Tech & Work

Men and women in the office: Are compliments taboo?

After President Obama lists physical appearance as one of the attributes of a female attorney general, compliments on the job are again scrutinized.

In April, President Obama, when introducing California's Kamala Harris at a Democratic fundraiser, referred to her as brilliant, dedicated, tough and "by far, the best looking attorney general in the country."

Many people, even long-time supporters of the President, were dismayed by the comment. Would he have said that about a male fundraiser? And if so, why should physical appearance ever be listed with personality qualities when speaking about qualifications for a job?

It's not the first time a woman in the political public eye, even peripherally so, has been overshadowed by shallow observations about her appearance. Witness the recent ado over Michelle Obama's bangs. (Seriously, Google "Michelle Obama's bangs," and see the results you get.)

But I digress. A TechRepublic member forwarded me this piece from the AP that asks, "Is it ever OK to compliment appearance on the job?"

It's a good question.

I've heard from guys in IT who lament that it seems like everything they say is wrong and so they don't say anything. I understand the frustration. And I guess if you're that unsure of how a comment will be taken, it's best not to say anything except "good morning." Maybe guys should run a planned comment through their heads quickly and ask "Would I say this/ask this of another guy?" If not, then that gives you a good indicator.

A piece on Slate called How Not To Be An Overt Sexist, states:

"It is probably best to keep your opinion on both the woman in question's sartorial choices and on her general attractiveness to yourself. This is true whether or not you consider her attributes adequate to satisfy your sexual desires."

It's kind of strange. Being the youngest child and only girl in a family of three brothers, there's not much that gets to me. My brothers teased me mercilessly, ignored me, and sometimes used me as a human basketball, and I learned to give it right back. I don't mind the occasional compliment from a male co-worker like "You look nice today!" But there's something about a brief eye scan from a male co-worker that I find a little creepy (and disappointing). And there's a difference between saying "you look nice" and "those jeans look good on you."  One is a breezy compliment, the other is objectifying.

Of course, the reverse happens too—many women think they can say anything to a male coworker and it's all in good fun. That, of course, is not true. The difference is that men, at least at this juncture politically, generally occupy more positions of power, so their statements are a little more charged.

If this all sounds complicated to some of you, then, as the Slate piece said, it's probably best to go with silence.

So let's hear from you. Guys-how have you handled fears about being misunderstood by female coworkers? Ladies-what kind of comments offend you and which ones don't?

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

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