There has been a great deal in the news lately regarding sexual harassment. It seems that there isn’t an industry or woman who has been immune to the bad behavior of what we thought were a select few. Is it really a select few though? Or are all men inherently disrespectful and lecherous?
They are not. There are a lot of good men out there who have a healthy respect for women and wouldn’t dream of touching, groping or making explicitly lewd comments. Those same men, however, who respect their wives and co-workers and know that a friendly smack on the tush is anything but friendly, can still be perceived as harassers if they are not careful. This is because there is a very fine line, one getting finer by the day, between paying a compliment and being accused of harassment.
What is the Difference?
The biggest difference between harassment and compliments is intent. If you genuinely want to make someone feel good and understand your appreciation then you are in the compliment arena. Compliments are typically given when trying to establish a connection and a feeling of trust. An expression of appreciation lets someone know when you have noticed their effort and admire what they have done.
There are, however, certain aspects of your appreciation that women may not want to hear.
Compliments regarding appearance for instance, are particularly dicey. As men, we are often taught that women like to hear positive things about their looks. Noticing new hairstyles or a becoming outfit are (were) considered the sign of an attentive man and a positive expression. This is now an area filled with possible pitfalls as it becomes difficult to distinguish between an honest, innocent compliment and a remark that carries more devious undertones.
Harassment has more to do with power and intimidation. While sexual harassment can certainly be directed at men it is most commonly done by men to women. Typically it objectifies a woman and reduces her to body parts and sexuality. It propagates the view that her value lies only in those aspects and dismisses her humanity and other characteristics, particularly her intellectual capabilities.
For the men out there who just feel confused about what you can say and what puts you in the HR zone, let’s clarify.
What Is a Compliment in Today’s Environment?
A good rule of thumb these days is that if you wouldn’t compliment a male co-worker on it, don’t try it with a female co-worker.
Appearance for both men and women is a personal matter. Some put more stock in it than others. However, women in particular, work to ensure that recognition of their merits has nothing to do with what they look like, but what they have achieved. When you notice superficial things about a woman it is best to keep them to yourself.
If you find things admirable and feel compelled to say something, stick to professional achievements. Being recognized for hard work and intelligence is generally well received by women and men alike. And truly, those are the areas that matter.
What Is Off-Limits?
Comments like, “looks like you have been working out” or “have you lost weight?” are open to misinterpretation. They are an open admission that you have been considering the physical attributes of a woman. Women are keenly aware of being objectified and reject heavily the idea that their bodies are to be evaluated the same way an art exhibit may be. And even if you feel like you would say the same things to Joe, when you say them to Jane they can be a misread as sexually suggestive. The same thing can be said for remarks about hair, outfits, make-up or fragrance. Just steer clear.
There are many men still out there who feel that somehow the presence of a Y chromosome gives them some unspoken right to treat and speak to women however they choose. But for the rest of us it is important to know that the rules have changed. Before you allow yourself to speak too freely when expressing admiration, stop and consider whether what you are admiring maintains the respectful boundaries that women have requested and deserve.
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