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How long can you stare at a coworker without being creepy?

Unsplash/Soroush Karimi
I see you.
By Leah Fessler
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Take a second—no, make that five seconds—and stare at anyone (or anything) for that whole time. Count ’em out: one, two, three, four, five.

I just did so, staring at a colleague from behind my laptop. He didn’t notice, though I feel quite strange that I did it. I also want to ask him where he got his T-shirt. And his tattoo is cool. I should not say any of these thoughts out loud, because that might be weird.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this exercise, I know I did. And I’ll never do it again—and neither should you.

Why? Because according to the advice circulating among employees of Netflix, staring at a coworker for five seconds or more is creepy. In fact, it could be perceived as sexual harassment.

What about four seconds? Or 4.9 seconds? Who counts how long they stare at people, in seconds, besides maybe a serial killer? How do you recall exactly how many seconds you stared at someone? Do work crushes count? What about office dogs?

These are all valid questions. Netflix does not have answers for them.

The American entertainment company’s alleged “five-second staring rule” was first reported by The Sun, a news tabloid published in the UK and Ireland, and later by Independent. According to The Sun’s report, an on-set show runner for the hit sci-fi series Black Mirror, which Netflix owns, told the paper that everyone at Netflix was spoken to by senior management and HR about #MeToo.

“Senior staff went to a harassment meeting to learn what is and isn’t appropriate. Looking at anyone longer than five seconds is considered creepy,” the show runner reportedly said. “You mustn’t ask for someone’s number unless they have given permission for it to be distributed. And if you see any unwanted behavior, report it immediately.”

Staff also were told to avoid lingering hugs, or asking people out more than once, The Sun reports.

According to the show runner quoted by The Sun, being told that it’s creepy to stare for more than five seconds has “sparked jokes” among Netflix employees, “with people looking at each other, counting to five, then diverting their eyes.”

Quartz reached out to Netflix to confirm whether the company, one of the most powerful new forces in Hollywood, had truly adopted a “no staring for more than five seconds rule.” A spokeswoman clarified there is no such “rule” at Netflix. However, she confirms that the recommendation was, in fact, discussed in an anti-harassment training session, though it’s not an official guideline.

On the whole, it is good advice. Netflix employees, employees everywhere: Stare with caution. Better yet, don’t stare at all.

Still, it’s worth interrogating why such suggestions are part of sexual-harassment trainings in the first place.

Well-intentioned as they may be, such exceedingly specific recommendations trivialize the root causes for sexual harassment, and add little to no educative value, as demonstrated by the Netflix employees who reportedly turned the five-second rule into a stare-off joke.

According to Netflix’s representatives, this mockery is exactly what their training hopes to curtail. “We’re proud of the anti-harassment training we offer to our productions. We want every Netflix production to be a safe and respectful working environment,” Netflix tells Quartz. “We believe the resources we offer empower people on our sets to speak up, and shouldn’t be trivialized.”

Empowering people to raise harassment complaints is one thing. But it will take a lot more than workplace training to dismantle the patriarchal societal structures that still give some men the impression that they are entitled to violate the boundaries and bodies of women. Their actions may not be malicious in intent, but they’re still volitional, and conscious.

Sexual harassers don’t stare—or massage, or grab, or misspeak—because they didn’t know any better. And imposing arbitrary regulations—like how long to stare at colleagues, or whether you can compliment their hair, or how firmly you can pat them on the back—doesn’t teach sexual harassers why they shouldn’t sexually harass.

The truth is there’s no time limit to stare before you become creepy. Instead of pondering the answer to this riddle, companies—especially those in Hollywood, ground zero for the behavior that sparked the #MeToo movement—would be better off educating employees about the implicit gender biases and privileges driving sexual harassment, and encouraging honest, openminded dialogue about how to counter them.

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