A compliment on your outfit, tousle of the hair, smile from across the room or playful nudge as you pass each other — all signs of flirting, right?
If you’re on the receiving end, you might be asking yourself, “Is she flirting with me?” “Is he just being friendly?”
There’s a fine line between being flirty and overly friendly, and the question of intent can weigh heavily on one’s mind, whether these niceties are warranted and reciprocated, or not.
Flirtatious behavior is common at the workplace (no matter how many policies are emphasized in employee handbooks). Between 40 and 47 percent of employees surveyed in a 2013 Psychology Today report said they had been involved in a workplace romance, and 20 percent said they were receptive to an office romance, which implies some flirting might be going on.
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Flirting may lead to a workplace romance, but does it require intention?
“Flirting doesn’t have to be intentional,” says Heather Noman of Three Day Rule, a matchmaking site. “You don’t have to have a major crush before you start flirting, especially in public. We really suggest being open to the people around you, whether you’re waiting in a line or wherever, having your head up from the phone and taking advantage of that. Just keep it natural.”
“That natural banter may not be there if you’re focused on one person,” says fellow Three Day Rule matchmaker Casey McDonald. “When you have (natural banter) with someone, it’s the piece you would’ve never known if you were always flirting with intention.”
McDonald says workplace relationships can be successful because many stem from friendship and mutual respect. So how do you know if “Bob” wants to get outside of the friend zone?
“If Bob comes up to you with compliments, but you never notice him complimenting anyone else, he’s probably flirting with you.”
If you are doing the flirting, Noman says to pay attention to the other person’s reaction. Both matchmakers say flirting doesn’t only involve verbal communication, but also body language.
“For a guy wondering if a woman is open to his flirting, he’s looking to see if she’s readjusting her clothes while talking with him, touching her hair or preening a little bit. If so, she’s probably interested in flirting with him,” Noman said.
If a woman is hoping a man is receptive to flirting, the matchmakers argue the dynamic is the same and suggest women take the initiative more often. A guy may also preen, but it’s most important to pay attention to his eye contact and how much he shares about his life outside of the office, they said.
Surveying office interactions, whether you’re directly involved or not, helps develop a deeper understanding of office culture and interpersonal relationships.
If Bob is complimentary or friendly with everyone — from a “you look nice today” to a high-five — then he likely doesn’t have romantic intentions.
If the flirtation is mutual, Noman and McDonald suggest a group outing such as a happy hour to engage on a more personal level. (Matchmaker tip: A group of three is ideal for going out with friends to possibly meet someone, but don’t huddle around one another — sit more openly to invite potential matches.)
But what crosses the line from flirting to harassment?
“It’s all about setting boundaries,” says Valeh Nazemoff, strategic business technology adviser and author of “The Dance of the Business Mind.” Nazemoff draws parallels between acceptable office behavior and what she’s observed of professional dancers.
“Despite close physical contact, professional dancers don’t become inappropriate. It’s a fine line, but when done right, you’re in tune and part of a strong team.
“Mutual office flirting means it is shared — both ways, like the cha-cha-cha dance, where it goes back and forth and creates a continuous dialogue,” she explains. “Sexual harassment is not an ongoing interaction, but one way, meaning it makes the receiver feel uncomfortable, and within themselves, they carry a negative emotional feeling. It becomes sexual harassment when a ‘not interested’ communicated expression is ignored and the pursuit continues.”
Nazemoff and the matchmakers agree it’s best to be direct when rejecting a come-on, in or out of the office, through verbal and nonverbal cues.
“You can set boundaries without embarrassing or creating an awkward work environment by using the words ‘I feel,’” Nazemoff says. “When you use the words ‘You make me feel,’ it creates tension and bitterness. However, when you use ‘I feel,’ it creates a softer tone and less discomfort to the situation,” she said. And remain calm, but firm.
If you consider yourself naturally flirty, then you might want to rein in your behavior, so that it is not misunderstood.
“Pay particular attention to the other person’s facial expression, and notice if they tend to want to take a step or two back,” says Nazemoff. “In order to tune into the other person’s feeling, you need to be connected and conscious of your own emotions first.”