Here's the Thing: Don't Compliment Strangers

It's not nice, it's uncomfortable.

AN ONLINE FRIEND OF OURS:

My son was telling me a story the other day regarding an incident with a woman he had just met. He was at an art gallery opening and struck up a conversation with a woman who was there by herself. He's just out of college and is 24 and the woman was a high school art teacher in her mid-30's, so there was a substantial age gap. He said that they seemed to develop a nice rapport, maybe even a bit flirty, and were chatting for close to a half hour.

He felt he had a good comfort level with her and wanted to compliment her on her appearance so he told her she had a "really, nice, hourglass figure" and from there everything quickly went downhill. She was taken aback and said something like, "Excuse me, you hardly know me, why are you commenting on my body?" He went into damage control mode but only made matters worse when he tried to convince her that "hourglass figure" was a compliment rather than just apologizing for offending her. As he described it, she rolled her eyes, shook her head and exclaimed, "You really don't get it do you?!" and then she landed a stinging slap across his cheek and walked off. I would love to have been a fly on the wall for that one ;-)

I did tell him that he should stick to more neutral areas when commenting on a woman's appearance, so the clothes or shoes they're wearing should be fine, maybe the hair too, but never the body. I wonder if his age had something to do with it and perhaps she would be more receptive to the comment if it came from a man in her age group, and maybe she saw him as some college guy who wanted to score with an older woman?  It's hard to know all the dynamics, but I just wanted to get your perspective.

Look at this extremely calm couple, about to do a slap; why are stock images so nuts!!!!!

SOPHIA:

Oh boy oh boy. Here’s the thing (lol): You can’t talk about other people’s bodies. You just cannot. In the same way we all learned to keep our hands to ourselves in preschool , your son should have learned to keep his words about other people’s bodies to himself. Always. Unless you are in a long term, sexual and/or romantic relationship with someone, your opinion (GOOD OR BAD) on their body is unimportant and inappropriate to voice. Especially across gender lines and age gaps. And DOUBLE ESPECIALLY from people you’ve never ever met before!!!! Do not tell people they look like they’ve lost weight. Don’t tell them they look hot. And certainly don’t talk about their hourglass figure. If you’re looking to compliment someone focus on their character or their (not-appearance-based) choices. Things like, “It was so nice to talk to you.” Or “You know so much about art!” or “You always pick the best places to eat!”

The real problem here is that you (and therefore I) do not know what really happened. I don’t think your son is lying, but all of us have a difficult time with self-perception, especially it seems when we’re telling stories that make us look bad. Your son likely believes with his whole heart that things went down exactly how he told you that they did. But I’m not so sure, frankly. It takes a lot to say, “You really don’t get it, do you?” And it takes A TON to slap someone physically larger than you (I’m assuming he is larger than her). There might be more that he simply doesn’t remember or, more likely, that he didn’t pick up on. [airhorn airhorn] Massive generalization alert: Men are socialized to not pick up on women’s discomfort because it doesn't serve them.

Now, on to NBC’s The Slap… The woman in question certainly should not have slapped your son. I get that, I’m not going to defend slapping people as a general rule, especially since— from the way your son tells the story— it seemed more punitive than protective. I am going to say, however, that when a strange man comes up to you in public and talks to you for a while (we don’t even know if she wanted this) and then comments on your figure and then, when you’ve said this makes you feel uncomfortable he doubles down, I get feeling threatened. I would feel scared and sexualized, two things which are bad on their own and horrible together.

Your son needs to learn to apologize better, to approach people better, to compliment (or not) people better, and to deescalate better. If you feel he’ll listen (it seems you two have a pretty good relationship), I would talk to him about how to avoid making people feel that way in the future. Additionally, the next time you see your son, a not-so-gentle reminder of the difference between his intent and his impact would probably do wonders. He’s responsible for both.

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