There are times when compliments are nice. An appreciative remark about a new hairdo from someone you know and like, can, for a brief moment, make you walk just that little bit taller. But there are other times when a compliment can put a dent in your day. In the wrong environment, it can be undermining and embarrassing – the very opposite of nice.
It happened to me last year when a male colleague told me I looked well, which sounds innocuous enough but what he actually said, in a small office in which we were alone, was, “Wow, you look well. Really well. Seriously, you look great,” while giving me the up and down with his eyes, at which point my discomfort was such that I was ready to throw myself out of the window. And yet there he was, in his cack-handed way, trying to pay me a compliment.
In the case of Charlotte Proudman, the barrister who publicly called out a senior lawyer, Alexander Carter-Silk, after he messaged her on LinkedIn commenting on her “stunning” profile picture, the feelings prompted were probably less to do with actual discomfort than annoyance (this isn’t the first time a colleague has commented on her physical attributes).
Proudman has since been monstered on social media and by a national newspaper which, in judging her response to Carter-Silk to be disproportionate, provided its own very measured reaction by calling her a “feminazi” on the front page two days running.
So when, if ever, is it OK to compliment a colleague? There are occasions when it wouldn’t seem unreasonable – the office fancy-dress party when they arrive in Lady Gaga’s meat dress, say. Happily, society has moved on since the days when men could stare down a secretary’s cleavage or request with impunity that they bend over and pick up pencils off the floor, and it’s for this reason that personal comments in the workplace are generally frowned upon. This is called progress.
And yet, in these relatively enlightened times, women are still objectified, marginalised and disrespected in the office (just read the chapter on working women in Laura Bates’s Everyday Sexism), a place where many must also endure the insult of being paid less than male counterparts.
Holding fire on personal comments is about equality, but it’s also about not being an idiot – something, of course, to be heeded by women as much as men. I met my husband years ago while working in the offices of this newspaper and he never once sent me leering emails or sidled up to me next to the photocopier to comment on my looks, because that would have been gross and it would have been impossible to become friends, let alone anything more, under such circumstances.
Like all human interaction, it’s about context and power. Compliments can be lovely but there’s a time and a place for them. The workplace is neither.
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