Can't You Take A Compliment?

WMFDP Founder: Jo Ann Morris

"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?
Posted by Raina Lipsitz on Oct 15, 2012 5:20 PM America/New_York

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I have never experienced that à woman have been offended, when offering à compliment. Is this an american problem or am I unaware of this problem?
  • Posted Sat 20 Oct 2012 02:25 AM EDT
Interesting… I’m not sure whether this is an American issue or not. I would tend to think that it is more an individual thing, than a national/cultural one – though of course we are all shaped by our cultures. My first thought when reading this was a line from Frank McCloskey’s newest blog ‘Messages to Sons’ which says, “Know what you don’t know. Men are oblivious of what is going on inside other people. Make a concerted effort to concentrate on women’s sensitivities by asking questions and then LISTENING.” And listening can come in more than one form. That is to say, when you compliment a woman and she says ‘thank you’ her intonation and body language might say a lot more than those two words would imply. I don’t think there is anything wrong with offering a genuine and well-intentioned compliment – but if you are concerned as to how it will be perceived, it can’t hurt to ask, or at the very least, observe.
  • Posted Mon 22 Oct 2012 05:00 PM EDT
Alix's point is well-taken, and I agree with her that this is probably more of an individual than a national issue. As Jo Ann Morris so eloquently points out, content and context are two things that really matter in this situation. A crude remark is unlikely to be welcomed by anyone, whereas "What a lovely scarf!" is unlikely to cause offense. Likewise, a compliment dispensed between two colleagues in a relatively informal setting--while chatting in the coffee room, for example--might be better received than an ill-timed, public comment that draws unwanted attention to its recipient's figure/clothes/looks. As both Jo Ann and Alix point out, it's always a good idea to pay attention to how the other person responds.

We Americans don't want to live up to the stereotypical idea that we are humorless and puritanical anymore than most Frenchmen want to conform to the stereotype of them as lascivious and predatory. Though it is perhaps the case that every stereotype contains a tiny grain of truth :-).
  • Posted Mon 22 Oct 2012 05:52 PM EDT
I appreciate Jo Ann's point-blank advice. I think it boils down to something very simple: consider the context, and think before you speak! As someone who sometimes speaks first, then thinks later, this advice is very well taken. As for complimenting a female colleague's appearance, I agree this is a complex area... I think sticking to complimenting things like hair, shoes, and accessories is safer than complimenting a woman's blouse or skirt. Common sense guys!
  • Posted Thu 25 Oct 2012 01:35 PM EDT



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