When is it appropriate to compliment a woman on her appearance?

by | Jul 21, 2017

Would you compliment a woman on her appearance?

Has the political correctness pendulum swung too far when we are reluctant to compliment a woman on her appearance? Or are we finally setting strict limits about what is acceptable and what is not?

Times they are a-changing and one of the cultural shifts has been around when (and even whether) is it appropriate to compliment a woman on her appearance. Donald Trump barely waits to draw breath between faux pas. One of his latest gaffs was a comment to Madame Macron, First Lady of France:

You're in such good shape...beautiful"

This produced a veritable flurry of social media activity with Reebok stepping into provide some useful guidelines with the flow chart below.

The perceived wisdom is that unless you are referring to a "forgotten action figure" there is no scenario where it is ever acceptable.

But was it an unfortunate patronising choice of language related to Mme Macron's "good shape" for her age? Or that Trump has a well documented history of being a sexual predator that we took such exception to his comment?  But no doubt, it is no longer culturally acceptable to comment on a woman's appearance under most circumstances  There are some who would see this a political correctness gone mad and lament the passing of days gone by when a gentleman could compliment a woman on her appearance in a courteous way without a formal complaint to HR. But in the same way as we no longer can smoke in offices or drink and drive, we have moved on. Different generations now have different expectations.  This is not just about workplace protocols, but social expectations too.

Read: The worrying normalisation of misogyny

Changing protocols

Margaret Passmore, a 34-year-old Marketing Director based in Singapore said:

It is absolutely out of order to reference a woman's appearance in any way, shape or form in any context. It is most definitely no longer appropriate for men to compliment a woman on her appearance in the workplace. Even socially it would not be acceptable, in anything other than an intimate relationship. It can be a family member or close friend, or someone who already has a romantic relationship with you. Even from someone looking for a date it would seem cheesy. It will come over as creepy and would make many women feel uncomfortable.

Workplace etiquette

We spend a huge amount of time in the workplace, more so probably than with our friends and family. Authentic and meaningful relationships are key and it's important to find a balance otherwise the office would become very dull. So in some ways we can't ignore people's appearances. The issue is that women for generations have been judged solely on their looks and are subject to high levels of sexual harassment. Women are now rebelling about being objectified in this way.

In turn women are also reluctant to compliment their male co-workers in case it is perceived as a sexual advance. Maragret amplified:

Telling a man he has a great tie, doesn't mean that you want a relationship with him. But many see this as a flirtatious signal of romantic or even sexual interest.

But is it sad that in order to save ourselves from the co-workers who glue their gaze to our boobs or pinch our bums, we are possibly now cutting ourselves off from genuine compliments? Pyschology Today lists the many benefits of receiving compliments. The recognition gives us a nice endorphin boost. Professor Norihiro Sadato, the study lead and professor at the National Institute for Physiological Sciences in Japan,  in an article in Forbes suggests that:

To the brain, receiving a compliment is as much a social reward as being rewarded money.

Read: Flirting in the office. Strictly taboo or inevitable.

But here's a thought. It could be that when a male co-worker compliments your shoes, it doesn't necessarily mean that he has reduced you to a sex object. You are still a competent professional, but with great shoes. Even Barack Obama, a highly regarded feminist, got himself into hot water  in 2013, when he called Kamala Harris "by far the best looking attorney general in the country."

The unasked question is of course, would we introduce Barack Obama as "a good-looking  ex-President?"

And this is where the rub lies. Probably not. So all compliments for women should be around competence and talent and not appearance. That is the only way to give those endorphins a boost. Perhaps with the passage of time we will find a balance.

What do you think?

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