Hey there, cats and kittens! Welcome to another installment of “Knock Knock. Who Is There? The Advice Columnist. The Advice Columnist Who? The Advice Columnist With A Gun So Don’t Get Cute.” In this week’s episode, we have two questions: the first was sent to the New York Times SocialQs column, and the second was sent directly to Calm Down. If you have questions for us, please email email@example.com.
To Compliment A Neighbor On Their Looks
I bumped into a neighbor in the lobby of our building. I hadn’t seen her for a while, but it was obvious she had undergone extensive cosmetic surgery. Not to be judgmental, but I can’t imagine she thinks no one notices. I felt uncomfortable having a conversation without first addressing the elephant on her face. And it seemed disingenuous to say: “You look wonderful! What have you done?” How would you handle this?
The New York Times answer here is very judgmental:
“Cards on the table: I am appalled by your question,” the columnist writes. “By your own account, this woman is an acquaintance whom you bump into occasionally, not a close friend. Why on earth do you feel entitled to comment on her appearance, much less claim that it’s a prerequisite to other conversation?”
Unless neighbors ask you specifically about their changed appearance, say nothing. As for conversation starters, go anodyne: “I haven’t seen you in ages! How are you?” Our acquaintances know if they’ve had cosmetic surgery. They don’t need us to tell them.
This is so dumb lol. If you bump into someone you know and realize that they look totally different for the better, it is absolutely fine to congratulate them on it! They got the surgery for a reason, after all.
You shouldn’t be weird about it or creepy but saying, “Wow, you look great” is actually a compliment. People like receiving compliments.
There are situations where men giving compliments to women on their physical appearance can be creepy. Catcalling is a good example. But the social prohibition on catcalling has led to a sort of moral panic about complimenting people on their physical appearance at all, which is insane! Physical appearance isn’t the most important thing in the world, but it does take up a lot of our psychic space. It’s why calling someone ugly is such an effective insult. It hurts anyone’s feelings. Hitler and Stalin would be brought to tears by the right insults to their appearance.
Similarly, complimenting their appearance is something everyone loves so long as it doesn’t feel like you’re hitting on them.
The strange part of the question to me is “it seemed disingenuous to say: “You look wonderful! What have you done?” Why? Because you know she had plastic surgery? It seems like you think plastic surgery is something people should be ashamed of. I don’t think that’s true, but maybe she does feel that way. The obvious answer is to just say, “You look wonderful,” and leave it at that.
The biggest problem for the letter-writer is that they seem like someone who struggles mightily with extemporaneous conversations. Like, whether or not you lend voice to the thought that the person looks better than they had before, it shouldn’t derail your entire conversation. And it shouldn’t haunt you days later to the extent that you need to write to an advice columnist about it.
You are imbuing your compliment with too much meaning. You will not make your neighbor’s day. You will also not ruin it. If you earnestly thought she looked better, then it is totally fine and good to share that compliment with her because that’s how natural conversations flow. If you didn’t say it for whatever reason, that’s fine too. Just move on.
Not every moment of every social interaction is worth panicking about. Calm down.
On Confessing To Adultery
Dear Calm Down,
I have been married for six years. I love my wife, but a few months ago we were going through a rough patch and I had an affair with a woman I met through work. It wasn’t serious. It only happened a few times. I ended it because I came to my senses. It will truly never happen again. My wife does not know about this and recently, our relationship has improved. We’re getting along like we used to. We’re sleeping together more. (During the rough patch we went months without making love.) But I feel bad about the affair and I feel a moral obligation to tell her. I think the reason I haven’t is that I’m a coward, but when I recognize I am being a coward about something, I force myself to do it. Should I bite the bullet and admit my mistake?
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