Fear of flirting creeps into workplace Talk of sexual harassment has changed how men and women relate at work

October 23, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

Washington -- I knew everything had changed when a male colleague walked in the office last week and greeted me with a cool, professional "Hello, Susan."

My head turned in astonishment. This was a breakthrough.

For four years, this man had swept into the office with a breezy, "Hi, beautiful!" There was never any chance of mistaking this for a compliment; it was the same line he used on every female with whom he had more than a passing acquaintance.

But now, it seemed, the sassy salutations were to be no more. He confided to me he was a changed man:

"I won't even smile at women anymore," he said. "If I'm walking across Capitol Hill, or downtown, even if I look at female strangers, I will not smile. I'm sensitive to whether or not they'd be offended by that."

Call it sensitivity. Call it skittishness. Call it fear of flirting in this post-Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill era. At least for now, it appears that a number of men -- and even some women -- are avoiding glances, smiles, compliments and anything else that could remotely resemble flirtation in the workplace.

The Thomas-Hill episode has provided "the final death blow" to flirting, says Washington gossip columnist and social arbiter Diana McLellan. "The gig is up," she says. "Even my dermatologist didn't smile at me as usual."

Flirting advocate Letitia Baldrige, author of "The New Manners for the '90s," too, predicts the probable demise of what she believes is already a dying art in this nation. "The whole art of flirting has simply disappeared. This probably will do further damage. If we're going to become so uptight that we can't say nice things to each other, then we've had it!"

And maybe we have. Some working men and women say they're afraid to say much of anything to members of the opposite sex these days. "Everyone is more careful not to even joke, not to even say, 'You look nice,' " says Diana Kaiser, director of public relations for Loew's L'Enfant Plaza Hotel. "The only thing I ever used to comment on were men's ties. Now I don't even do that anymore. I'm afraid."

"This has made me just want to put blinders on, trot down the sidewalk like a horse and not look to either side," says Washington public relations executive Stephen Hagey. "I used to like to engage people in eye contact, give a nod or a smile, or open a door for a stranger. Now, if I open a door for a woman, I'm wondering, 'Do I look like I'm being falsely chivalrous or what?' "

Barbara Provus, a principal with Sweeney Shepherd, a Chicago executive search firm, says she has noticed both men and women, at least temporarily, putting on the brakes in the workplace.

"What might have been considered innocent behavior on the part of one party is now susceptible to microscopic examination by the other party," she says. "Women are examining how they behave in front of men, making sure they don't do anything to lead a man on. And men are going to think twice before they tell a joke, before they put an arm around a female colleague, or before they say to their secretary, 'Close the door while I give you dictation.'

"The open door policy now has a whole new meaning."

Of course, not everyone is toning down his or her act in light of the heightened consciousness about sexual harassment. "I couldn't change if I had to," says Baltimore veterinarian Kim Hammond, a former Cosmopolitan magazine bachelor of the month. "I'm still as flirtatious, fun and outgoing as ever. The key is honesty. It has to be done with tact -- as opposed to [by] someone who hasn't yet gone to finishing school."

Still, some men and women say their flirting has taken on a new tone, with any suggestive comments or actions safely shrouded in a joke. "People are still flirting, joking and hugging, but they joke about the fact that they're doing it," says Larry Pintak, a D.C. media relations executive. "They're more self-conscious."

He recently ran into a former female colleague and they hugged. "And then we both joked about whether this is allowed anymore."

Even outside the workplace, people aren't taking their flirting as lightly. At a steeplechase event in Middleburg, Va., last weekend, "Every time someone made a comment that was somewhat flirtatious, someone else would say, 'You'd better watch yourself,' " says real estate broker Henry McGovern. "It was all lighthearted, but there were serious undertones."

Tom Curtis, owner of the Yacht Club of Bethesda, says the recent toning down of the workplace has been a boon to the nightclub business where flirting is not only tolerated, it's practically mandated. "Two female managers came in the other night and said things were so oppressive at the office, everybody was so uptight, that they had to get out."

But even Mr. Curtis, a self-described "Hollywood-style" flirt, has started curbing his own outgoing, ultra-friendly behavior. "Before, when I was greeting women at the door, I'd say, 'Hi, welcome, let me show you in,' and I'd grab their hand. Now, I ask first, 'May I take your hand and lead you in?' "

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.