How not to compliment a woman

business man and woman
It is the year 2018. Women are increasingly vocal about how they want to be treated. The #MeToo movement is still going strong. We see small victories for women in the media, though not as pronounced as we would like it to be. And yet, so many men are still confused over how they should treat women, especially in the workplace.

Today I want to focus on compliments. I have been thinking about this for a while, partly based on my own experience and partly based on the incident during the FIFA World Cup on Sunday when ITV pundit Patrice Evra behaved very patronisingly towards his fellow pundit Eni Aluko. Evra applauded Aluko’s analysis of play a few times, commenting “That’s very good.” There was some (mild) criticism of his behaviour, which he justified by saying “I was complimenting her.”

This is a common defense I hear from a lot of men who get either angry or confused when a woman doesn’t like their comment. “It was a compliment” is supposed to make everything better. We are then supposed to thank said man for his gracious compliment. But guess what? A bad compliment is almost worse than insult. And you know what is even worse? A patronising insult.

Don’t be patronising

I get my fair share of patronising insults at work. I am good at my job. I have a professional qualification and I have worked in my field for about 20 years. Nothing infuriates me more than a man telling me “well done” when I simply do my job. The job I am qualified to do. Of course I do it well. I have professional standards. Telling someone “good job” or “well done” when they simply do the work they are being paid for is patronising. Thank or compliment me when I go above or beyond what is expected from me. Don’t pat me on the head like a small child when I do my regular job. But the funny thing is, when I do go above and beyond, I don’t hear a word from my male superiors. Then all of a sudden it is quiet in the office.
business partners in meeting
The funny thing is, you never hear men “complimenting” other men like that. The reason why women were critical of Evra applauding Aluko’s analysis was because he would have never done that with a male colleague. Look at panels with male pundits: they all offer their analysis and they may agree with each other (“good point”), but they won’t compliment each other for what they are there to do. Their job. A good analysis of the play of a certain team.

Paying women patronising compliments comes from a prejudice against women. Women aren’t thought of as being competent, and good at their job. When men compliment women on merely doing their job, they show their surprise at finding out that a woman can actually do a good job. And this turns the compliment into an insult. “Well done” then means “look at you, I can’t believe you can actually do your job”. It’s insulting and it has to stop.

Don’t be personal

Apart from being patronising, please also avoid personal compliments in the office. Or really anywhere else, unless you really know the person well. I hate it when people compliment me on my looks, or my body. “You look healthy” is a hideous compliment (what does that even mean?) and “you look hot” is something I only want to hear my husband tell me. Even “you look good” is a subjective statement, albeit not as jarring.

I would much rather prefer if you complimented something I have control over. My body is weird and I can be very bloated one day and look a lot slimmer the next day. Compliments such as “you look healthy” just remind me that there are days I am very bloated and I don’t look healthy. Without having any control over that fact. I can’t control how much I sleep at night or the level of stress which may contribute to shadows underneath my eyes.

What I can control is the colour of my hair, the choice of my outfit, my shoes. Tell me you love my purple hair (and trust me, I love it when strangers tell me this even though I don’t really like talking to strangers), or that you like my shoes or my clothes. I have a choice with those things. I went out and bought those shoes. I spent time to dye my hair purple. I picked out that outfit. Those are the types of compliments that make me feel good. (On the other hand, if you don’t like my outfit, just don’t say anything. I’d rather not hear your negative opinion of me.

what it ultimately boils down to is respect. Let’s all just respect each other, treat each other as equals and compliment each other from a place of respect with the intention of making the other person feel good.


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