click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

The Jewish Ethicist: Attraction Distraction

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.

March 5, 2005

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.
The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Esther, March 29, 2005 12:00 AM

I had a similar experience

I worked in for a very upscale insurance company in which people came dressed very inappropriately for such a professional setting, and where people stood around in the hallways discussing every aspect of their personal life from what they were eating for lunch to details about their dating life. We were in open cubicles so there was no way not to hear the conversations. I felt very uncomfortable the whole time and did not make any friends because I did not want to engage in these conversations, but I conducted myself as a professional and at least my bosses took notice. It is a very tough situation that challenges us to stand up for our values.

(4) Yardenah Cohen, March 10, 2005 12:00 AM

Dear Aish,

Your message nr. 187, is one of greater importance than recognized at
first glance.
I speak from experience, as the female group I worked with 10 years
ago, had only one
reason to do their job: the other sexe. The work itself couldnot catch
their interest at all.

During 2 years time I have been almost smashed by this group, they also
forced me to once-a-month "update conversations"
with the manager because 'the group said I didnot fit in with them' of
which was proud and which by itself was very true.
I told the manager what I thought of the daily talks of the ladies and
that I rejected such behavior , which he agreed with.
I refused to leave the job before my time had come.
And when my time came to leave this job, the group was perplexed
because I was getting a lot of
support of male colleagues to start that own business that I had in

If you are in such a situation, don't let go, go your own way, there
will always be a good place for you in this

Regards and shalom,

Yardenah Cohen
The Netherlands

(3) Keith, March 9, 2005 12:00 AM

The Nature of Men

The previous visitor, Rina, clearly does not understand men. At the gym, if a beautiful woman in skimpy, tight-fitting clothes is working out, it would be absolutely impossible for any straight man not to notice and even be momentarily distracted from whatever he's doing. We may be working out and minding our own business, but we are usually very aware of the women in the gym. Not that I'm complaining...

(2) Anonymous, March 7, 2005 12:00 AM

People need to behave like adults.

Funny, I go to a coed gym (actually, two different gyms) where the clothes are far more revealing than in any legitimate workplace, yet we mind our business and work out without problems. Men do not leer at the women and we do not stare at the men. We talk together as fellow fitness buffs...that is all. No one should wear inappropriate clothing to work but that is not really the issue. Men and women at work should concentrate on work and conversation apart from that which deals with business topics should be friendly but uninvasive. If someone begins a conversation that is uncomfortable for you, say so. I have done this...and it was another woman who was being inappropriate, not a man. Men and women can work together without problems.

(1) Rina, March 6, 2005 12:00 AM

Even if the questioner is single - things like these can wreck the hope for a decent marriage in the future.

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment