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Small business

Is flirting just hard work?

September 28, 2012
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The work flirt strikes again. Photo: Marco Del Grande

Some people think the workplace is the worst place for flirtatious behaviour. Others believe the spot where many of us spend the majority of our time should be a playground for harmless flirting. So who’s right?

Dr Catherine Hakim from the London School of Economics supports the latter. She even invented a term for it – erotic capital – and in her book Honey Money she encourages women to use their beauty and sex appeal to get ahead. The “male sex deficit”, she writes, is a weakness waiting to be exploited.

That strategy has potential drawbacks. In a study released a couple of months ago at the University of California, flirtatious women were found to be more likeable but they were also perceived by their peers to be less trustworthy. It’s true that flirting wins people over, but it also puts others off in the process.

It seems to be valued to such a degree that ladies even go to special schools at which they learn the art of workplace flirtation. One such school was recently profiled on A Current Affair.

I challenge you to make it through that four-and-a-half minute clip without cringeing at the experts (“flirting is how we build our business networks”); the course participants (“we’re lucky we’ve got assets that men don’t have, so if we’ve got it why not flaunt it?”); and the reporter (“is that a pay rise in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”).

Of course, blokes flirt too, but usually for different reasons. Research conducted earlier this year at Surrey University discovered flirtatious men have diminished levels of job satisfaction. This boredom, coupled with a lower level of emotional intelligence, compels them to flirt as a way of keeping themselves entertained.

Perhaps the most in-depth analysis on this topic can be attributed to the Social Issues Research Centre in the UK. In 2004, they reviewed much of the academic literature and followed it up with focus groups and surveys. Some of their findings included the following:

  • Only 1 per cent of people say they do not flirt
  • Two-thirds of flirtatious behaviour is started by women, but it’s often so subtle that men end up thinking they’re the ones making the first move
  • Up to 40 per cent of people meet their spouse or sexual partner at work
  • Evidence suggests that flirting relieves stress in the workplace
  • Conferences and training courses are popular opportunities for this activity

The researchers, who are clearly advocates of office flirting, warn of ‘flirtophobia’, which occurs when the fear of causing offence overtakes the joy of “playful, harmless flirtation”. They don’t mention any names, but they claim that some companies – particularly in the United States – have banned flirting in a bid to minimise allegations of sexual harassment.

To ban employees from flirting with people to whom they’re attracted, particularly when they see each other every day, is a laughable overreaction.

Still, it's easy to see why companies would panic, especially since flirtatious behaviour can be so easily misinterpreted or misdirected. A wink, a smile, a gentle touch – all of that can be taken either as a friendly gesture or as an unwanted come-on. A multitude of factors could influence what is generally an ambiguous message.

For example, I occasionally receive emails from colleagues and clients with an “xx” at the end of it. It’s hard to tell with some people whether it’s an innocent sign-off or a lustful proposal.

As a terribly incompetent flirt, I refrain from it as much as possible. It's much safer that way. (Or maybe I'm just jealous.)

What are your views on flirting in the workplace? Are opponents taking political correctness too far? Leave a comment.

twitter Follow James Adonis on Twitter  @jamesadonis

62 comments so far

  • This reminds me of a guide to workplace flirting presented by the Onion. Two rules: Be Attractive; Don't be unattractive.

    If the other party thinks you are hot, you can get away with whatever. Otherwise, the slightest imagined remark gets you hauled before HR.

    I was once reported to HR for leaning my elbows on a low partition. Even though I was still at least 1200mm from the individual in question, I was "invading personal space". Luckily the HR manager had some sense.

    Commenter
    Lennie
    Location
    Date and time
    September 28, 2012, 3:31PM
  • That "flirt school" video link is hilarious!

    And the whole "banning the flirt" thing? Surely that'd only drive it deeper underground (or into office supply cupboards, as the case would probably be).

    Commenter
    Demis
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    September 28, 2012, 3:47PM
    • Or server rooms, nice and cold. You won't believe what i have seen especially after work.

      Commenter
      webb
      Location
      Date and time
      September 28, 2012, 7:28PM
  • Don't play with matches.

    Commenter
    Aesop
    Location
    Wollongong
    Date and time
    September 28, 2012, 3:59PM
  • Flirting is fine if you have emotional intelligence and can figure out if the recipient is open to your flirting - whether serious or just a bit of fun.
    Sadly a lot of people don't have it. One of my female friends is currently being pursued by a married client who she's spent 2 years flirting with and winning business from, without having an real interest on the romantic side of things (as romantic as it's going to get with a married guy with 3 kids)
    She's actually surprised by it, although I'm not sure why.

    Commenter
    Chris
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    September 28, 2012, 4:12PM
    • He really just wants to play with her!!!

      Commenter
      webb
      Location
      Date and time
      September 28, 2012, 7:25PM
  • You gotta be careful.

    There was once a woman at the place where I worked whose name was something like Jamie Lee Smith ( this is not her real name, it is an alternative fictitious name for the point of this story ). She was normally called Jamie.

    One day at the morning tea break we were discussing the previous evening's episode of "The Dukes of Hazzard". This was in bogan-ville, and a long time ago. I remarked that she could be "southern" and we could call her "Jamie-Lee". No end of aggravation, I had to find another job.

    This was also the year that the movie "Trading Places" featuring Jamie-Lee Curtis was at the movies, so it's not like its an unfashionable name.

    Commenter
    enno
    Location
    sydney
    Date and time
    September 28, 2012, 4:15PM
    • Are you channelling Abraham Simpson?

      Commenter
      Rex
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      September 28, 2012, 6:17PM
    • yes - but were you unattractive?

      Commenter
      HW
      Location
      Date and time
      September 28, 2012, 9:25PM
    • My observation of your many comments on various postings, enno, is that you can be quite caustic. It is so not funny to purposefully set out to hurt others' feelings. Even if you demonstrate this facet of your onscreen character with caustic remarks to the original poster.

      In this case, after having lived in America for many years myself, I know full well, as most likely do you, that what you called your colleague was a racial slur. As such human resources is required by law to throw the book at you to avoid litigation from the person you bullied and harassed. I bet you never apologized to the lady you insulted either.

      Commenter
      Wouldntcha Loik ta no
      Location
      Date and time
      September 30, 2012, 8:29AM

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