The Jewish Ethicist: Attraction Distraction
Promoting modesty in the modern workplace
Q. My workplace is about half men and half women. There is always a lot of good-natured mutual banter of a very personal nature, and no one seems to consider it offensive. I find it very hard to avoid being drawn into this cycle of excessive familiarity. Furthermore, I sense an attraction to one co-worker in particular, though this person is not unusually forward with me. Should I just accept this situation as normal? Is there anything I can do to improve the atmosphere?
A. The situation you describe could indeed be called "normal" in the sense that it is typical of many 21 century workplaces. But from a traditional Jewish point of view this degree of familiarity would not be considered "normal," and much research backs up our gut feeling that excessive familiarity and intimacy in the workplace can be hazardous to your marital health.
The statistics in this area are rather alarming. A couple of years ago Sue Shellenbarger in the Wall Street Journal published a column called "Co-workers can wreck a marriage." The column, which is much-quoted, cited a study of tens of thousands of workers in over a thousand workplaces which concluded that the work environment has an immense impact on divorce rates. For example, a married person in a workplace of only single people has a divorce rate 60% higher than average, whereas a person working with his or spouse reduces the divorce rate by 50%. The column describes in detail the temptation to yield to exactly the kind of culture described in the question: casual familiarity and flirting. The column quotes the author of another study who warns: "What starts out as 'just fun' can escalate."
This doesn't necessarily mean that we have to segregate ourselves in cloisters. The Shulchan Arukh (authoritative Code of Jewish law) does tell us that we should "greatly distance ourselves" from members of the opposite gender. But the continuation of this law does not focus on physical distance, but rather about a dignified psychological distance: not to wink, to hint, to joke, to stare. (1) For many people, perhaps most, careful attention to maintaining a cordial but professional and businesslike attitude towards coworkers is enough to keep them from sliding off the slippery slope of disturbing thoughts and pressure on relationships.
However, maintaining a businesslike attitude is itself a challenge for many people. One big help is modest dress. "Modesty" does not just mean clothes that are not revealing; in general, it means clothes that are not meant to draw attention. Another key element is summoning the courage to know when to avoid joining the knot of smiling colleagues around the water cooler.
If there is even one other person in the workplace who shares your aversion to the loose atmosphere, your job will be infinitely easier, as you will have an ally in your battle. If this person is of the same sex, then he or she can also be a source of emotional support. (Too close an emotional relationship between a man and a woman will be counterproductive.)
Shellenbarger's column also recommends strengthening the home front, and discusses "the need for working couples to take steps to vaccinate their marriages" against the plague of divorce.
What if you are unable to resist being drawn into a pattern of casual immodesty in conversation? This may be due to a particularly "open" workplace, or perhaps you are an unusually gregarious person. If your marriage is important to you, you should consider the possibility of finding a new work environment where the norms are more subdued, or where you will find at least some fellow workers who will provide moral support.
The anthem of Jewish belief is the twice-daily Shema recitation. Part of the Shema admonishes: "Don't turn after your heart and after your eyes, which cause you to stray after them" (Number 15:39). We will always find pleasant and attractive individuals who attract our hearts and eyes, but we must remember that if we turn after them with unprofessional conversation there is a danger of straying -- of losing our sense of modesty.
SOURCES: (1) Shulchan Arukh Even Haezer 21:1.