On the first day of my first “grown-up job,” I came in terrified as hell. Though I’m more or less a textbook extrovert, there’s something about meeting new people, particularly in a professional context, that makes me entirely forget how to do things like “Interact with humans in a way that is not completely bizarre.”
One of the more senior interns grinned at me as I sat down. I grinned back. Then, as the silence lengthened between us and became more and more uncomfortable, I spat out, “Love the bangs?! Your bangs. Love your bangs!”
Her face cleared. “Oh, yeah?”
“Yeah,” I said, my voice just a few shades too loud as I touched her arm. “We could be in a girls-with-glasses Zooey Deschanel cover band!”
“Oh my God, perfect,” she said, and just like that, we were off.
As much as I hate to admit it, this whole interaction is not new to me. Whenever I’m in new situations, there’s a personality -- let’s call her Kate+ -- that I tend to slip into like a feathered overcoat for comfort. Kate+ is just a little gayer, a little more self-effacing, and a little more likely to drop unnecessary pop culture references in an effort to shake the shyer nerds out of the underbrush.
I don’t really do it on purpose, but it’s certainly noticeable enough that my better friends tend to roll their eyes as soon as Little Miss Platonic Shoulder-Nudge comes prancing out of the woodwork. I’m the life of the party like this, telling sex jokes and being droll, even as my inner monologue doggedly insists that the most sensible thing to do would be to go back to my Bed-Cave and watch Netflix with no bra on.
My best guy friend calls it “stranger flirting,” and he tends to do it the most with people who work in the service industry: baristas, restaurant servers or bartenders. I, on the other hand, am usually trying to friend-woo acquaintances I always see on the bus or new colleagues. I'm not talking about brief moments of kindness. I'm talking about deliberate, touchy-feely interactions that drip with enthusiastic honey-sweetness and tiny, "Oh, you're so funny!" brushes to people's shoulders.
And, when in doubt, I inevitably compliment clothing items. Usually shoes.
For the record, I’m almost always being sincere in these interactions. I’m not trying to "Mean Girls" it at people’s ugly effing bracelets until they sign their name in blood on a Friendship Contract. It’s just that, in all honesty, I’m not great with clothes. I like dresses with animals on them and dangly earrings, and beyond that, I mostly interpret day-to-day outfits as, “You are not naked. Great work!”
I’m sure that if my friends cared to think about it, they’ll note that my general outfit-related complimentariness decreased markedly after the first fortnight or so of our acquaintance. I still think they look great, obviously, but their outfits just aren’t as much on my radar anymore. I so deeply fear silence, though, that latching onto an easily visible conversation starter is usually the most obvious, least painful option for filling it.
Admittedly, I am totally playing on perceptions of queerness here. Because I tend to read as straight, despite my queer hair and house full of dogs, women tend not to interpret my gestures as sexualized or romantic.
This lowers the stakes of the interaction, making it even more tempting to use compliments as an informal icebreaker. Maybe it’s just me, but when I’m actively trying to get laid, I turn into a slavering fur-beast incapable of forming sentences beyond, “Condoms?” Heaven forbid I actually interact with others. Keeping the whole interaction deliberately G-rated makes me much more relaxed.
At my most cynical (read: sleep-deprived), I find myself thinking of these introduction conversations as some sort of weirdo lady-pack induction; by overcompensating in how much I compliment an individual as soon as I come into her “territory,” I establish myself as a non-threatening newcomer. As women, I think many of us are socialized to be as demure as possible whenever we're unsure of other people. In a way, compliments act like currency to ensure that we'll be at least welcomed for a second. And in professional or touchy personal situations, sometimes that's all you can ask for.
Apparently, I’m not alone in this knee-jerk tendency to lavish affection on people I don’t know very well. According to psychologists at the University of Central Lancashire, the sort of quasi-flirting that presents itself in over-the-top compliments and gratuitous touching can actually help women get ahead at the workplace.
The psychologist in question actually frames it as a conscious act of manipulation:
"It’s a benign, supportive and comforting way of saying to another woman: “I like you and I’m going to make you feel good about yourself.” ‘So as a sweetener to a difficult boss or tricky colleague it can be effective -- particularly when you consider some women can feel competitive in the workplace." Then, when the boss is complacent, you can sweep in to impress her higher-ups.
Maybe, maybe not. When it comes to my female supervisors at work, both of whom are razor sharp, take-no-nonsense women, I have trouble imagining that the silly, flirty “techniques” that I deploy around my peers would work in the same way. It’s perfectly acceptable to tell one of my teammates that she looks like Zooey Deschanel, but to suggest that an upper manager would be swayed to make professional decisions by the same compliment does her a major disservice. I’m almost positive that the vast majority of women can tell the difference in intention between, “I admire your writing abilities,” and, “Your waist looks so small in that pantsuit!”
Instead, though, the attitude toward this kind of flirting implies that all women let their willingness to pair bond cloud their judgment about other priorities in their lives. It’s those goddamned lady emotions again, clogging up the printers and throwing wrenches in the gears of everyone’s potential careers. Barf.
Obviously, I think that this quasi-flirting is a great, easy way to build rapport with a stranger or cheer up a friend when they need it. And I agree that if you encounter a coworker who could be considered your “rival,” it’s an interesting character-building tactic to use this style of flirting to eat the jealousy. Essentially, this means being incredibly gracious about her achievements while secretly vowing to best her for eternity. In the meantime, though, if you just can’t stir up the gumption to compliment her on the sales pitch she slipped to a client or whatever, it’s just easier to compliment her on her shoes before scurrying away to punch your Motivation Pillow and cry all over the hardwood.
But I think that trying to stroke my supervisor’s elbow companionably as she walks by is more likely to get my hand bitten off than to actually advance my career. Which, frankly, is okay with me.
Kate thinks you look nice today at @katchatters.