Now I’m no doubt showing my age here, but as a teenager the web would play a major role in the usual kind of flirting that teenagers get up, whether that was on instant messenger services or the burgeoning social networks that were beginning to emerge. It’s fair to say that flirting and the web are natural bedfellows.
It’s kind of hard to imagine flirting ever making its way onto the enterprise social networks that are increasingly common in our workplaces though. Is that a good or a bad thing?
A study published recently in the Academy of Management Perspectives explores the role flirting plays in the modern workplace. It delves into the kind of sexual performances common in the average workplace. I should add here that by sexual performances, they’re not talking about actual sexual acts, but rather our methods of presenting ourselves to others in a way that includes a sexual component.
The researchers are at pains to point out that whilst some of these performances blossom into something more substantial, the majority simply bubble along with our usual daily social interactions. Their purpose however is a clear one. They’re very much designed to ingratiate ourselves with our colleague. Whilst the purpose may be consistent, the method very much differs between men and women.
For women, their sexual resources traditionally have a high value, therefore performances typically involve the emphasis of these resources by adjusting how they dress.
Men on the other hand tend to put on a sexual performance via chivalry or the giving of favours. Both sexes however tend to make use of flattery and compliments to make the other party feel better about themselves.
The desired outcomes also differ subtly for each sex. Men put on these performances to increase the odds of further such performances. They’re literally flirting for the sake of more flirting. Women on the other hand tend to flirt more tactically in a bid to redress real or perceived power imbalances.
Suffice to say, there is more than enough evidence both in academic literature and the media of this dance going rather wrong, either by one or both party taking things too far, or by the performance damaging the reputation of the individual involved.
The paper argues however that we shouldn’t act as though sexual behaviour in the workplace is binary – you’re not doing it or you are doing it wrong – but that there is a continuum of unremarkable behaviour filling in the gaps. A woman judged for being a sexual operator may only be magnifying what her co-workers – women and men – are already doing in moderation.
It does appear clear however that these behaviours have largely remained in the physical world, where participants can subtly go about their business without it being shot into the public domain. Such performances are much harder in a virtual world where words can often be misconstrued and they tend to be preserved for posterity.
Whilst sexual behaviours are very much a part of us as humans, it seems unlikely therefore that the flirtatious behaviours that are so common in traditional workplaces will cross over into the virtual world.
It would be great to hear your thoughts on this though, so let me know what you think in the comments.Original post