Flirting at work

I’ve talked before about flirting and how it’s complicated for limerents. It’s been on my mind again.

There’s a real sense of a sea-change in culture at the moment, with #MeToo and Oxfam and Weinstein and etc. etc. drawing out the pent up anger of years of injustice and abuse and mistreatment and offense and discomfort. One of the consequences of this social movement is a closer look at behaviour in the workplace and a realisation that some pretty unpleasant men have been getting away with some pretty unpleasant behaviour for far too long. But another interesting spinoff is that some other people have been getting pretty uncomfortable about the range of behaviours that are being criticised. Knee touching is lampooned. Witch hunts have been mentioned.

Obviously there is a comfortable gulf between flirting and sexual assault, but the less comfortable bit is the big flabby middle of uncertainty where different people draw different lines. I doubt anyone was really under any illusions about whether it’s OK for the boss to grab the secretary’s arse, but what about the manager from one sales team flirting with the deputy sales manager of another team? Some people would be set off blustering about free speech and fascist dictatorships and how they married their deputy and no harm ever came of it, while others would say that you’re at work to work, so get on with your work and leave your flirting to social time.

The other uncomfortable bit is that it seems to be very, very difficult to talk about this stuff at the moment. I am uncomfortable writing this, and have deleted and rewritten some of the preceding words multiple times with the bogeyman of public judgement sitting on my shoulder and alternating between chastising me for my moral cowardice and clutching his pearls about how could I dare to say something that could be construed as victim blaming. So, hiding behind the (probably not terribly solid) pseudonymity of this blog, I’m going to dive in.

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Cowabunga?

In the previous post I talked about the potential minefield that flirting represents to limerents. So from one perspective, less flirting would make their lives easier. But do we want our workplaces to be completely non-sexualised? Do we ban flirting? I’ve been flirted with by colleagues, and it’s made me very uncomfortable. I’ve also been flirted with by colleagues, and it’s been great, because I’ve fancied them too. But then, that was the road that led me to my last limerent episode, which sent my life into chaos, but taught me new and important things about myself that I didn’t know, and really needed to learn. And other people are different from me, amazingly enough, and will process all these sorts of experiences differently from me. And I can’t predict that from looking at them. And a LO can’t really be held responsible for the reaction of a limerent to some harmless flirting. And how are we going to police the “no flirting” rule? Especially when tons of women have experienced the shock of having baseline friendliness over-interpreted as flirting by inexperienced men, and also had the experience of realising that they can use slightly-above-baseline friendliness to scope out whether a man is interested in them while preserving plausible deniability. Maybe we need some rules about what constitutes flirting, because rules about behaviour always make everyones lives better. Having sex in the stationary cupboard? Wildly unprofessional to most people, but if it’s consensual, should it be banned?

I’m throwing out loads of questions here not because I need to know the answers, but because I genuinely don’t know the answers. I’m at a point in my life where the choices are simple for me: I gain almost no benefit from flirting, and am in as low a risk category as you could imagine for suffering sexual harassment or assault. Not to be complacent – shit can always happen – but it is easy for me to just not flirt with anyone and ignore anyone that flirts with me, and keep my mouth shut and my head down whenever the topic comes up.

But I really don’t think the larger situation is simple. I don’t think We have properly decided how We want the terms of interactions between adults in the workplace to be demarcated when it comes to sex. Power differentials are often cited as a cause for concern, and again, most people will agree on the outliers – teachers and pupils, bosses and vulnerable employees – but how big a differential is too big? A lot of people form long term relationships with people they meet at work, and sometimes those people are above them in the hierarchy. Furthermore, I don’t think We even know how to start dealing with the fallout from the current revolution (and revelations), or even how to communicate meaningfully without it degenerating into invective.

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Problem solving 101

Oh well, what a typical bloody tone troll man, whining about how difficult it is to hit on women at work nowadays. Because that’s the other reason why it’s so bloody difficult to talk about this stuff now – the constant assumption of ill-intent. Any anxieties about life being complicated is seen as evidence of thought crime. Everyone should intuitively know where the lines are and not to cross them (even though we don’t talk about them), and if they don’t know them, then it’s obvious they are an abuser and deserve to be shamed. In a strange way, it reminds me of fashionistas: a coterie of people pleased with how woke they are and disdaining anyone who doesn’t wear this season’s certainties.

Well, harrumph. I’m calling bullshit. It’s bloody complicated, because everyone has their own threshold for discomfort, everyone has different degrees of social skills and emotional intuition, everyone has different libidos, and everyone has to live together trying to navigate life in a world full of confusing other people that are very similar to us in important ways but also very different in unpredictable ways. The only way to live together purposefully is to communicate with the people around you honestly and in good faith, and learn from each other by occasionally bumping up against boundaries and risking discomfort. If we don’t make a sincere attempt to investigate the grey areas of sexuality at work, we cede the territory to the abusers (who will use it as cover) and the puritans (who will claim any discomfort equals assault).

So… *cough* in conclusion… Flirting is complicated, but I don’t like bans. I hope the youngsters manage to figure this out.

/rant

7 thoughts on “Flirting at work

  1. I think flirting by married persons with singletons and other married persons just shouldn’t be happening at the work place. If a significant other would raise an eyebrow, or both of them, then not only is there a real chance of finding yourself suddenly single, you could also find yourself on the wrong side of a lawsuit. Plus unemployed.

    As for the rest, maybe it can be covered by, “Would it make me uncomfortable to observe someone else doing this – at work?”

    Power differentials are real but sometimes they’re very short-lived. Today’s mentor could literally be tomorrow’s subordinate. Mr. Lee and I were colleagues and while he had more experience in the field, I have the degrees. We wed and we both immediately started looking for new jobs so we would never be in a position of shortchanging either party’s career (spouses can’t supervise one another).

    Workplaces that encourage situations where flirting and even infidelity is expected should be regarded with alarm. I think it was Michael Milken’s firm that made it such that you were expected to be at work 18 hours a day. There was someone whose wife went into labor, the baby died and he was still expected to show up or be fired. Infidelities were common there too and it was a real snake pit of a place to work. Money was great – until it collapsed. It was a long time ago and maybe it wasn’t Milken setting the tone, but I do remember reading about the corporate culture of some then-big firm and this was an example of it. Maybe it was Steve Wynn. Anyway, it helps to know the culture of your employer.

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    • Talk about corporate culture…. http://fedline.federaltimes.com/2009/11/17/the-nrc-dating-service/

      It caused quite a ripple when it appeared and we heard the guy that said it left the government soon after.

      I was running a meeting. One of the women in the group, who could have been a credible threat, but didn’t show a hint of glimmer, said something I don’t remember.

      I came back with, “What am I going to do with you?”

      She came back with, “What do you want to do with me?”

      The look on the other women’s faces was priceless. The men were all smirking.

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      • See, if I had been her I would have said, “Promote me!”

        But the story wouldn’t have been half as funny. Well played Scharnhorst, well played.

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      • Ooh good case study. So here I could see the responses ranging from “Ha, she and Sharnhorst are hilarious! This place is fun.” to “God that’s so inappropriate. Maybe I should complain to HR.”

        So, I guess I’m leaning towards “let everyone think what they will”, and drawing the “HR line” much closer to overt harassment.

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    • I think flirting by married persons with singletons and other married persons just shouldn’t be happening at the work place.

      So this is the heart of what I mean. In my view, it shouldn’t really be happening anywhere – but I’m also not comfortable with the idea that my moral preference should necessarily be imposed on society. Same problem with the “would it make me uncomfortable?” metric.

      I’m not attacking this perspective – I quite genuinely find this question complicated. It’s one of those issues that seems to lie at the intersection of lots of the principles that I’ve slowly learned to orient my life around: personal freedom, individual autonomy, moral integrity, liberty, openness of emotion, taking responsibility for your actions, and – without wanting to sound too saccharine – that the world needs more affection and less aggression.

      No doubt I’m overthinking it, but such is my burden…

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  2. We were in no position to affect each other’s respective career paths.

    Something about this that relates to limerence:

    We worked on several projects together and got to know each other. She was divorced with kids about the same age as my kids. We’d occasionally meet for coffee or have lunch. Always during working hours. We had a lot in common. She was really easy to be around. Again, not the faintest hint of glimmer. My wife was aware that I was working with her.

    She took a job in a different part of town. We stayed in touch via email. I was going to be in her part of town, so I asked my wife if she was ok having dinner with my former co-worker. My wife okayed it without blinking an eye.

    Since I wasn’t limerent for my former co-worker, I wasn’t broadcasting anything to my wife. That woman never got inside my head.

    Meeting a local woman after work, who was a suitable candidate, raised no alarm with my wife but a woman I never met, who lived 2000 miles away, but who I was limerent for, did.

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