Does Flattery Get You Somewhre or Get You in Trouble?

Since the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas sexual harassment controversy, we've noticed males in the workplace have become reluctant to compliment women on their appearance. Women, too, seem less likely to compliment men in a personal way. Is there a right and wrong way to tell a co-worker he or she looks terrific? When do we feel someone has gone too far with a comment about our appearance? And what sort of comment do we welcome?

SHE: There's a man in my office, a superior, who always used to tell me I looked great in a new outfit or that he liked a color I was wearing, that kind of thing. Nothing suggestive. Then along came Thomas-Hill. He's said zilch since. I miss the feedback. What's the problem? I can't imagine myself filing a sexual harassment suit over him saying something positive about my appearance.

HE: But maybe he can. I remember reading an Ellen Goodman column that appeared soon after the Thomas-Hill hearings. In it she said that one message men could be expected to get as a result of the proliferation of sensational sexual harassment suits was: Women are dangerous.

I might think what I said or did was harmless; she might haul me into court.

The reaction--or, rather, overreaction--among many men was to clam up entirely. "Why should I take even the slightest chance of buying myself a world of trouble?" they asked themselves.

Excessive? Sure. But I can guarantee you that for a while there, even the most easygoing guy was getting the creeps.

SHE: I did a little informal poll of women around our workplace, asking them what kind of compliment they would happily accept from a male co-worker. They all said it depends .

On the one hand, they said, a comment like "Love your sexy suit" would be a turnoff. "That might be considered a come on," said one executive. And maybe a basis for a sexual harassment suit. On the other hand, all of the women said they'd welcome comments such as: "Cool suit," "You look great in that suit," "That suit is wonderful," or "Love your suit."

One even said she wouldn't mind the "sexy suit" comment if it came from someone she knew real well, someone whom she "had a kind of banter relationship with."

HE: That drum roll you hear is the sound of thousands of guys pounding their heads on their desktops. "Love your sexy suit" is an actionable offense?

That sort of thing just reinforces the workplace as a gender-based minefield. It shouldn't be that way. Your compliment ought to be fairly pristine and generic if you don't know the person well. But let's face it, we all dress at one time or another to look sexy, if not necessarily overtly so. To remove all reference, among friends, to the mutual attraction of men and women simply because somebody might be itching to subpoena you is tragic.

SHE: The women seemed to think "sexy suit" was a generally inappropriate remark for the workplace. Just because we look sexy doesn't mean men have to tell us we do. Why should men take a chance? With your concern about dangerous women I'd think you'd be happy to just toss a "cool suit!" our way. Or are asexual compliments just not worth sending?

HE: Not at all. Everybody likes a compliment, even if it's as neutered as my cat. But you're assuming that men can't be sexually subtle.

You don't have to drool and be salacious and send a woman sprinting to her Rolodex for her lawyer's number if you want to convey to her not only that she looks good but that she looks a little better than good. Hell, my car looks good.

No, a man ought to be able to compliment a woman with a certain proper detachment but with the understanding that he is pleased as a man and not simply a disinterested observer. Tell me how to do this and we can all get rich and go on the talk show circuit.

SHE: I think women know that when a man takes the time to compliment her, it's because he thinks she looks better than good. What do you like to hear from a woman about your appearance?

HE: "You don't look nearly as bad today as you did yesterday" is a big fave of mine.

Actually, I think men like to be complimented in much the same way women do: spontaneously, sincerely and in a friendly manner that isn't entirely devoid of sexual awareness. Otherwise, a woman might as well tell him she likes his briefcase.

SHE: All actions are based on motive, and we know people hope to receive something from the compliments they give. Maybe they're looking for attention, approval or compliments themselves.

Men and women only get into trouble, sexual-harassment wise, when we use remarks to gain sexual power over others. Do you see yourself ever filing a sexual-harassment suit against a superior if she made suggestive remarks?

HE: If remarks were all there was to it, I'd dismiss it as bad judgment on her part and tell her so. The end. If she threatened my employment or my standing in the organization, I'd threaten to go to her superior. Only in the most extreme, untenable situation would I start thinking about going to court. I see this situation as rare, though. Cool suit, by the way.

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