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Flirting Red Flag or Lost Art

June 1, 2000
Related Topics: Featured Article
JackieShonerd considers herself a workaholic. But as a single divorcee with three children --ages 27, 17, and 7 -- she’s latched on to a new mission: learning how to flirt.“I had this realization a couple of months ago. I needed a social life,” saysShonerd, a consultant and teacher trainer in conflict resolution for the Oakland UnifiedSchool District in Northern California. After three book purchases on the topic, she’sflashing a lot more teeth.

Nowwhen Shonerd bumps into a colleague at the coffee machine, she extends her conversations.She shares more news. Cracks a joke. And smiles more at the opposite sex. Before, sheseldom strayed off the business agenda. Now, Shonerd is more relaxed in mixed company --on and off the job. Moreover, she appreciates the insights and opportunities that haveabounded from such gestures. “I had it all backwards. I thought flirting was to getsomeone to notice me. Now I realize it’s making another person feel appreciated.”

Bycontrast, Vince Takeuchi knows exactly when he’s flirting. As a senior associate atIrvine,

California-basedHogan Roy Partners -- a landscape, architecture, and planning firm -- he frequently workswith women on various design teams. “I go out of my way to be extra charming,”he says. “Sometimes, I compliment the other person. But it’s not appropriatewhen you don’t mean it and the other person isn’t receptive. Flirtation is atwo-way thing. You have to use your intuition. It should be a win-win.”

Indeed,when flirting is mentioned you get several reactions. Some break into immediate smiles.Others don a frown. Or bristle with insecurity and doubt. It all depends on one’sdefinition and perceptions. For example, according to one dictionary, flirting is definedas “making playful romantic or sexual overtures.” If you adopt that definition,you probably view flirting as manipulative, dishonest, and attention-getting -- if notrisky business at work. And with good reason. Once a smile is accompanied by a roving eye,hasn’t flirting gone too far? And when a groping hand accompanies a roving eye, isn’tit time to call the company lawyer?

Clearly,the line between flirting and sexual harassment is paper-thin. But as with any risk, HRcan still help define the parameters of fun and responsibility. Just ask Jill Spiegel, anavowed flirtologist and consultant for Fortune 500 companies, who exudes confidence aboutthe lighter side of human behavior. Flirting, says Spiegel, founder of Minneapolis-basedGoal Getters and author of  Flirting forSuccess (, can bringhumor back into cross-gender or same-sex communications at work. How? By redefining theterm as “building your self-esteem and others’ by creating sincere rapport.”In other words, HR doesn’t only have to train managers about the liabilities ofsocial encounters. Flirting in the new millennium can still be fun -- and legally safe.

Anew emotional landscape

Ifthe name Shere Hite sounds familiar, think back to 1976. Hite, a feminist and genderexpert who is the author of The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality, hasdramatically changed how Americans view sex, relationships, friends, and the family. Herfirst book was published in 16 languages and named to the London Times’ list of thetop 100 books of the 20th century. (Her work often is mentioned in the company of TheKinsey Report and the research of William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson.)

Nearly25 years later, Hite has written a new book called Sex and Business (Financial Times,2000).  She believes that a completelydifferent emotional-psychological landscape is emerging. Corporations in conflictprimarily with women are becoming more evident in the news: Texaco pays $40 million towomen for back pay and gender discrimination in a 1998 lawsuit; Toshiba pays $5 million ina sexual harassment lawsuit in 1999; 900 women at Merrill Lynch file claims ofdiscrimination in a 1999 class-action lawsuit; and Monica Lewinsky makes headlines: “Wasit sexual harassment or mutual consent?”

“Thesecases are the tip of the iceberg of unresolved issues between women and men,” saysHite, director of Hite Research International, a global consulting firm specializing insexual ethics in the workplace. “Now, they’re making their presence felt in abig way at work.”

Whatshe discovered, she says, is that the issues of identity and psychology have come togetherin office relationships in a way no one would have predicted even 10 years ago. “Befriendly, don’t be friendly, never flirt, don’t take it seriously, go out forcoffee, don’t go out for coffee” ... what’s right?

“Ifyou’re confused, you’re not alone,” she says. “The workplace todayoffers a great opportunity for people to break old patterns of relationships and createnew ones. It’s now a question of transforming relationships in a way we’ve neverdone before.”

Hiteopposes the notion of companies banning romance and flirting. Some executives, she says,believe that the way to avoid any whiff of sexual harassment is to declare the workplaceoff-limits to any acknowledgment of the gender of the opposite sex, from dating to formingsexually intimate relationships.

Butsuch beliefs are naïve, she says. “There’s a fundamental difference betweensexual attraction and sexual harassment. Attraction is something that can be expressed ina thousand ways. Harassment is something an individual knows very well is intimidating,but carries on anyway. It’s done to ‘prove a point.’”

Companiesthat try to ban flirtation or romance will only be fooling themselves. “It’smerely temporarily pushing the situation under the rug.” Employees will feel lonelyand alienated from their company’s asocial culture, especially the increasing numberof today’s single employees, nearing 50 percent.

Safeflirting, however, can improve your company’s social cohesion and contribute to amore relaxed work environment. Here’s how.

Viewit as a communications and life tool

Flirting,says Spiegel, seems to come easiest with one’s best friends, family, mates, even one’sneighbors. So why can’t your colleagues and employees create this type of bond withmore people at work?


Aswith any other skill, individuals can learn to build rapport. The basics are what Spiegelcalls “Flirting Fundamentals.” There are nine attributes she teaches in order tobuild a sincere and warm rapport:

  • Eye contact: It you want to create instant interest with someone, look him or her right inthe eye. In addition to the self-esteem that we gain from using eye contact, we alsobecome better listeners.

  • Good listening: When you truly listen to another person, you are bestowing one of thegreatest gifts -- respect.

  • Asking questions: When you ask people questions about themselves, their interests andopinions, you make them feel appreciated. Can you think of anyone who doesn’t want tofeel like that at work?

  • Exuding confidence: Sixty percent of communication is non-verbal, which means that peopleform opinions about someone based on what they see -- how one carries him or herself,dresses, and uses facial expressions.

  • Showing humor:  One doesn’t have to tella joke in order to show a sense of humor. You can laugh at others’ humor or just findsomething humorous in every situation. Humor can be acquired by looking at the bright sideof situations. Good flirts laugh a lot.

  • Being honest: In addition to telling the truth, another way to show honesty in arelationship is to keep your word. One of the best assets is showing the vulnerable sideof oneself to others.

  • Liking and respecting people: In the world of people skills, good flirts know theimportance of liking and respecting all people. Conversely, people who live in judgment ofothers tend to be very poor flirts. The more people you meet, the more you increase yourchances of getting business.

  • Showing a positive attitude: The more you practice positive language, the more of a habitit becomes. One benefit is that you actually feel more positive.

  • Being an attractive person: Being “attractive” is whatever that means to you.The point is, when you feel good, you look good, and the inner peace that you feel insideradiates out.

Spiegelsays that many individuals flirt more than they realize. “Everybody has a great flirtinside them.” To prove it, she often begins her corporate training seminars with anicebreaker. Participants are asked to flirt with the person sitting next to them. After afew minutes, she witnesses group laughter, eye contact, storytelling, jokes, and hugs.

“Anybodycan do [one of these things] -- shy or outgoing. I try to help people see how dynamic theyare inside,” she says.

DebbieThompson, administrative assistant in the food division of Minneapolis-based Dayton’s,is one example. She participated in a three-day training called “Building a WinningTeam.” Spiegel spoke on the third day as a motivational speaker. Before the training,Thompson never thought about flirting. She viewed it as a way that individuals “pickedup” potential mates.

Butat the training, she learned otherwise. “Flirting makes you feel more comfortablearound others and them around you.” Her division managers, she says, have sincelearned how to compliment customers, rather than just say, “What can I get for youtoday?”

AndThompson? “I’ve used all of those flirting fundamentals. I could never go backto how I was before,” she says.

Interms of cultural diversity, what some may perceive as a shy individual may flirt in moresubtle ways. For example, Takeuchi works with several colleagues who emigrated from Koreaand Vietnam.

“Theyseem shy and not expressive. But I could be missing a lot,” he observes. On the otherhand, another colleague -- a Japanese male from Sao Paulo -- seems more accustomed toflirting. “He’s more jazzy. I call him my ‘samba’ colleague. Withflirting, if you have fear of failing, then you shouldn’t do it.”

SusanG. Rabin agrees. A communications consultant and director of New York City-based DynamicCommunications, Inc. (,she says, “Men of Brazilian and other Latin American backgrounds seem less concernedwith rejection than their American male counterparts. Flirting does involve emotionalrisk. But as long as one avoids sexual innuendos and behavior, two individuals caninteract in a healthy and playful way,” she says.

Afterovercoming “seriosity” years ago, Rabin served as the Family Living/SexCoordinator for the New York City Board of Education. In 1984, she was asked to teach aclass on ‘flirting.’ “I laughed. Doesn’t everybody just do thatnaturally?” she responded. Apparently not. “The sexual revolution was on, andthe women’s liberation movement was screaming. So flirting went out of style.”

Theproblem today -- even with the importance of sexual harassment issues -- is that “Wesuffer from the disease of seriosity,” says Rabin. “We need to lighten up.”

Sheand Spiegel have observed that technology has opened up even more opportunities forflirts. Before, flirting was confined to phone and face-to-face contact, whereas today,employees can develop flirtatious relationships online. It’s allowed people to writeletters again, via e-mail, to learn how to turn a phrase, says Rabin. When asked if sheflirts, she responded, “I flirt all the time. It’s part of who I am.”

Inthe world of business, however, flirting is a lost art, she says. Many suffer for thefaults of a few. By viewing it differently, HR can add a positive twist to one’scommunications training programs. “It’s the career skill that’s not whatyou think,” says Spiegel. Building rapport can be safe -- and engaging. Key word:respect.

Workforce,June 2000, Vol. 79, No. 6, pp. 129-133 -- Subscribe now!

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