirtation, even if that wasn't what went down at my wedding or in the office. But whereas doing things out of politeness -- especially toward older people -- was the norm back then, that's not what happens today.

Today, we just don't live in a door-holding culture. How could we when we need one hand to hold our cell phone and the other to grasp our Starbucks' cup? Most of the time, the intensity of our cell phone conversations held in public spaces preclude us from even being aware of those in our midst. If we are passing someone we know, we sometimes muster a fleeting moment of eye contact and a little nod and finger-point to the phone in our ear that says "really, I'd love to stop and say hello to you but I'm hold for someone far more important. Sor-ry."

No, holding a door open for someone just doesn't happen with all that much regularity anymore. Neither does offering seats to people on public transportation, or letting someone else have the parking space at the mall. A driver who tries to enter our lane of traffic is treated as a challenger to a duel, not viewed as an opportunity to show kindness. When the bagger at the supermarket asks if I need help out with my groceries, he's doing so not out of politeness but because his boss requires he ask. And by the way, the last time I answered "yes, please," the kid didn't even hear me. He was listening to music with his earplugs in, so how could he have?

A few years ago, I laughed when a friend made her then 10-year-old son attend a cotillion class. I remember how she would pluck him from soccer practice and drag him kicking and screaming to a place where he learned things like which fork to use and how to dance a waltz with a girl. Lesson one was that you always hold the door open for others.

Today, that kid is my favorite visitor. He says "please" and "thank you" and compliments my cooking even when he leaves most of it on the plate. Politeness and good manners are all about making other people feel good; I'm having a hard time finding anything wrong with that.

My young colleague's gesture this morning did precisely that. It said "I see you; you aren't invisible to me even though I may be in a big hurry."

Was it flirty? No, of course not. But against the backdrop of our electronics-creating personal distance, holding the door open for someone becomes a bigger deal. Yes, it shows politeness, but it also shows a willingness to engage -- to engage face-to-face, not by text or posted comment. And it's hard for me to think of anything sexier than that.

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