Good Morning from sunny Daytona Beach, Florida, where I recently arrived to prepare for an ethics seminar I will be giving to a most ethical law firm. Ironically, the law firms that least require my guidance are the only ones that hire me. The law firms that desperately need ethics training don’t care.
1. Today in line (Group 6) to board my 6:45 AM American Airlines flight and wishing I were dead, my eyes were treated to the brilliant yellow jacket being worn by a young woman in front of me. In part because I wasn’t awake, I blurted out, “Thank-you for that jacket! The yellow is exactly the stimulation I need right now!” She smiled broadly and said, I think sincerely, “Thank you!” And suddenly I was reminded of the phony anti-Trump outrage of ten days ago, when the President allegedly embarrassed the nation and showed that he was a pig by daring to say to Mrs. Macron, “You’re in such good shape!”
By the reaction across the media, you would have thought he said, “What a great rack!” while drooling. There is nothing inherently inappropriate abut a spontaneous compliment on a woman’s appearance. It’s dangerous in the workplace, because there are women who are locked and loaded to cry harassment at such comments, no matter how mild or innocent, and if a women feels harassed, sayeth the law, you’re probably a harasser. However, actual human interaction involves reading people and situations, and every one is different.
Trump’s comment can easily be justified. I’m sure he’s used to women feeling like trolls when forced to stand next to his model wife, and a sincere sounding compliment is probably well-received. I was once passing through a receiving line that included a woman whom I had not seen for a year or so, and she had lost a great deal of weight. “You look great!” I said without thinking every hard about it. She appreciated the compliment; she had worked hard to lose the weight, and was glad I not only noticed, but that I said so.
Another encounter came when a young woman got on the elevator with me at a hotel a few months ago. She was wearing a sleeveless something or other, and her bulging biceps were hard to ignore. “Nice guns!” I said. She responded immediately with, “Thank you! I worked hard for them. Most guys think they’re gross.”
“Nah, they’re just insecure,” I said. “Being jerks. Don’t let them discourage you.”
“Thanks for that too!” she said, smiling, and got off on her floor.
Lots of factors go into whether a compliment is taken as a benign social gesture or a rude salacious intrusion. My actors in the ProEthics sexual harassment seminars do a skit in which “Good morning” is delivered in a way that could be sexual harassment, and “Wow, you look terrific this morning!” is said in a manner that raises no red flags at all. A chraming and skilled speaker can make comments that would have gotten me thrashed by that female bodybuilder sound like a sonnet.
Frankly, I don’t want to live in a society where a kind and sincere compliment on a woman’s appearance—or a man’s—is going to automatically be treated as a “Gotcha!” You know why Trump’s comment was considered repulsive? Because he’s Donald Trump, and everything he does is presumptively repulsive. Democrats and the news media have an unspoken agreement that he should never, never be accorded the benefit of the doubt, or assumed good will.
In 2013, President Obama introduced California’s then attorney general, now Senator, Kamala Harris by calling her “the best looking attorney general in the country,” during remarks at a fundraiser in Atherton, California.
“It’s true! C’mon,” he said as the crowd laughed. That was infinitely worse that Trump’s compliment. It was before an audience, and televised. Women were sent the message that even as professionals, their appearance is what matters; they are decorations. In sexual harassment terms, Obama was what is called “the Great Gallant,” a male superior who denigrates women through inappropriate flattery in a business context. Obama did this kind of thing several times in public appearances. Did Reebok craft and immediate ad chiding him, as it did in response to Trump’s comment? Of course not. Obama could do no wrong, and Trump can do no right, even if what they did is exactly the same thing.
2. Oops...there is no number 2 today—I’ve got to follow a map now and find my room, always a challenge for me at resorts. Then I will spend lonely hours there, have room service, and basically do what I would do in a Motel 6 in Gary. Anyone who thinks travel on the job is fun and glamorous doesn’t know what he is talking about.
But first I think I’m going to tell that woman across the lobby that she looks great. I’ll report back on how that turns out.