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.)