Monday, November 13, 2017


Harrassment is unwelcome verbal or physical conduct.  Sex is anything involving either intimate physical relations, or gender.  So sexual harrassment is unwelcome talk or behaviour towards a colleague, compromising their freedom to manage their own body, or their own sexual identity, as they choose.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk in the press and on social media about where lines are drawn.  The suggestion is that it is not always clear when sexual harrassment is taking place.  Some have suggested that what is friendly banter to one person, can be unfriendly harassment to another.  Others have replied that the lines are indeed clear, and that those who say there is a grey area have limited understanding.

Both are in a sense right.  Sexual harassment is one of those areas of behaviour which requires the operation of something psychologists tend to call 'theory of mind'.  Theory of mind is the ability to speculate (i.e. theorise) reasonably accurately about what is going on in someone else's mind, and to moderate one's own behaviour in the light of that speculation.  We use this ability all the time in our human relations.  It is perhaps shown most clearly when one human openly empathises with another, saying 'you must be feeling...', and offering a helping hand of some kind.

Essentially, things go wrong if person A fails to moderate their behaviour in a way that respects person B.  In other words, avoiding sexual harrassment is the same thing as demonstrating respect in your actions.

In order to appropriately adjust to B's needs, person A needs to make sure they have the following skills:

1. An understanding of the general rules of human interaction in the particular social context
2. An appreciation of any additional flexibility that person B might need
3. The ability to modify one's own conduct in keeping with 1 or 2

Most of the arguments for a grey area are situated in areas 1 and 2.  The general rules of human interaction do change from culture to culture; and, on top of that, each individual will have their own requirements for a comfortable social interaction.

There is no magical age or time when a human suddenly becomes qualified to make judgements as to local social rules, and others' individual requirements.  There is no doubt that some of us are better at it than others.  Some people genuinely find it difficult to get a hold on social etiquette; and some people find it difficult to read other people's individualised social signals.  

This is where caution comes in.  One reason we are shy in new social situations, is that we are holding back from social interaction until we have a better appreciation of the social rules of the gathering, and the character of the individuals contained within it.  In this way, shyness, far from being a social dysfunction, is a social skill which prevents us from harassing others unduly.

Negotiating any social situation involves practicing a degree of shyness, or caution.  This buys all parties time to 'size each other up', to get to know existing social hopes and expectations, and to begin negotiating any new ways of behaving that might be necessary to involve everyone well.

Caution can massively reduce the risk of harassment.  Using a driving analogy, slowing down, and increasing observational awareness, reduces the risk of unwanted accidents.

Linked to this idea of caution, is another kind of reticence - respect for the other person's freedom of mind, and modifying one's behaviour to allow the other to exercise consent without feeling pressure.

This requires perhaps more skill than any of the above.  It takes time to learn a behavioural style which allows others the ability to say no gracefully.  A hand on a knee, for instance, if unwelcome, requires the other to be quite explicit in response, either removing the hand, or drawing attention to the act and explaining that it isn't welcome.

The burden on the other to say no explicitly, and the difficulty of doing so, is at its most pressurised when person A has power over person B.  In such situations, A is used to having their wishes met by others, and the social environment is often adapted to this expectation.  Conversely, person B, if in possession of less prima facie power, will have to summon far greater courage to express a refusal - not least because the social rules of the workplace imply that solving problems for a boss is a good thing.

Hence, person A has a greater responsibility than usual to ensure they leave a large amount of room for person B to say no.  Ironically, this is the opposite of the behaviour expected of many bosses, who are often applauded for an ability to reduce others' ability to say no.  In other words, the lauded dealmaker for the firm, has to learn to put this particular deal into the hands of a weaker person, to leave it there, and to accept no as an answer.  Furthermore, it is wise to treat the absence of a yes or no in the same way as a no.

There has also been recent discussion of whether, and how, flirting can be allowed in the workplace, and whether it is compatible with the workplace.  Many politicians have commented that they met their current partner at work, and, without the ability to flirt, they simply would not have had a relationship.

Flirting is complex.  It is, roughly speaking, the expression of a willingness to enter into an exclusive intimacy with another person.  I say exclusive because flirting implies the possibility of a special relationship.  Not necessarily sexual; but an intimacy of a special kind, not afforded to the world in general.  For example, a person would not normally be expected to flirt with a cat; society has expectations as to who might be expected to flirt with whom, and why.  This definition of flirting does not necessarily relate to concrete reality: it is one of those words which does something just by being used.  Thus: 'Are you flirting with me?' implies that the other may be intending to open the door to a special relationship that is only really definable in terms of flirting.  Romance is similarly a word which defines its own world: sprinkles some kind of fairy dust over certain relationships, and implies they are special in a particular way.

The language of flirting is in conflict with the language of business in certain ways:

1. It implies a preferential relationship between two people independent of the requirements of business
2. It therefore implies that the requirements of business might be compromised
3. Flirting challenges the impartial operation of business hierarchies and boundaries

Given the value put upon the role of impartiality in business, flirting is therefore often considered an abuse.  Whether in a job interview, or a work meeting, or a court, or a police station... a situation designed for fairness is severely challenged if one party playing one role attempts to enter into a special relationship with a party playing another.  Suddenly, it becomes hard to communicate on a 'business' basis, because the world of 'special intimacy' has been invoked.

So on one side we have people saying that flirting should be banished from the workplace.  On the other, people saying that many relationships start at work, and to banish flirting would be to impoverish society.

One solution commonly used is to banish 'special relationship' type behaviour from the workplace.  It is hard to eliminate it entirely, but, broadly speaking, many workplaces expect business behaviour in business hours.

Professions with problems in this area are often professions like acting, media, modelling... professions which are often in the business of promoting, albeit temporarily, 'special relationships'.  Some of the biggest recent scandals have come from film and theatre, where the distinction between 'business' and 'special relationship' can become blurred.  For example, a director may feel that it is OK, in the name of art, to walk across boundaries of intimacy with an actor.

Power has a particular role here if the object of flirting, the object of an invitation towards a special relationship, is dependent on the flirter for their welfare or livelihood.  There is a simple sequence of questions that might be asked in order to develop good working practice:

1. Am I interested in a deeper relationship with this person?
2. If so, am I in some way in charge of this persons welfare?
3. If so, does it better protect their welfare if I keep my interest to myself?
4. If so, perhaps it is better not to flirt.

Some professional relationships have a built-in quasi-legal framework which reflects this.  Thus a doctor, prima facie, is under a duty not to flirt with a patient.

To negotiate relationships without harassment, we need to have a practical understanding of social expectations, but also individual personalities.  We need to have an ability to manage our own behaviour, and to make situational judgements which protect both ourselves and others.  The role of caution is not to be underestimated: it is better to do nothing than to risk an accidental misunderstanding.  And, most importantly, if we have power or responsibility over another person's welfare, then we would do well to keep any flirtatious interest to ourselves, and at the very least to respect the other person's personal decision space, to allow enormous room for a 'no', and to treat the absence of a positive response in the same way as a no.