Alas, all you knee-strokers and bum-grabbers, the office romance ...


Alas, all you knee-strokers and bum-grabbers, the office romance is a no-go

It’s a dreary, bureaucratically sexless world, thanks to online dating and the threat of being branded a predator

Zoe Strimpel

I began my first job at a national newspaper a few months after graduating from university. It was deeply exciting, finding myself in London, the youngest person on the paper, surrounded by grown-ups. One of the most exciting things about my new workplace, truth be told, was the office gossip – by which I mean, of course, office romance, of which there was boatloads: above board, below board, and all the boards in between.
I remember that both men and women were routinely inappropriate, frequently forward with each other and – not unrelatedly – very often drunk, too. There were affairs and love stories aplenty. It was enthralling.
From the vantage of a post-MeToo era, whereby all but the creepiest men have been well and truly scared off so much as uttering a compliment about their female colleague’s winning summer dress, those days now seem as wondrous and zestful as they are far gone.
They’re certainly distant: a new study by sociologists at Stanford and the University of New Mexico examining the decline of “traditional” ways of meeting people in the digital age has found that the numbers finding love at work have sunk quite dramatically in the past 20 or so years. In the 1990s, nearly one in five US couples met at work; that figure has dropped to one in 10.
The death of workplace romance is a great shame – but not a surprise. The authors of the study stress the march of online dating rather than strangulation by fraught sexual politics, but in my view it’s the latter that’s largely to blame.
Since MeToo, the landscape in which the sexes engage with each other has become febrile and offence-prone. With all encounters now subject to intense scrutiny, the office, with its inherent power plays, hierarchies and competitiveness, was particularly destined to become a minefield. Trying it on in the lift these days is not only frowned upon, it’s dangerous: armed with smartphones in their back pockets, the object of your lust can, and very well may, seek instant and global revenge by telling the world what you’ve done via social media.
That’s if you don’t get zapped by your boss first. Since MeToo, employers have begun puritanically policing the libidinousness of their staff to make office liaisons as difficult as possible. At Netflix, workers are prohibited from asking each other out more than once, warned that “if you stare at someone for more than five seconds, it’s creepy and inappropriate”.
The advertising agency FCB Worldwide advised its employees of the difference between “responsible fun” and “stupid fun” at office parties in a companywide memo in 2017.
In Britain, nearly 80% of firms have tightened or reviewed their policies on workplace relationships since the dawn of MeToo, according to a survey by Direct Line insurance, with one in 20 banning workplace romance.
In a grim but predictable development in higher education, an insider told me last week that a major London university has introduced a policy forbidding not just romance but all socialising between lecturers and students.
It’s hard to think of a drearier, more bureaucratically sexless world than this, with everyone cowed into keeping well away from each other by threats of being branded a predator, of public humiliation, denouncements, and, of course, sacking. In fact, all the beady-eyed watching out for rule-breakers, knee-strokers, bum-grabbers, off-colour compliment-givers rather puts me in mind of a repressive communist state.
Maybe in becoming illicit and dangerous, office romance will become even more heady and thrive under the radar. But I doubt it. This is because it has become increasingly clear that the internet, now our main dating exchange (40% of couples meet online), has done more than compete with traditional dating mechanisms: it has actually expunged the energy from them. Even in bars, where you’re (still) free to meet and pick up people, that’s happening less and less. This is partly because online life has robbed many people of the ability to flirt with actual spoken words, rather than emojis.
But it’s also because the internet has created and enshrined Designated Dating Zones. Offline settings, including workplaces, are now seen as unbounded, messy, ambiguous and ... hard work. I’ve actually heard people of both sexes say they can’t be bothered to meet people IRL (in real life) because, well, that’s what Tinder’s for – a tagline a new advert for Three Mobile has adopted, too.
I can see why many prefer to keep their dating life digital, where everything and everyone can be stopped, blocked or unmatched, and where you can rig up your settings and filters so well that nobody can ever discomfit you. You can stop the inappropriate before it even begins. Life in the flesh is much harder to control, but offers so much more; both bad and good.
– © The Sunday Telegraph

This article is reserved for Times Select subscribers.
A subscription gives you full digital access to all Times Select content.

Times Select

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Questions or problems?
Email or call 0860 52 52 00.