Sexuality and sexual attraction are as inherent in human nature as the needs for food, sleep and shelter. As David Henningsen, Mary Braz and Elaine Davies write in “Why Do We Flirt” [Journal of Business Communication, Volume 45, Number 4, October 2008], “Flirting is a ubiquitous human activity.” Sexual attraction is hard-wired into the human brain, and understanding and controlling that element of human behavior, especially in the workplace, is a challenge that will likely be with us in perpetuity. In addition, and central to these authors’ theme, is the difficulty in understanding the motives behind flirting. As the authors note, “the wealth of motives that flirting behaviors could advance indicate that flirting is an inherently ambiguous set of behaviors.”
People are motivated to flirt primarily by the natural attraction between genders. Especially within the business environment, and as Henningsen, et.al. suggest, there may, consciously or subconsciously, be additional motivations behind flirtatious behavior, including professional ambitions and hopes for advancement within an organization. The hierarchical structure in most businesses is such that advancement within any particular company may rely, in the thinking of some employees, in the need to appeal to one’s superior on a personal as well as a professional basis. Once again, the authors note that “senders often use the allure of the possibility of sexual interest to facilitate achievement of other goals.” Most professionals have probably witnessed flirtation being used for political motivations at least once in their careers.
In discussing the different motivations behind flirting – sexual, relational, fun, exploring, esteem, and instrumental -- the authors point out that different motivations usually are associated with different environments, as in noting that
“In comparing flirting in the workplace with social flirting, the appropriateness judgments identified in cognitive valence theory are clearly relevant. The workplace engenders restrictions on the situational and relational appropriateness of potentially sexually motivated behaviors.”
Henningsen, Braz and Davies also focus their discussion on the gender differences prevalent in flirting, and the risks associated with miscommunications that can constitute sexual harassment. As they note, “because flirting may be sexually motivated at times and not so at other times, miscommunication during flirting could trigger the belief that a person is sexually interested in another when such interest is not present.” These miscommunications can go both ways across genders, and both up and down corporate hierarchies. Social flirtation does not involve the professional and even legal risks associated with flirting in a business situation. Flirtation among employees, or between management and subordinate in the confines of the workplace, are a product of relationship and proximity, and create the most risk of miscommunication and of adverse consequences should the receiving party misinterpret, or correctly interpret, motivations on the part of the sender. Unsurprisingly, females are more likely to be on the receiving end of flirtatious activity, and are more likely to be subject to sexual harassment, but based on the physiological elements involved in sexual attraction, understanding flirtation is much more complicated than one might initially assume.