Biff America: Is a compliment a crime?
Obviously, Kirsten wasn’t used to being spoken to in that manner; in retrospect, perhaps I should have kept silent.
We are both employed by a media network out of Denver, her on a career track, me as contract labor; you might say she is my boss.
We work together once or twice a year and have for almost a decade. Though our relationship is strictly professional, I do know a fair amount about her. She is married, has kids and went back to school to get her masters degree and is still taking courses towards whatever comes after a masters. She is known as a no nonsense type and can be perceived as a little aloof. I have gotten along with her maybe because I’ve never tried to be her buddy and since my job is part time I was less worried about losing it.
It had been about six months since we last worked together. When Kirsten walked into the studio I almost didn’t recognized her. The change was dramatic. It is not that she was ever unattractive but on that day she appeared especially vibrant, healthy, and I’d even say, particularly happy.
Unfortunately I made my comment in front of several witnesses. As I said, it was more instinct than intentional but by the reaction of all those present, I knew I had made them uncomfortable. Before Kirsten could respond, all made excuses to leave the room.
My crime was, after shaking her hand, to say, “Hey, Kirsten, nice to see you again.” After making a little small talk I added, “I have to tell you, you look really great.”
As soon as I said it I felt embarrassed. Other than her once insisting that I put on one of those stupid golf shirts when I hosted a segment from an up-scale country club, we had never commented on each other’s appearance. I had a sudden realization that in her world it wasn’t proper for a subordinate to compliment a boss.
With the new heightened sensitivity of sexual harassment in the workplace, it is best to keep your compliments to yourself. For instance I can say to my male co-worker Dick, “Hey man, you’re looking fit. Have you been working out?” But saying the same thing to a co-worker of the opposite sex would be improper. In the mountains things are a little looser. Many of your work mates are also your friends who have no hesitation to tell you if you are out of line, or better yet, can take a kind word.
After my outburst, the tension was palpable. Kirsten quickly looked around the room as if to see if anyone was listening. When she looked back at me she was blushing. “Thanks, I’ve quit smoking, have been trying to eat better and exercise more, I’ve even got my husband on the same program. I feel wonderful, but no one here seems to notice.”
My embarrassment turned to shock. Here was this brilliant woman with so much to be proud of all atwitter over a compliment of her appearance. Looking over her shoulder again, she said, “You look good, too.”
I knew I looked just about the same as the last time we met, although six months older. She was just embarrassed that she had let her guard down. To ease the tension I said, “Thanks, I’ve switched to low-cal whisky.” We both laughed and the wall was up once again.
While driving home I reflected on the exchange. I could have told that 40-something career woman that she was brilliant, successful, hardworking, a good mother and she might have been grateful for the acknowledgement of her strengths but mostly shrugged it off, but when I told her — with no ulterior motives — that she was attractive, it seemed to make her day.
My words, in most work settings, would be grounds for reprimand or dismissal. I’m okay with that. There has been too much work place abuse, most of it directed towards female coworkers, that some overkill in the other direction is warranted. But hopefully this doesn’t get us out of the habit of offering honest observations of the qualities of those around us, both in and out of the work place. You can tell a co-worker they are doing a good job, a mate that you wouldn’t change a thing, a friend that they look particularly happy or attractive, and a neighbor that their garden is spectacular. It doesn’t cost you anything, often makes you feel as good as the person you compliment, and best of all, if it doesn’t get you fired, you often get the obligatory compliment back. And if anyone out there wants to tell me I look hot, go ahead. I promise I won’t feel harassed.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be seen on TV-8-Summit and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at email@example.com.