Scott Hanselman

The impact of a compliment

July 25, 2013 Comment on this post [53] Posted in Musings
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This is the beginning of a great compliment. Here, the President is speaking about the Attorney General of California:

You have to be careful to, first of all, say she is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you'd want in anybody who is administering the law, and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake.

Here's where it goes too far.

She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country.

Is it a gaffe? Is it a nightmare? Is it tacky or inappropriate or any of a dozen other adjectives? Perhaps. That's not the point. It's simply not necessary and it's completely beside the point. This happens every day and it happens often in computing and technology contexts.

How you look is a combination of things, not the least of which being a genetic roll of the dice that you can't control. How you are, how you conduct yourself and how your work is perceived by your peers is absolutely under your control. And it is from this place, where your merits lie, that compliments spring.

When you compliment someone in a work or professional environment solely on their looks you are minimizing years of hard work, struggle and mental effort.

I like compliments as much as the next person, but it's important to not conflate personal compliments ("What great shoes!") with professional compliments("What an amazing slide deck!).

I would not like to see a comment like "Watch the kind (and well-dressed and hot) Scott Hanselman presenting on HTML5."

I'd rather see "Watch this ruthlessly competent presenter talk about HTML5."

You get the idea. Compliments to other developers should always be gender non-specific like "ruthlessly competent" or "bad ass." If someone is good at their job, you can always say "you're really good at your job." No need for extras.

Too sensitive? No, this is simple. Compliment the work and the person's effort in the creation of that work.

Your favorite presenter's outfit, hair, makeup (or lack of all three) didn't make that code run.

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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July 25, 2013 2:40
Because saying: She's a woman is too mainstream :)
July 25, 2013 2:44
July 25, 2013 2:52
In this age of lawsuits, your advice is perfectly sound and reasonable.

But I think it sucks. Not all women are bothered when they get compliments on their appearance. Some of us don't mind at all. (Especially those of us who are getting on in years and need the boost!)

I'm not talking about inappropriate behavior or over the top comments. Calling someone "gorgeous" (which is how this latest conversation started) isn't over the top or sexist.

Yes, I like to be complimented for my brains. And my skills.

But getting complimented for my appearance is lovely too. (Thank you very much. My shoes ARE AWESOME.)

Just like I would like to tell you that I like the color of the suit you are wearing, or that your new haircut looks great.

Thinking back to my days working in an office, I'm fairly convinced that the conversations I used to have back then would be deemed inappropriate today. Lame.
July 25, 2013 3:01
Avonelle - I hear you. I'm talking about *conflating* the two. "Watch this CSS talk, she's hot" isn't cool.

"Hey, great shoes today!" as a separate and unrelated comment is appreciated by all genders.
July 25, 2013 3:03
"Your favorite presenter's outfit, hair, makeup (or lack of all three) didn't make that code run."

But it makes (or not) my workplace... And boosts (or not) my happiness. And if it is - I am more productive and happy to note that.

And... Honestly... Compare people in Europe and North America. Too many ones who demand that we have to love their soul and not how they look like without even trying. And where it leads?
July 25, 2013 3:11
I think if you were introduced as being pleasant to look at, more people would be inclined to click on a link to watch a longish video featuring you.

At some point we'll arrive in a society where we won't be all weirded out by acknowledging that people are good looking. Until then we'll just give them unspoken advantages over their less aesthetically remarkable colleagues.

July 25, 2013 3:14
I have the best hair in tech journalism, in my utterly humble opinion; praise it any time you like ;) It's just fine to mention that I have cool USB earrings. But making those the culmination of a comment about a review I've written utterly devalues the compliment because you now just said 'oh, awesome review - for a girl!'
July 25, 2013 3:15
OK; maybe *this* the gravatar where you can actually see my hair?
July 25, 2013 3:20
Scott - it is a fair point that conflating the two is more tricky.

Also of note: if no one complimented me on my skills, but just focused on how I looked that might start to get on my nerves after awhile.

I just don't think you can define rules for it. Context matters. What bothers you doesn't necessarily bother me. In fact, I might like it. If I don't, I say so and we move on. (Again - not referring to obvious over-the-top behavior or speech, just this friendly, complimentary appearance stuff.)

July 25, 2013 3:26
Oh, and as I mentioned on Twitter: "ruthlessly competent" is a horrible compliment. What the heck does that even mean? "I will overpower you with my proficiency?" What?

To me, "competent" isn't all that amazing. "Ruthless" sounds great, but it isn't enough to save "competent". So feel free to just describe me as "ruthless". That is a compliment I can whole-heartedly endorse. :-)

July 25, 2013 4:09
Spot on and a great way to put it.

Avonelle: I don't think Scott's saying that you can't compliment women. He's saying do it in the right context. If it were a professional performance review, would you find it inappropriate to comment on his suit in the context of that review? Does it really make a difference? Not even 'inappropriate because that might be offensive or sexist' but 'inappropriate because, why would you even bring it up?'
July 25, 2013 4:12
Ugh realised that what I said had already been said :)
July 25, 2013 4:13
I think your example may be a little less offensive than the fiasco that inspired this post because Obama focused on the real achievements first. Agreed that he all but undid that with his second comment though - whatever his intentions were.
July 25, 2013 5:30
It is not only on compliments, it is about expectations in general.

Imagine, you are writing to someone about your deep beliefs, convictions, or about the next big thing you'll do. You expect him to agree or disagree with you, you expect a conversation, a battle on meaning and idea.

But if the reply you get is "perfect grammar and vocabulary", you are upset and humiliated, even though you knew he did not wanted to hurt you.

You then evaluate this person as low as the compliment he made on your next big idea.
July 25, 2013 6:08
The POTUS example requires even more context in my opinion.

Consider the Presidents use of good looking:
- Introducing HUD secretary Shaun Donovan, "There he is, the good-looking guy in the front here."
- To Ray Mabus "outstanding Secretary of the Navy ... There he is right there — the good-looking guy over at the end."
- To the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. "I have to say all of you look pretty good without your playoff beards ... They're pretty good-looking guys without all that.”
- To the young African leaders at town hall "well, this is a good-looking group."

It seemed that it was a reflex mechanism for making someone feel comfortable and it simply back fired, and rightly so, because of a need to be gender sensitive given the long history of misogyny in our public and professional discourse. None of the previous examples resulted in even a hint of scandal.

July 25, 2013 6:10
We can still privately think of you as hot though, right ? :)
July 25, 2013 6:23
Scott, shut up and just look pretty. :)

We're here for the stubble and the Feldgrau t-shirts.
July 25, 2013 6:25
I hear ya Scott, and I mostly agree with what you're saying. Being able to compliment naturally and at the right opportunity is a great skill to have. Frankly something I find myself lacking. But I see a lot of pushback in the comments for some reason.

@Avonelle "Context matters. What bothers you doesn't necessarily bother me. In fact, I might like it. If I don't, I say so and we move on."

That is a reasonable stance to take, but we've seen that gender is an explosive issue, especially if you're a public figure. There is no room for 'i don't like what you're saying. Please refrain from saying that again'. It's more like 'WTF DID YOU SAY!?!' *twitter storm ensues. Case in point, the Adriana Richards controversy.
July 25, 2013 6:43
More politically correct rules we need to abide by. I feel like I'm constantly walking on egg shells.

Like Avonelle points out, years ago these comments would have been fine. As society changes does that mean we should as well? No.

The presidents comments simply show which era he is from, where that comment would have been acceptable/funny depending on your point of view.

He was simply trying his hand at some humor. Nothing wrong with that.
July 25, 2013 7:37
Another side to this...

As a bad-ass developer and a not-necessarily-beautiful woman, when fellow female developers are complimented on their looks, as opposed to their abilities, I am often left feeling as though I am lacking because I'm not the most attractive. Something that really shouldn't even cross my mind.

Let's not even bring up the fact that I am automatically seen as "lesser" BECAUSE I am a woman... ugh.

I have the skills. I shouldn't feel lesser because I don't have the looks. Period.

Even if I were more attractive (or felt as though I were more attractive), I would prefer to be recognized for those aforementioned bad-ass skills rather than my appearance.

Respect your colleagues for what they bring to the discussion, not for how much you enjoy their appearance. It's not hard. Appreciation for physical beauty has it's place. Learn where that is.

Those of you who are so bothered by how political correctness has changed our dialog and think that this new dynamic is "lame"... it's just an adjustment. Sometimes we realize that the things we did in the past were wrong, and so we change. This is how society moves forward. You'll get used to it and won't feel like you're walking on egg shells for long. :)
July 25, 2013 9:56
While I'm torn on the issue, it reminded me of this video of Dustin Hoffman explaining his motivations behind making "Tootsie". It's utterly heartbreaking and for me it describes the core of the issue:

I don't mind getting compliments on my looks as long as it doesn't diminish my work. BUT... I hate that in software it seems that the first thing people notice about female engineers is the way they look. It's like they (mostly men) can't help commenting a women's looks and it nearly always sounds like it would somehow influence their job. Nobody cares what a male programmer looks like in regards to his job, so it should be the same for women.

(It's a difficult topic, so if my comment sounds weird and slightly contradictory it's because it's hard to put my feelings about this into words.)

Just watch the video. It's great.
July 25, 2013 11:44
I can attest to the fact that Scott has never told me I was hot. Thanks for keeping it pro.
July 25, 2013 11:58
Women rulez!!! :) Thank you Scott!
July 25, 2013 12:39
Hi Scott,

First, I'd just like to say that I know of no other blogger who is as much of a hot-dog in racing around the demolition-derby of modern technologies, with eloquence, and verve, as your good Self.

Unfortunately, what you completely omit, is that varying social-contexts, and varying roles that people both are "in," and "take," in those contexts, shape the perceived meaning, the emotional sub-text, and meta-commentary, embodied in language: language spoken ... language heard.

You imply an "absolute" standard against which a given statement can be judged; I would assert that the standard is "relative" to the context: its formality, or informality; its status/role differences among speakers, etc.

Imagine you are in a meeting of programmers, a company-meeting, a meeting where everyone in the room knows each other, and interact daily, and you introduced a white male programmer who was going to make a brief presentation with the words, "X is one bad-ass unit-tester."

Now, as a mental exercise, imagine you introduced a black male programmer in the same way; now imagine you introduce a white female programmer in the same way; now imagine you introduce a black female programmer in the same way.

Now, imagine that you are the person who introduces the programmer: and you are white male; white female; black male; black female.

Now, imagine different formats of this hypothetical meeting: the room is now full of people, many of whom have never met; the room is now a public forum, and this is a formal presentation.

Depending on the social context, and the salient norms, whether or not any of the scenarios described above "give offense" to anyone, or everyone, or reflect bad-taste on the part of the person who introduces the programmer: will vary.

Depending on the "hidden agendas" of introducer, presenter, and hearers: the reality that remains in the memories of everyone may be very different.

What is "ad hominem" to one person, is humor to another.

What is racist, sexist, religiously offensive, or ageist, or anthropocentric, or chauvinistic: depends on context which is shaped by culture; the times; the fashions; politics; and ideology.

One thing for certain is: people who feel they are entitled to try to enforce their vision/version of what is "correct" language in any given situation; are, obnoxious.

At the same time, imho, anyone who becomes aware they have inadvertently given offense by their language in a given situtation, and who does not try to ameliorate that offense (perhaps publicly, perhaps privately): lacks compassion, and, possibly, wisdom.

Someone, or a group, who "exploits" a "border-line" case of appropriateness of language use to then impugn the character of the speaker, or attack them in some way using the worst-possible-case interpretation: well, it is best I not use the word I would choose to describe such a person, or group ... in this public context :)
July 25, 2013 15:40
I totally agree with you Scott. How someone looks is completely irrelevant when it comes to a professional setting. And I think it should not be limited to gender. Race should also be left out of the equation. If we became color-blind as well as gender-blind and attractiveness-blind and concentrated on competence, ability, and the code, I think it would be a good start in reducing intolerance and bias in this world.
July 25, 2013 15:50
Hum, that is why loads of companies ask their developers to dress formal. Because that improves the code, right? [sacarsm off]
July 25, 2013 15:53
I'm interested to know, had the Attorney General been a man and the President said about him being handsome do you still think you would have felt compelled to write this post?
July 25, 2013 16:21
I think the impetus to the post was another incident mentioned earlier (hinted at with the CSS example). I think Obama's comment was an example of good going to not so good (or at the least, not necessary).

I'm bummed mostly by the reaction to the reaction. The "social web" is fairly new. Sure, there were chat rooms and the like since the beginning, but for the most part they were niche, targeted locations that weren't particularly diverse in the audience. I think simply saying "my bad, was not meaning to offend or diminish from what you've done/are doing" and using it as a learning experience in social interaction vs the group reaction of "relax, it was just a compliment."

Shame, as the woman involved is really a great example for all of this. There are more, sure, but this person in particular (in my view) has left way more benefit to the developer community at large than anyone could be asked to do and still continues to do so. Again, I don't feel there was malicious intent by the original incident, but I think the major offense is that someone felt that was what was needed to introduce her: her work speaks volumes and when speaking of her work, probably best to lead with that.

Let's be honest, when we were starting out putting forth views (to be agreed with or shot down with information for another understanding) or asking questions, what we said was for the most part taken at face value. Sure, there are beautiful women programming but when discussing the topic of development, their appearance shouldn't be what defines them.

If the person that was the inspiration for this post had researched and stated a view early on in her career and the "you're wrong" rebuttal basically amounted to "you're so cute when you're wrong" or something to that effect without really weighing the merits of what she is trying to convey and it happened at a particularly bad day and just killed her passion for it because it seems like no one is taking her seriously, what would we have lost? Who is to say the next female that experiences that couldn't have the impact that she did later on?

This whole incident reminds me of Rob Conery's Men in Tech blog post. Worth a read, in my opinion. I would hope that no one intentionally is out to belittle women or make them uncomfortable, but perhaps looking at harmless statements from another view may give a different perspective.
July 25, 2013 16:36
This overly-sensitive political correctness makes life a lot less pleasant for everyone. When you have to watch every single thing you do, say, or think in case it might offend someone, somewhere it just puts everyone on the road to becoming phony, mindless automatons. Most men and women like being complimented on their looks, regardless of the context.

Most reasonable people care about INTENT, not about potentially poorly chosen verbiage. Was Obama trying to imply her job or skills had to do with her looks? Of course not.

In some ways I think your position on this is ironic, Scott. I've seen you make racially and ethnically tinged jokes at conferences. Is anyone offended by it? Maybe, but the vast majority are not because they know your intent is not to belittle anyone. I would think of all people you understand that.
July 25, 2013 17:26
There is deffreint between what people say and what they really want .
if women doesnt like to be sexulisied in work place then why they dress sexy ?

from the comment of women here, it doesn't seem it is bother them, so may be the developers need to understand females developers are just like other women , they liked to sexy and treated as sexy creatures .

July 25, 2013 18:03
So you think your intelligence and even your ability to work hard were talents you developed?
July 25, 2013 19:02
Hey, Scott! Nice t-shirt!!!
July 25, 2013 20:12
I completely agree with what Scott is saying - whether a person is good looking or not is completely besides the point.

That additional statement is not required, it takes away from the other things he had to say about her.
July 25, 2013 20:26
If it is business, keep it business. If it, I'm sure the use of compliments are more than permitted.
July 25, 2013 20:35
Congratulation for your excellent article, Scott - and you have such a great smile !
July 25, 2013 21:40
Is hilarious, listen to you belittle the appearance's compliments.
July 26, 2013 2:16
Colin - I was only using the Obama example as an example. The issue is (and was, and continues to be) how we treat developers and how we compliment their work.
July 26, 2013 2:20
The specific compliment: Could this be related to the seemingly prevalent tic of american politicians and business leaders to refer to someone "and their beautiful family/wife/man/kids"? In those contexts, and indeed most where you are talking to a bunch of people at large about other people, why do you ever have to stray from the subject to point out that someone's looking good? This sounds like a well-meaning chivalry left-over from the men with cigars in closed rooms.

I agree with the spread in the comments: a compliment stays a compliment as long as it's germane. If you have to pad it out with other stuff, it sounds like your actual compliment is not sincere enough to be taken seriously on its own.
July 26, 2013 2:23
... make the code run.
I though that was why you wore red shirts (or should that now be Azure?)
Seriously, well written. Complimenting someone on their looks only works in the movies.
July 26, 2013 2:33
BillWoo needs some kind of Internet medal for nailing it.

July 26, 2013 2:46
Sorry Scott, but I agree with Sam. If people stopped taking themselves so terribly seriously and thought about the INTENT of what someone said, none of this discourse would be necessary. Instead, there is an increasing tendency for people take the worst possible interpretation of what was said, and assume that's how things were intended, and then go off in a self-indignant display of confected outrage.

It's political correctness, it's pandering to an over-sensitive minority, its unnecessary, and it stops people from being themselves. I don't want to live in a world where a dogmatic social formula prescribes the minutiae of how people should behave toward each other. Context matters, intent matters - there is no one size fits all rule about these things.
July 26, 2013 3:07
Wow, I'm completely surprised at the debate that is going on over an issue that really ought to be pretty clear: it is completely inappropriate to tie in a woman's looks with her professional abilities.

This also has absolutely nothing to do with political correctness. This is about how a person in a professional setting is judged and appreciated for her contribution to her career. Period. Her looks, shoes, hair, arms -- none of those things are relevant and are best left back in the pre-women's lib time.

If you're still unconvinced, then remember that in the United States women earn about 70 cents to a man's dollar and as long as we speak about a woman's looks in the same breath as her professional accomplishments it's no wonder we don't value them more for the jobs they are doing.
July 26, 2013 6:39
Exactly, Brad. Thank you. :)
July 26, 2013 7:59
I can see there are many different people who all think completely differently on this issue.

I, for one, greatly appreciate this article. People like to say that it's cool to be a geek girl. But all too often that is only true in practice if you also happen to be a smokin' hot Angelina Jolie lookalike in a pleather skirt. It is our intelligence and ability to contribute to the development community that makes us awesome, not our relative physical attractiveness.

Thank you for addressing it.
July 26, 2013 17:37
I'd like to second BillWoo for that medal.

Also I'd warn against going off topic here. I don't think that we're talking about complimenting people on their appearance (which in most contexts I think is entirely acceptable) and linking a person's skill, attitude and success together with his/her appearance. The example in the post does use the word "incidentally". The subsequent mention is "Watch the kind (and well-dressed and hot) Scott Hanselman..." which I think is different. And provided the implication or subtext isn't that a person's appearance is somehow linked to her success or his/her ability (or the interpretation of either) I don't see a problem.

Here are two sentences:

"I am always in awe of her talents, her speaking ability and even her shoes!"

"She's talented, she speaks well and doesn't she wear lovely shoes?"

One sounds playful, if a little facetious, but still honorary and one sounds condescending. Depending on the context, the tone (is he being jokingly hyperbolic to accentuate his appreciation her talents even further?), etc.
July 26, 2013 20:09
Grant is right. Consider the following statement: "X is a great programmer and she's also managed to finish 3rd on the Boston Marathon". Would (some) people complain about the irrelevant second portion? (No they wouldn't.) Or, "X is a great programmer and she's also got a PhD in biochemistry". Again, the second part is completely irrelevant to programming skill; again, it's unlikely that the PC types would complain.

We can do worse: "X is a great programmer and an outspoken member of the LGBT community". The heads of the PC types just asploded trying to resolve the conflict between "irrelevant to programming" and "LGBT is good" (or, paraphrasing Brad, "it is completely inappropriate to tie in a woman's [sexual orientation] with her professional abilities".
July 28, 2013 19:42
Scott -

I find your work compelling on two different levels

1. You are tech guru - and you have a gift for finding interesting tech / topics and explaining them very well

2. You are a great presenter - you are funny and you know how to carry a room when you present. I loved your joke at build about "java v.s. .net / east coast / west coast / biggie / Tupac rivalry"

How would you recommend I combine those two complements?
(This is really a rhetorical question)

Your fan

July 29, 2013 18:59
Hate to break it to you Scott, but behind your back you're known as "Hot Scanselman." Although, I think you're safe on not being labeled "well-dressed."

Seriously though, nice article. Coincidentally, my cube at work is just outside the Hopper Conference Room, named after Grace.
July 30, 2013 2:27
You're in little danger of being described that way Scott, but that's only because we respect your work sufficiently to not be distracted by your dashing good looks.

Jokes aside though, this is probably one of the hardest impression/perception hurdles for anyone to overcome.
July 31, 2013 3:33
To echo BillWoo's sentiment - attractiveness isn't an absolute. I could say, about someone obviously very attractive, "And {Name}'s has continued their efforts to bolster others and raise all boats in the harbor, and is one of the most beautiful people I know."

Compliments are powerful things and can be misused. I prefer the anti-compliment, compliment.

"I've seen Scott speak twice and while I wish I'd slept through it I was unfortunate enough to witness this arch-demon working a room with his arcane magics while simultaneously chatting with MS build masters, installing a nightly, and hypnotizing us to believe that Win8 was, in fact, rather good, and 8.1 better. This...vile beast continues to rock my preconceived notions, and I should despise him for it. I leave painfully informed, and drunkenly empowered. I won't miss the next one either."

Knowing your audience is always key.
August 02, 2013 15:37
Amen Scott, thanks for pointing out the obvious (but important) fact that it is ridiculous to include the "looks" of a person in a formal introduction. How rude... "let me introduce Albert Einstein, brilliant physicist in spite of his horrible hair and beady eyes"... WTH!

I married a doctor (oh, sorry, she's also female) and we still get a kick out of the looks from strangers AND family when it comes up. We'd be rich if we had a dollar every time someone assumed she was the "nurse" or "assistant" -- well, at least we'd be halfway to paying off the student loans. :-)

Be well!
August 02, 2013 15:43
BTW, although I do agree that looks need not be mentioned next to professional accomplishments (during a professional introduction), I disagree with your assertion that genetics play a key role in looks but not in professional accomplishments.

I'd argue genetics play the same or greater role in the latter. Brain science tells us our behavior is largely influenced by genetics, family history and our upbringing -- all mostly out of our control. Likewise, our appearance is hugely impacted by our diet, our fitness and our mental health. We can't all be (insert beautiful person name here) but we can certainly be our best selves both in appearance AND professionally.

Be well!

August 07, 2013 0:47
Well, I'm known for being politically incorrect at my job (and I work at a bank!). Which only reinforces the "context is everything" belief. I've listed on my "contributions to the team" self review, year after year, that my biting sarcasm and humor form a foundation for our team to bond on. This same humor would undoubtedly be offensive to many of you; occasionally, I do work with someone who doesn't want it - so I shut up and go pro.

Context is everything.

When I compliment someone, I often compliment their appearance. Often because it gives me a baseline and requires no personal knowledge. "Wow, you look great today!" "Derek, did you wax your head today? It's shining like a new Lexus. I'm kidding, nice shoes, wanna <censored for Scott's sake>" I also compliment women I don't know on their appearance. "OMG, that's sexist!" No, I view it more as a self esteem boost. Most women I know are beautiful but think they're a natural disaster, the result of a gene pool gone awry. Women (and men) suffer from diseases like bulimia and anorexia because they think they're not pretty or good enough. If one sexist comment I make can possibly stop such a decline, I'll take the sexist hit for the greater good.

The appearance can be judged quickly. It takes longer to judge character, intelligence, and other attributes. And appearance can be complimented even when the remainder of the possibilities fall flat.

For those I know, I never stop there. Male or female, the points should be made. Real comments I've made: "That's a great idea, thank you!" "Your redesign of my form layout is spectacular, very nice work." "Ouch, you're trying to subvert my glory by doing such nice work. Stop it!" "Very nice work on the design document, I can see you've got a good grasp of how we do things."

Finally, it has been shown that complimenting someone's work is more likely to result in a boost to the individual, as compared to complimenting their natural abilities (intelligence, etc.). The example given to me was "Don't talk to your child about how smart they are; talk to them about how they worked very hard and did a good job."

Comments are closed.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.