Biff America: The compliment
August 17, 2013
I spoke thoughtlessly more out of impulse than intention. It was obvious that Kori wasn't used to being spoken to that way. Perhaps in retrospect I should have kept my mouth shut, but at the time I felt I was simply being honest.
I've known Kori for about 10 years. We are both employed by a large media company in Denver, her on a career track, me part-time; you might say she is my boss. To be clear she's not the type of boss who could fire me but certainly much higher up the food chain than I am.
We work together five or six times a year and have for almost a decade. Despite that I know a fair amount about her — she is married, has kids and went back to school to get her master's and is still taking courses toward whatever comes after master's. She is one of the rising stars in the company. She is known as a no-nonsense type and can be perceived as a little cold and aloof. I have gotten along with her perhaps because I've never tried to be her friend, and since my job is part-time I don't care much if I lose it.
It had been about six months since we last worked together. When Kori walked into the studio I almost didn't recognized her. It is not that she was ever unattractive, but on that day she simply appeared especially vibrant, healthy, and I'd even say happy.
Luckily I had the common sense not to make my comment in front of any witnesses. As I said it was more instinct than intentional. So when it was just her and me in the room we were making small talk when I blurted out, "Damn, Kori, you look great."
As soon as I said it I felt embarrassed. Other than her once insisting that I put on a clean shirt before I hosted a remote radio broadcast at a fancy country club, we had never commented on each other's appearance. My guess is in her world it wasn't proper for a subordinate to compliment a boss.
I made it worse by saying, "I hope you don't think I'm just saying that, but honestly you do look wonderful."
With the new heightened sensitivity of sexual harassment in the workplace, it best to keep your compliments to yourself. For instance, I can say to my male, married radio partner Jon, "Hey man, you're looking buffed. Have you been working out?" but not to anyone of the opposite sex. In the mountains things are a little looser. Many of your coworkers are also your friends who have no hesitation to tell you if you are out of line, or better yet, can take a joke and/or a kind word.
I'll concede that it might be necessary, but it has certainly blurred the lines between kindness and lechery.
After my outburst, the tension was palpable. Kori quickly looked around the room as if to see if anyone was in hearing distance. When she looked back at me she was blushing. "Thanks. Last month, my husband gave me a trip to a spa for our 10th anniversary. I relaxed for a week, quit smoking, got massaged every day and learned about nutrition and Yoga. Since then I've lost a little weight but mostly I've just kept exercising, eating right and I have lightened my hair. 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 about her appearance. Looking over her shoulder again she said, "You look good too." I know I looked just about the same as the last time we met, though six months older. She was just embarrassed that she had let her guard down and wanted to steer the conversation away from herself.
So I said, "I've been drinking low-cal whisky."
We both laughed and the wall was up once again.
While driving home to the mountains from the Front Range I reflected on the exchange. I could have told that forty-something career woman that she was smart, successful, hardworking and a good mother and she might have been grateful for the acknowledgement of her strengths but mostly shrugged it off. I told her she was attractive and it made her day.
Now, I would not recommend that anyone do what I did. The rules have changed. I'm just pleased Kori understood my intentions were honorable and that it made her happy.
I took two lessons away from that encounter. Ever the brilliant and successful are not immune to vanity. The second lesson being we haven't evolved far enough as a species to where compliments can necessarily be offered without fear. Such is the pity …
Jeffrey Bergeron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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