This WaPo Advice Column About How To Respond To Compliments Is Giving Me A Stroke
Bad letter, bad response.
Welcome to another installment of the Calm Down advice column, where I dispense better advice than the famous advice columnists. Today we are looking at a letter that was sent to the Washington Post’s Miss Manners. The letter and the columnist’s response are both terrible.
Dear Miss Manners: As I begin returning to the office more frequently, I’m increasingly being told “You look great” (or variations thereof) by co-workers and managers I’m seeing for the first time in months or even years. Being told this doesn’t make me uncomfortable, nor does it stroke my ego. But where I get hung up is how to reply!
I don’t normally comment on others’ appearances, especially in the workplace. The thought of saying “You, too” makes me feel uneasy — especially when the person is not the same gender as I am — as it seems similar to telling them that I’m thinking about their appearance. My automatic response ends up just being “Thanks.” (Of course, I don’t end it there; I’ll usually then ask about their life or work and try to catch up.)
For what it’s worth, when I’m in the other person’s shoes, I usually lead with something like, “How have you been?” or “What’s new?” as opposed to “You look good.” I don’t think people ever said this to me before the pandemic, so I don’t recall having this issue during Before Times. So, are there good alternatives to “You too” or “Thanks” in this situation?
After the first paragraph of this letter, I thought, “oh well, this person just doesn’t know how to interact with humans.” But then the second paragraph! You’re actually caught up in some sort of bizarre psychodrama about how complimenting someone’s looks is always bad.
Then the third paragraph reveals that you actually think these coworkers who are giving you these nice compliments (which, notably, don’t make you uncomfortable) are unreconstructed Neanderthals.
And finally, there is this utterly crazy reference to the pandemic maybe being to blame for this. Like, these other people used to know that it’s uncivilized to say, “You look great,” but then they spent a few years WFH, and now they’ve gone mad and are complimenting looks right and left!
(Why do you not remember them complimenting your appearance before the pandemic? Maybe you were less attractive then, or, more likely, you have a terrible memory and it is you who has gone stark-raving mad over the last three years.)
There are times in life when you shouldn’t compliment someone’s looks. You shouldn’t catcall women on the street, for instance. Cat-calling is bad for a number of reasons, but at the most basic level, it is bad because it is men using a woman as a prop in their own play with their friends. You are not whistling at them because you expect to realistically pick her up and go to a motel and screw like rabbits. It’s about engaging in the age-old male bonding ritual of reducing women to meat—and telling them about it.
There are lots of next-level cultural reasons why this behavior is bad for men’s minds and leads to toxic masculinity and stuff that then is bad for women and society, but you don’t need to go that deep. Much closer to the surface is the fact that catcallers are interfering with the lives of the women they whistle at and harass, who are trying to go to work and or walk down the street; the cat-callers are imposing on them their presence and reminding them that for a lot of people they’re just a set of tits.
What is not a reason catcalling is bad is that someone thinks you’re attractive.
Being attractive is nice. It’s certainly superior to being unattractive. If they were value-equal, people would walk around in potato sacks caked in mud. It’s not the only thing that matters, or even the most important, but it is a factor in life.
The entire reason it is generally considered rude to call someone ugly is because our looks matter a great deal to us. Every person who has ever lived has cared about their looks somehow. Maybe they don’t care about it the way I do or the way you do, but they care about it in their own way.
Insulting someone’s appearance is a good way of hurting their feelings because it is such a fraught part of our psyche. And by the same token, complimenting someone’s appearance is a uniquely powerful compliment. It can turn frowns upside down. Not in every situation! Sometimes it is bad. Sometimes it’s a stranger and you don’t want to know what they think. Sometimes it’s a boss and it can make you feel uncomfortable. Sometimes the person giving the compliment is a weirdo and their delivery comes off as patronizing. Sometimes a lot of things.
But sometimes, it’s nice.
Most people get this. Most people spend time on their appearance or watch their weight or try on clothes in the shop to make sure they fit, and they know that in certain situations, they like being told their effort was not a waste. And when they are giving someone else a compliment, they give them the compliment they themselves want.
This is why responding with just “thanks,” or “How was your weekend” or “reading any nice books lately” is such a profoundly mean thing to do.
Maybe you truly don’t give a shit what your coworkers think about your appearance, but they definitely do!
There may be people who, for personal, political, or societal reasons, believe no one should ever comment on their appearance. Maybe those people exist.
But those people are not the people you work with.
You work with people who do not think it is dirty or illicit or problematic to say, “You look nice.” They speak the language. That is the only thing I know about them. Maybe they’re stupid, ugly, embezzling drug-addicts. I don’t know. But from your letter, I know that they like and appreciate aesthetic compliments. It’s a tune that pulls them onto the dance floor.
By not responding, “Thanks, so do you!” you are saying something much worse. You are saying, “Thanks, you don’t.”