Once I complimented an intern on her haircut. From behind me, a male coworker commented, “I was going to say that but I didn’t want to seem creepy, what with #MeToo and all.” He figured that this intern would hear “nice haircut” and think “assault.” We teased him about it, and he doubled down: “I didn’t want to make anyone feel like I was looking at them!”
Pretty much every man’s greatest fear is coming off creepy or turning into his father or whatever. But for the vast majority of normal guys, the worst charge you could throw at them is that they’re creeping someone out. It’s a healthy fear, considering the world today and how many men are behaving inappropriately. Even small acts performed with good intentions can come across poorly, and it can be difficult to navigate what is and is not appropriate. A compliment in the workplace can easily cross lines, so here are some tips to help you stay in the compliment safe zone:
Don’t make it about you
The first defense against accidental creeping is taking the word “I” out of your compliment. Even the most innocuous compliments adopt sexual undertones when they start with “I.” Centering the compliment around how you feel carries with it a suggestion that you think the woman you’re complimenting is doing what she’s doing – whether it’s wearing a cute top or wearing a little bit more makeup today – for you. “I” compliments are unsettling because it sounds like you’re telling us that what we’re doing suits your sexual appetites. “I love that shirt” feels like you’re thinking naughty things about what’s under the shirt, while “that shirt is awesome” is much safer. G-chatting someone, “I loved it when so spoke up in that meeting, so feisty!” is creepy. “You made a great point about the budget in there” is nice.
Never call a woman “feisty”
This is self-evident.
Don’t comment on women’s bodies
This, too, should be obvious, but you should never compliment a specific body part. I can think of very few things creepier than hearing “you have such great legs” at work. Specific body part compliments are only for people you’re dating or sleeping with. With the exception of dramatic hair changes (“you got a haircut!” will suffice), you should never comment on someone’s body. Even “you look great!” and “did you lose weight?” are deadly. I know “you look great” seems innocuous, but it often comes off as “I would sleep with you.” As for weight: Never mention it. It’s not your business. You have no idea why a woman lost weight. Perhaps she has emotional issues with it. Perhaps she doesn’t even want to be losing weight. You also don’t need to tell someone how well their clothes suit their body. It doesn’t matter if that dress is flattering; we’re at work, we’re not dating. You can tell a woman her clothes are cool without veering into “your jeans always fit you so well” territory.
Stick to professional merits
In general, we tend to neglect non-appearance-based compliments. One positive comment about a woman’s work will go a long way towards making you seem less horny. Most of your compliments should be not about appearance: I would aim for a good 90/10 split with only 10 percent of your compliments being about how someone looks or what they’re wearing. What’s left, you may ask? Well, you do work with this woman, right? “You killed it in that meeting” is a safe option. If you feel awkward delivering unsolicited work praise (you shouldn’t) try framing your compliments as thank-yous. “Thanks for catching my mistake in the third paragraph, your stuff always looks so polished.” Just be careful not to sound surprised that she’s good at her job, though. Exclaiming, “Wow, what you said was so smart!” is a bad look.
You don’t need to do it
Unless you’re in a feelings circle and everyone is required to say one nice thing about the person to their left or whatever, giving a compliment is never mandatory. It seems like somewhere along the way, a lot of men confused being decent to women with complimenting us, and I worry it has become a compulsive tic. So I’m telling you now: You don’t have to say every compliment that comes to you. Especially if you’re concerned that you’re toeing a creeper line, just shut it down. No one needs to hear your opinion on anything unless someone is about to cut a wire to dismantle a bomb and you are the only one who knows which wire is correct. Most opinions (and your compliments are, fundamentally, your opinion) can stay in your head. Ultimately, understand that a lot of women you work with simply might not care what you think about their new shoes. No woman I know, despite the myth that persists, is upset that she’s not getting more compliments.
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