Quietly killing us with compliments
She looks sixteen, but she’s a professor. That’s what the dean said about my friend when introducing her at a faculty orientation. The look on her face told me everything. Sure, she laughed. But you could practically taste the back of that dean’s hand. Never mind that she’d published a novel with a major New York press, plus short stories in places like The Paris Review. The headline was now how young she looked.
Some of you might be rolling your eyes. You’re thinking the dean was just making a joke. He was just giving my friend a compliment.
He was just teasing her.
Maybe that was his intention. But here’s what happened. For the rest of the year, nobody took my friend seriously. She had to play perky, preppy high schooler just to get travel reimbursements processed.
If she ever tried to act normal, people questioned her. Was there something wrong? Was she sad? Why was she being so rude?
Even other women talked down to her. At department meetings, everyone felt entitled to explain to my friend “how academia works.” The intelligence or insight of her comments didn’t matter.
One time, she questioned why our department was so invested in starting a new major, when other issues needed more immediate attention. A female faculty smiled at her, as if she were a teen, and gently explained the importance of grad school.
The saccharine in this colleague’s voice made me want to puke.
My friend finally let her tongue out of the cage. She said, “You know I have a PhD, right? You don’t have to explain grad school to me.”
Later, our department chair held a meeting with my friend where he explained proper conduct at faculty meetings.
So that’s what a compliment can do. It can ruin your career.
Nobody ever called out our dean on his behavior. Most people didn’t think twice about complimenting someone on their youthful appearance. No matter if it was in public, by a supervisor, at a workplace gathering.
The power of compliments
America doesn’t normally allow us to decline compliments. You have no choice but to accept them, from anyone. About almost anything. Your hair. Your shoes. Your skin. Your age.
A few things are off limits. But assholes have found loopholes. Maybe they can’t compliment your boobs anymore. But they can say that shirt fits you well. Or that you should wear dresses more often.
The worst thing? Plenty of people just want to give compliments. But a handful of jerks have ruined it for everyone. They use compliments as a mask for shadier intentions.
Now we live in a world where it’s hard to know exactly what someone means when they compliment you. And it’s even harder to know how someone might interpret your words when you flatter them.
We all know the art of the backhanded compliment. Especially us Southerners. We deal in them all the time. But we also wind up on the receiving end. We hear this line pretty often: “You’re from the South? Wow, I can’t hear your accent at all!” Oh, thanks. Please do go on, about how I don’t sound prejudiced, uneducated, or racist at all based on how I pronounce words. That means a lot to me.
Compliments establish hierarchies. In this case, Yankees feel entitled to tell me how great I am because I sound like them. They’re the smart ones. Sounding like them is a good thing.
Any privileged group can use compliments to point out someone else’s differences. It’s a form of outing. Disguised as a compliment, it’s especially insidious — because you can’t challenge it without opening yourself up to critique as rude, or antisocial.
What’s wrong with “you look so young!”
The same thing applies to other remarks on superficial aspects of our identity. Some of us are no strangers to the weird age compliment. They come in different forms. Recently, a friend and colleague ran into me at a conference. He said, “You look younger every time we meet up!”
This kind of remark doesn’t trigger any flags. Why? Because we’ve known each other for years. Plus, we’ve already established mutual respect. We read each other’s articles. There’s no ulterior motive here.
Let’s say you post a selfie on Instagram or Twitter. It’s a solo selfie. You’re clearly showing off. A dozen people reply, “Sexy!” Not a problem, in most cases. Just harmless flattery.
Now imagine a different set of scenarios. Every week, someone at your job mistakes you for an intern or a student. People give you compliments like “you don’t look like a professor!” as if it’s a good thing. In truth, they’re trying to excuse their own shitty behavior.
The average college student clearly respects younger teachers less. It’s not entirely their fault. We’ve always imbued age with a certain degree of experience, wisdom, and prudence.
Aristotle characterized the youth of Athens as hopeful, naive, and easily deceived. Mainly because they hadn’t live long enough to see how awful humans can be to each other.
If only Aristotle had lived long enough to see our current president. He might revise his stance on age and maturity.
Nobody ever wants to look older, but it would be nice if you didn’t have to keep proving yourself all the time, just because your face hasn’t creased yet, and your hair hasn’t grayed.
Compliments convey mindsets
We don’t give a lot of thought to the meaning behind our compliments. Think about what it really means to say someone looks “so young.” Look at how we treat young people. They have curfews. They can’t vote. Or drink. Or smoke. Or rent a car. They live in a world of restrictions.
Youth is a liability in America. It means nobody has to listen to your opinions. Any adult can tell you what to do. You have few rights. In some states, you can’t even see a doctor. And your teacher can (or has to) out your sexuality without any due process.
We carry this baggage into our 20s. Because we still kinda look like teens, everyone likes to boss us around.
It’s easy to dismiss young people.
So, no. Looking young isn’t always that great. In America, youth can especially suck. When someone says, “You look so young!” that carries connotations. They’re saying you also look a little immature, inexperienced, irresponsible, naive, and weak. They’re unconsciously setting the parameters of how they’re going to treat you — with less respect.
The compliment is supposed to smooth over all that, somehow. We overlook the shallowness of this exchange.
Ageism works both ways, of course. In America, you can’t look too young. Or too old. Either end opens you up to a litany of stereotypes and backhanded compliments. The real sweet spot is your 40s, I guess. Or maybe I’m wrong. I’ll update this post when I get there.
Be mindful about your compliments
Think before you compliment. Context matters. Make sure you understand why you’re praising someone. Even the best of us still judge people based on their appearance. On top of that, we treat them according to the stereotypes that tag along.
Think about what you’re pointing attention to. Compliments on someone’s speech or physical appearance don’t always play well. Especially if you don’t know the person outside of work.
Research has shown that performance-based compliments have the best effect. In other words, you praise the job someone’s doing. There’s not many ways you can misinterpret “good job on that report.”
You might think you’re being nice when you compliment someone on their appearance. But if you don’t know them that well, you might be triggering insecurities. Or you might be calling attention to something they’re trying to downplay — like how young they look.
On the receiving end, there’s nothing wrong with ignoring or questioning someone’s compliment. Maybe you can’t call out your boss in the middle of a meeting. But you can raise your guard.
You can be honest with yourself about how someone’s compliment made you feel, and go from there.
It’s not always your fault if you don’t like a compliment. Some are designed as insults, and others carry veiled prejudice.
These days, I still catch myself making assumptions about people based on their dress or hair style. You never really stop. Not completely. You just do less of it, and learn to check yourself. But hey, maybe I’m a snowflake. Don’t listen to me. After all, I don’t even look like a professor.