How to flirt in the age of MeToo

    9 August 2019

    Stats released last month suggest the proportion of couples meeting at work has halved since the 1990’s to ten per cent, while the number meeting on dating apps soared – from two to 40 per cent. Why such a fall in workplace romances? Have glass-panelled offices thwarted secret rendez-vous? Has the decline of photocopier rooms left us without somewhere to sneak off to? Perhaps. But part of the reason, according to researchers, is a fear that flirting at work could be seen as “creepy”, following heightened awareness around sexual assault.

    To say flirting has been imperilled by MeToo feels taboo; the movement was overwhelmingly positive (and long overdue). It ushered in a sense of accountability for silver-haired slime-bags; Green and Weinstein showed power does not afford immunity. And that’s not to say MeToo has succeeded in dispiriting the most enthusiastic of perverts, who still believe that they and their many chins are irresistible to the female gaze. “The CEO still creeps”, explains one friend, “just on the women he doesn’t consider ‘troublemakers’”.

    Yet for gentlemen attempting more innocent, romantic endeavors, there is a fear that misconstrued actions could land them in front of Susan from HR – or worse, a judge. Sexual harassment policies can be a minefield for employees; take Netflix, which imposed a five-second limit on the time colleagues were allowed to look at one another.

    This #MeToo-instilled fear is helpful in most cases. Many men do far worse than look at a woman for six seconds, as evidenced by the seemingly facile advice employment lawyers have to give. Danielle Parsons from law firm Slater and Gordon recently issued this helpful edict: “If someone is moving away from you, then they are probably not interested in closer physical contact with you.”

    Yet the post-#MeToo environment can muddy what ought to be straightforward: one girlfriend spent months in confusion over whether her manager liked her. Upon confessing he returned her feelings, he suggested he’d tried to hide it for fear of how he might be perceived; he was senior in both grade and age, after all. Another of my male colleagues jumped a mile when, mid-way through a passionate discussion with a female teammate, he absent-mindedly put his hand on her arm. After all, he’d read so much about the unwelcome “hand on leg” in the newspapers, who’s to say where a stray limb could land him?

    Even the nightclub isn’t a safe space for fledgling Romeos. Male friends now spurn the idea of going up to a girl in a bar as predatory. Indeed, a girl’s well-meaning chum can be just as restrictive as an HR policy – mine enforces a five metre perimeter against any guy who might dare to approach me on the dance floor (let’s call it a no-flies zone). I’m all for it when a stranger’s trying to, to misquote R Kelly, “hump ’n’ grind”. But when a guy is just… chatting a girl up? Most frustrating is that the growing minefield of do’s and don’ts suggests women are delicate little petals, unable to give a polite refusal to any unwanted attention.

    I am therefore not surprised by the rise of dating apps: online, men can be assured of a woman’s interest, because they “matched”. The slow, steady gratification of coy arm-grazes, and lingering eye gazes can been replaced with a single swipe. In a world where millennials prize sectioning off our time, leaving dating for when we have half an hour to play on our phones, MeToo is an impetus to keep love affairs kosher, away from day-to-day life.

    Of course, I am told this post-MeToo crusade may be a long-awaited reckoning, forcing women to make the first move, and balancing out gender norms around dating. After all, why shouldn’t a guy have to second-guess himself? Women have had to watch their back for millennia, knowing there would be no due process if they were assaulted. Isn’t it “clear-cut” what is acceptable? Only, I’m not sure it always is: Google “how to flirt” and you’ll be told to keep eye contact, break the touch barrier and give compliments – all of which would be flagged as inappropriate in a post-MeToo workplace (and would certainly earn you vitriol on the street). The sad truth is that flirtation is not black and white, but rather grey areas – raised eyebrows and cryptic signals. The “does he, doesn’t he”, “will he, won’t he” is more complex than the ping of a match, but – importantly – far more fun.

    With our confusion over flirting, it’s little surprise that Love Island captured viewers this summer. It’s a way to see see old-fashioned wooing, but without worrying about misconstrued intentions – if you weren’t up for dating, why would you be on the show? And, most usefully, in a consent-driven era, everything’s captured on camera.

    So what’s the solution for those starry-eyed souls who wish to pursue romance offline? The Guardian’s “Dating after MeToo” series suggests that men ask “May I kiss you” before they make their move at the end of a date. To me this seems a drastic reversion to the same binary “Yes or no?” as a dating app. (Also when do you stop asking? On your wedding day, when the priest tells you you may now kiss the bride?)

    More likely, it comes down to men using emotional intelligence over ego – and if they don’t have it, asking female friends what they think. If a woman doesn’t seem to respond to your advance – there’s a slight possibility she’s playing hard to get. But if you’ve made a clear gesture, or indeed made a move in the workplace to no avail, it might be better to assume she’s uncomfortable, but feels awkward rebuffing you in a professional context – especially if you’re in a position of authority. Pinching a girl’s bottom on your first day in the job (as per an anecdote from one friend who works in insurance) won’t win you many friends in this day and age.