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  • Writer's pictureSusan Howell


by Susan Harris Howell

It seems harmless, really. We see someone we don’t know very well and we want to connect, start a conversation, or just fill the silence. We don’t know them well enough to comment on national politics or our struggle with the latest social issue. Or maybe we know them well enough that mentioning politics or social issues seems ill-advised. Either way, we blurt out the easiest and seemingly most harmless comment we can come up with at the moment:

“You look nice today.”

“I love your hair!”

“Great outfit!”

I have done this more times than I can count and, until recently, thought nothing of it. But lately, social media has brought this issue to my attention. Making comments like these consistently can send the implicit message that outward appearance is of ultimate importance. And since females already receive an abundance of these messages, I think we should replace those comments with something more substantive. Instead of commenting on women's appearances to fill the silence, why not compliment them on their intelligence or great sense of humor—something that reflects their value as people and not decorations.

This is especially important, I was reminded recently, when talking to children. Young people are in the process of developing their self-concepts when they receive many of these messages about their appearances. Ideally, we want our compliments to be based on who children are and not how they look.

It made sense. I would do it, I promised myself. The next time I saw a little girl, or even when talking with another adult woman, I would refrain from defaulting to her physical appearance when searching for something to say.

I soon learned however, that changing the things that I say out of habit would be harder than I thought. I had underestimated the ease at which “I like your sweater” would roll from my tongue and the difficulty of complimenting a given woman's ability to…what? Well, I didn’t know what, because I wasn’t close enough to the woman to know what she did well, enjoyed, took pride in, or, for that matter, anything much about her.

So that’s it. I didn’t really know much about the woman except what I could observe of her outward appearance. That’s why it was so difficult for me to say anything of substance.

But that’s understandable, isn’t it? Many of the people that we encounter on a daily basis—waiting in line at the grocery store, standing next to in the elevator, or sitting next to in class—are people we don’t know extremely well. If we speak at all, it's usually something rather superficial, isn’t it?

I suppose. But even then, it doesn’t have to focus on the visible and physical. The short work week due to a holiday, the final exam coming up, or the tried-and-true discussion of the weather would all suffice to take attention away from how a person looks to what he or she is thinking and feeling.

But my next experience was different. I was talking to a child that I did know well, or at least I thought I did. Yet, when restrained from commenting on beauty or fashion, I was silenced by my lack of anything else to say. That was a disturbing realization.

I remember hearing once that those who do not know us well are more likely to make category-based assumptions about us, whereas those who know us better tend to make target-based assumptions. The difference being that with the former, we consign the person into such categories as gender, race, or socioeconomic status, and we behave toward them accordingly. We assume, for instance, that since we are talking to a female, a statement on fashion will be received well, whereas when chatting with a male, sports is the more appropriate topic. With target-based assumptions, however, we draw from what we know about the person, prompting us to behave toward them as individuals rather than as one part of a category. For instance, you buy your niece a tool, because you know she enjoys woodworking; you give your nephew a cookbook, because he loves working in the kitchen.

Getting to know a person helps us move from category-based to target-based assumptions. It requires effort. We have to actually learn something about those around us—like how they spend their free time, and what they find enjoyable, meaningful, and worthwhile.

Now obviously, every encounter with a stranger need not be steeped in significance. And to be honest, I appreciate a good “I love your hair!” comment now and then. But, it wouldn’t hurt to stop and consider how often we default to messages based on appearance with the females we talk and interact with. Hopefully, we will learn to sprinkle in some comments that communicate our appreciation for more than just women's appearances.

And if that means we need to learn more about them, it’s probably not a bad idea.

What do you say to anyone, female or male, when making conversation?

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