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Compliment or creepy comment?

Social media was recently ablaze with reports and opinions about Donald Trump’s “creepy comment” to Brigitte Macron (wife of French President Emmanuel Macron) about being “in such good shape.”

The main issue that most commentators had was that the compliment somehow insinuated that the “looking good” bit came with the unspoken addendum, “for her age.”

I found that a bit much coming from a media that itself has placed unnecessary focus on the age gap between Mme. Macron and her husband, apart from focussing on the tidbit that she was once his teacher. But I digress.

I could play the devil’s advocate and argue that maybe, just maybe, Mr. Trump only meant to make small talk. However his litany of misogynistic remarks about female journalists and television hosts does not work in his favor.

To me, however, this debacle casts the spotlight on the minefield that is compliment-giving. When is it appropriate to comment on someone’s looks? And how does one pay a compliment without sounding creepy?

I would think that when it involves high level diplomacy, it’s best to stay away from anything too personal or familiar no matter how well meaning you want to be. I mean, can you imagine someone remarking to the queen, “You’re still pretty spry!”

That doesn’t of course mean that we all should just behave mechanically in our daily dealings and only discuss the traffic and weather. A well-phrased compliment can totally make someone’s day, bolster relationships, and engender an all-round feeling of goodwill.

I enjoy complimenting people when the occasion calls for it, be it for an intricate piece of jewelry, a great haircut, or an eye-catching outfit. Conversely, I also enjoy receiving compliments and, frankly, whenever I’m told I don’t look my age, I graciously accept it (and inwardly rejoice). If I know the person well, I jokingly offer to buy them a drink.

However the art of compliment-giving and receiving depends very much on relationship, context, and cultural norms.

I definitely would gag if “compliments” came from some random ogler that I walked past on the street. There’s a name for that and it’s called harassment. Ditto comments from someone who’s already infamous for distasteful remarks about people’s faces, body types or general anatomy.

If, however, I’m told something nice by a colleague or by a new acquaintance during small talk in a congenial social setting, then I am more likely to accept it as a compliment.

Choice of words and body language are also crucial. If the compliment were something generally airy that did not pointedly refer to any bits of my anatomy, I’d take it in positive light. If, however, I didn’t know you from Adam and you suddenly told me I was “in good shape” while appraising me as if I were a racehorse on sale, it would indeed make my skin crawl.

And since this world is made up of diverse cultures, it bodes well to hold back first and get a sense of the local norms about what’s kosher and non-kosher before piling on the praise. Some cultures may frown on you being too familiar; others may be more laissez-faire.

When all else fails, there’s always a failsafe fallback: keep your opinions to yourself. For in some cases, it may be infinitely better not to compliment than to risk being branded as creepy.


Author: Brenda Haas

Editor: Anne Thomas




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18.07.2017 | 15:19