"When in doubt, don't stop yourself from offering a compliment. But why not pause to ask yourself what your colleague’s potential response might be first?"
This week on Ask a Woman
, we’ve asked our guest expert to answer a question many men still struggle with: what’s okay to say to women at work?
Here to help with a thoughtful and intelligent answer is Jo Ann Morris, an executive coach and organization change consultant and a co-founder of and Partner in White Men as Full Diversity Partners
. Ms. Morris is instrumental in developing cutting-edge leadership, organization, and culture development consulting services that transform business partnerships among white men, non-white women, white women, and men of different nationalities who work in the United States and Europe. She believes that building intercultural competency is a crucial skill at all levels of an organization, regardless of its services and product offerings.
We are grateful to her for sharing her expert opinion on this sticky subject.
Are women really offended when you compliment them on their appearance? I would never say anything crude, but I was raised to think women appreciate it when you notice an article of clothing or a new pair of earrings.
My first reaction to this question was, “Really?” That response caused me to ask this question of my women colleagues and friends. Their responses were similar, as if the very question were somehow too basic; they seemed to think that there were more important questions men could raise. The common nature of this reaction indicated that this is indeed a crucial question, as are others like it. This question belongs to a category I call "male confusion generators."
I can guarantee that thoughtful men with good intentions can ask this question of many women and get many different answers. There are no uncomplicated answers to questions about how men should frame compliments on a woman's apparel, jewelry, hairstyle, etc.—especially in the workplace. I could answer that women (some of us) are not offended—especially when we know it is just
a sincere compliment and nothing more.
I could answer that women (some of us) are
offended by men's compliments. To leave it there would be too simple and the answer to this question is far from simple. Questions like these carry the potential to cause confusion in men who really want to know the answer—and their confusion may prevent them from asking.
Take some time to consider the following before complimenting a woman colleague:
Consider the Context: Where are you and who are you with besides the woman you want to compliment?
Consider the Relationship: Is it between colleagues of roughly equal power or between friends? Is the woman your manager or your direct report? Think about the position in which your compliment might unintentionally put the woman in question.
Consider how women's bodies/ looks/ages have been politicized: Might the content of your compliment set off an internal alarm for its intended recipient?
When in doubt, don't stop yourself from offering a compliment. But why not pause to ask yourself what your colleague’s potential response might be first?