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Flirting at work - the last taboo?

I didn't start it, I promise. It all came about after the article "Flirting your way to the corner office" in Forbes Woman. When Isabella Lenarduzzi of JUMP - an organization that focuses on empowering women in the workplace - asked me to write a guest column on the topic for her newsletter, of course I said yes! We're both strong believers in the joys of flirting and we wanted to put the taboo topic on the table to clarify a few misconceptions for once and for all. Little did we know that it would open a true pandora's box! Newspapers, radio stations, even television programs suddenly want our views on the topic.

Flirting at work: done or not done? My original article below. You decide!

Let’s flirt!

I know that what I am about to say will probably get me tarred, feathered and hung out to dry by the majority of women, but I’m going to say it anyway: I think we all need to flirt more often, also at work. But before you start making that voodoo doll of ‘a certain writer’, please allow me to explain.

Flirting has always received a bad rap. Just utter the word and most people colour green with jealousy and shudder at the imagined implications: sexual attraction, the beginning of an affair and of course ultimately divorce.

I think it all goes wrong with the definition of the word “flirt”. The Oxford Dictionaries define it as “to behave as though sexually attracted to someone, but playfully rather than with serious intentions.” Being the subjective creatures that we are, we immediately focus on the words “sexually attracted” and completely ignore the bits about “as though” and “without serious intentions”, which are pretty crucial in the definition. For the purpose of clarity, I suggest that we tweak the definition a little to read “to behave as though attracted to someone, but playfully rather than with serious intent”.

Suddenly “flirting” seems a lot less threatening, doesn’t it?

Now the definition reflects the reality of flirting as most decent, well-balanced adults practice it: playfully teasing someone – with no serious intent.

I think flirting is healthy. I flirt often and in all kinds of situations. I flirt with men and women; I flirt with friends and their boyfriends. I flirt with the mechanics at the garage and strange men behind me in the checkout queue. My best friend (a happily married mother of two) and I build evenings of laughter on endless flirtatious quips with each other. Hell, I even flirt with my granny. I do this because I like the person in question, because I hope to illicit a playful response and maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll generate a buzz of upbeat, playful energy that will leave us both sporting the silly grins only spirited play can bring.

But when it comes to talking about flirting – no matter how innocently - in a professional environment, most of us still squirm uneasily in our ergonomically correct office chairs. It seems so politically incorrect to even ponder the thought, doesn’t it? Because what woman would admit  – quelle horreur – to flirting her way to the corner office?

Following the recent publication of two books on the topic, Forbes Woman ( dragged the hairy topic into the spotlight for some serious discussion. Does flirting advance or sabotage your career? Does it undermine your professional standing or is it – if done with finesse and careful nuance, just a good networking skill? Nicole Williams, author of Girl on Top: Your Guide to Turning Dating Rules into Career Success views professional flirting as part of good networking skills. Many of the same rules apply: Maintain eye contact, smile, show interest by asking questions, listen. Flirting then goes a step further, adding a dash of flirtatious nuance: a compliment or a quirky remark, friendly body language or a gentle touch.

Many women will be quick to point out that this type of light-hearted behaviour can easily backfire. That being labelled the office flirt is the last thing any woman wants; and that men are notoriously known to misconstrue a woman’s friendliness for romantic interest - both of which are of course valid concerns.

But it is also in these two pitfalls that we find the secrets to enjoyable and successful flirting – whether in business or social situations. Flirting should be subtle and refined, never brash. It should be playful and light, never heavy. Most of all it should be gentle and kind and never be born of malicious intent or dubious ulterior motives.  And as in any social interaction, you have to be able to read the situation correctly. Is there room to be playful?  Is the person in the right frame of mind? After all, flirtatious behaviour should be enjoyable to both parties and never make someone feel uncomfortable.

I think flirting has misguidedly received a bad rap for long enough. Let’s cast off it’s doomsday coat of projected insecurities and dark fears to see it for what it should be: a playful exchange of energy between two people.

I say we should all flirt much more often – also at work. Life is serious enough and as most of us spend the largest part of our day – and by extension our adult life - at work, we should also have some fun while we’re at it.  For wouldn’t it just be the saddest life if we spent all that time as emotional flat-liners just because we’re afraid of what others may think of our playful side?