(Why, in a post about women’s appearance, have I included no pictures – no images? I think I am scared, nervous about this whole topic, a tad defensive. But I love adding photos to my blog posts – they make the text come alive. What might be a helpful image – non-oppressive, opening? I’m going to search around.)
When, in a customer service role, is it appropriate – or even helpful – to validate a woman customer’s appearance? I think I’ll save co-workers, which has been the focus of so much national news, for a whole other post. I think there are different dynamics here.
I know there are lots of women and probably some men who would answer this question with a very strong “Never!” I’m not one of these. I actually think that done with some thoughtfulness, subtlety – and even intuition – complimenting aspects of a woman’s appearance can be a valuable tool in my affirmation toolbox.
When I’m trying to ascertain what I should affirm about a person, I first reach for something meaningful, lean into that area. Today, after driving into work rehearsing a somewhat defensive stance on this topic, I decided to more than ever lean into affirming something meaningful about women, rather than reaching for the low-hanging fruit of appearance – find something more significant to engage them with or to, by thoughtful questions, stretch out the conversation on that topic, maybe take it deeper.
- “Talk to her about her art, not her hair!”
- “Talk to her about her dancing, not her eyes!”
- Go with her topic of the craziness of the EBT foodstamp program.
- Talk to her about this blog or my grocery store blog, if the time seems right.
- Talk to her about the plusses and minuses of coffee: she seemed to want to talk about this and validating her topic is a way of validating her.
But sometime they only have a few groceries and there just isn’t a chance to connect on a more real level and when I reach for “What shall I validate here?” what I come up with is:
- “Your hair”, especially if they have done something unusual with it or if it’s very wavy or curly. It’s a hit if they get to say “I did it” or also if “It’s totally natural – that’s just what it does. I didn’t always like it, but now I love it.”
- “Your glasses”, especially if it looks like like they might have stepped out of their comfort zone into some funky frames. Again, lots of proud responses.
- “Your sweater.”
- “Your eyes” – clearly riskier here, but less risky if I can say something specific like “so big” or “so dark” or “so bright”. If they try to shrug this off as just a body part, I like to say something like, “They’re the windows to the soul – they say a lot about you.” And if I know I am free of any seductiveness and it is simply given freely and lightly, it has only once ever not had a good effect – and that time I think I hit a nerve of some unhealed experience.
- “Your beauty” – obviously way more risky, and I don’t teach it when I run my class on customer service, where I show the first five minutes of the Parking Attendant video.
- I try to get really grounded before I appreciate a woman’s beauty, and listen to see if my inner voice says “Do it”. If I get a “No” or just no answer, I leave it out. I have a rich background of working male-female issues and being an ally for strong women. And I’m an awesome communicator who can read very subtle body language and facial cues. I want to wear a t-shirt for my male colleagues that says, “I’m a professional – don’t try this at home.”
- I don’t do this with really model-style beautiful women, who already probably know it and may in fact often have been objectified about their appearance. The only two times I have ever had a woman show a negative response to my appreciating her beauty – after probably a couple hundred times – it was a woman who, in fact, was classically beautiful. I now leave them out. I reach-reach-reach for something else – maybe “your glasses” – but if I can’t find something I just bless them and let them go.
- The overwhelmingly positive response I get to these offerings – especially with women who may not be typically attractive or may not think about themselves as attractive – make me want to continue:
- The woman the other day who said – obviously touched by me saying she was beautiful, “You know, as the mother of a young child and a baby, my day-to-day reality is sleep deprivation. I never think that I might still be pretty – thank you for that.”
- The woman who was quite overweight but also very pretty, who immediately welled up in tears and said, “You don’t know how much I needed to hear that today.”
- The unusual-looking – and beautiful – woman who said, “Me? Well you just made my day – no, my month.”
- If a woman says, “My momma gets all the credit for that”, I will often say something like, “To me, beauty is less about your physical features and more about what you do with those features – your facial expressions, your emotions, your attitudes.” This usually provokes an attitude of thoughtfulness – “a new way to think about myself and my appearance.”
I know the Harvey Weinsteins of the world and the powerful and long overdue #MeToo movement have greatly – and necessarily – raised our sensitivities about male-female interactions. One thing I have going for me in the grocery store checkout is that we both know the interaction is going to last 2-3 minutes max – there’s no real chance for it to go beyond the confines of the grocery store.
And I’m old, which definitely helps me to get away with stuff. At 71, women just assume that I’m harmless and don’t mean anything by it. And they’re right – I am and I don’t.
Now I want to write about male-female co-workers.