Flirting For Business

12th April 2013

Jo Plumridge asks whether a woman can use her feminine wiles, and not see herself as a traitor to a feminist cause…

As a photographer as well as a writer, I’ve used flirting in my day-to-day business for as long as I can remember. A little bit of gentle flirting with any men that I’m photographing helps to put them at ease, in my view, and helps me to produce better results. And it would appear that scientific research backs up my philosophy. Researchers from UC Berkeley and the London School of Economics have conducted multiple experiments (reporting the results in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin), which conclude that using your feminine charms produces better outcomes.

The two key components of ‘feminine charm’ seem to be friendliness and flirtation. But whilst friendliness increases likeability, it also apparently signals a lack of strength when it comes to negotiating ability, whereas a little flirtation shows a concern for oneself – it’s less likeable, but increases negotiating strength. The ideal, the research suggests, is a combination of the two. Be friendly for likeability and flirty for strength.

Gauging the right mixture is vital, and relies on a woman’s ability to read the individual that she’s dealing with. This is certainly something that I’ve found. There are inevitably some men with whom I’ve flirted with more heavily than others (while still keeping it well within the levels of decency, of course).

From a personal perspective, I’ve always enjoyed the flirting experience – at least, I have since I became old enough to do it properly. As a shy teenager, it took me a few years to gain the confidence to flirt successfully; both on a personal and business level! An essential part of success as a photographer is the ability to read people’s body language quickly and to put them at ease. A relaxed subject makes for a good photograph. Over the years, I’ve developed various methods to achieve this – a repertoire of bad jokes and inane chatter making up most of them. But the addition of a little gentle coquettishness with my male clients always helps.

Recently, I joined a networking group in my area to make new contacts. At present there are twenty of us, of whom only three are women. As research for this feature I decided to assess the men who attend. There’s a good selection of ages, professions and backgrounds represented within the group. In what I admit is a very unscientific experiment, I’ve tried different levels of flirting with different members. What I have noticed is that those I’ve dallied with are those that I’ve formed relationships with more quickly. Some have already given me business, even though we haven’t formally launched as a group yet.

Those I’ve only chatted with more formally are those that I don’t feel that I know so well yet. It’s proved to me how much I rely on gentle ‘persuasiveness’ to get to know people. I’d be the first to acknowledge that my preferred approach isn’t suitable for everyone, though. I’ve a sharp sense of humour and my flirting hovers delicately (I hope) on the line between being funny and charming, and downright rude. With the right person, it’s definitely the most effective way to go about things. Nothing, in my opinion, bonds people like humour and flirting. And it’s also safer. Using traditional methods could easily lead to confusion as to the expected outcome. For instance, women tend to use flirtatious body language to attract a mate. Small gestures such as stroking her neck when talking, flicking her hair or stroking a man’s arm are all well-known mechanisms employed by a woman to show a man that she’s interested in him. By using banter instead, I feel I’m demonstrating that this is just for fun. Flirting in this situation is being used as an ice-breaker, a way to help me to form relationships with people more quickly and efficiently.

Am I alone in this? The other two women in my networking group both deny that they are capable of this type of coy behaviour – but I simply believe that they are just not as self-aware. One of them in particular has a very knowing smile when it comes to dealing with the men of the group! Both have expressed envy at the ease with which I communicate with the chaps. I firmly believe, though, that this ease is at least partly down to my approach.

The point of flirty behavour is that, selfishly, we use it to get what we want. Whether you’re targeting new business, or simply getting your other half to wash the dishes, a little girly giggling and fluttering of eyelashes works well. Women undoubtedly have the advantage over men in this department. That which, with the fairer sex, comes across as coquettish and charming, can, with their opposite number, come across as merely predatory. That’s not to say that men can’t charm; it’s just that there’s often a more physical aspect to their flirting. They are perhaps more physical in general. That’s become obvious to me since my unofficial experiments. Several of the men have responded not only by flirting back, but also by a certain physicality. And while there’s nothing too untoward about a gentle touch on the arm, it’s a fine line between this and things becoming inappropriate.

When the response to flirting crosses the boundary into something more physical, it’s a clear sign that actions may be being misinterpreted as something more. The secret to your success lies not only in the ability to use your femininity as a tool but also in the ability to read accurately how your actions are being received. Successful flirting leads to better business relationships, not to sexual harassment cases!

It’s also a case of how we are being perceived by the person that we’re flirting with. Research suggests, for example, that women would do better to wear glasses in business situations rather than contact lenses, which reflect the light, and therefore make pupils appear more dilated. And, of course, pupils dilate when people are aroused or stimulated by something or someone. Therefore, a woman could be explaining her ideas or pitch to a man and find that he is so distracted by the effect of her contact lenses that he hasn’t heard a word she’s said. This may seem like an extreme reaction, but much of it is subliminal, meaning that neither party would necessarily be aware of the effects that were taking place.

So, whether it’s unconscious or intentional, women need to be careful that they don’t go too far. It’s all about finding the right combination of flirting and friendship. Ruth Patel, the owner of Unlocking People Potential*, an organisation that helps businesses to grow through helping their people develop, believes that women flirt subconsciously and often without realising it. “Women use flirting as an influencing mechanism, and therefore need to be aware of boundaries in order to be taken seriously”, she says.

It is possible to flirt successfully, while still maintaining a broadly feminist standpoint, although I’m sure there are those who will scoff at me for that statement. There is obviously a belief in some quarters that employing feminine ‘wiles’ makes a woman weaker. However, I do believe that, used properly, feminine charm and a little light banter actually gives women far more power in the business world.

My other half doesn't see anything wrong with my fostering business relationships in this fashion; he says it's the quickest way to get men on side! He is, though, an eminently sensible individual, who would never be threatened by my actions.
Surely the key factor is this: if you can flirt without overstepping any boundaries, then you are using your femininity successfully – and there’s no shame in it.


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