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Is it OK to say “You look nice”?

Giving compliments in the workplace that focus on appearance may be well meaning; however they do not always land how you intend.

Is it OK to say “You look nice today”?

Most of the time, the answer is yes. But context matters.

Consider these factors:

WHAT

  • Phrasing: How you choose your words can make a big difference. “Those slacks fit you great” can sound a bit personal vs “I love your slacks!” The closer you get to making comments about a person’s body (their shape and smell) the more likely it will feel inappropriate and an invasion of personal space.
  • Tone: It is possible to say completely innocuous phrases in a way that is suggestive, mocking, or teasing. But this rarely happens by accident. This tends to only be an issue if the speaker has the intent to provoke the subject of the comment.

WHERE

  • Workplace culture: Compliments about physical appearance can be viewed as unprofessional or inappropriate in some workplaces.  In other offices, it is absolutely the norm. Read the room!
  • Physical Proximity: Consider the location the compliment is made. Saying “You look nice” when you are alone together in a lift has a bigger creep factor than if you are in the pantry with other people around.

WHO

  • Gender dynamics:  A woman complimenting another woman on her appearance may have a different impact than a man commenting on a woman’s appearance.  A useful test for men to consider is whether they would give the same compliment to another man. If the answer is no, then it’s possible that there is a gender or sexual component to the compliment they are unaware of.
  • Power dynamics: Even well-meaning compliments about physical appearance can still make someone feel uncomfortable or objectified – feeling that their boss is only recognising their appearance instead of their contribution. People in a position of power should take extra care when choosing their words.
  • Familiarity: It is more acceptable for people who know each other well to comment on appearance than people who are less familiar with each other. Some random office stranger making a comment on your clothes is more likely to “feel weird” than if it is coming from your office BFF.
  • The recipient: If the person the compliment is directed at has indicated, either verbally or non-verbally, that they are uncomfortable with comments about their appearance, then… don’t! Simple.

Generally speaking, women tend to be the target of comments about their appearance more often than men. A compliment to one woman on her appearance is a message to all women in the office that they are being judged on criteria that do not necessarily apply to the men.

Alternatives

  • Focus on something else: Recognizing your colleagues with compliments that focus on qualities beyond physical appearance is a great way to be inclusive. Choose to comment on work achievements and professionalism. For example:
    • “Your presentation was excellent.”
    • “You did a great job on that project.”
    • “You are the most organised person I know!”
  • Rephrase: If you are genuinely impressed with someone’s outfit, make the compliment more about their appearances “choices” instead of something that could be interpreted as a comment about their body.
    • “I love that jacket. Where did you get it?”
    • “Did you get your hair cut over the weekend? It looks great!”

So is it OK to say you look nice?

The answer is: it depends

  • consider the norms in your workplace and the dynamics between you and the person you are complimenting
  • practice choosing compliments you would make to anyone regardless of gender
  • practice giving compliments that don’t only focus on appearance