When is it okay to comment on someone’s appearance?

Now that we all see each other on video calls, it’s inevitable that you’ll observe other people and form impressions. When is it to make a comment about how someone looks?

Let’s make this simple. The answer, with a few narrow exceptions, is, never.

I was recently on a video call with the CEO of a company that I’ve been working with. The CEO was pursuing a further partnership with me. And he felt comfortable enough, making small talk at the start of our conversation, to comment on the length of my beard. (“You look like Tevye,” he said, referring to the roughly groomed main character in “Fiddler on the Roof.” “Every time we do a call with you your beard is longer.”)

This was a very strange interaction and changed the tone of the whole conversation. I wasn’t particularly insulted or embarrassed, because I’m not insecure about my appearance. (And no, I will not show you a picture.) But I just found it strange.

And yes, I am aware that this happens to women far more than it does to men, and in person at least as often as it does on video calls. None of that changes that it’s got no place in a business conversation.

What not to say

If you’re on a call or in an interaction with someone you don’t know well, here are few things not to comment on:

  • How old or young they look.
  • How they may look different from their online photos.
  • How they are dressed.
  • How their hair is styled or colored.
  • Whether they’ve lost or gained weight.
  • Whether they appear to be pregnant.
  • Whether they look sad or anxious.
  • How their looks relate to their race or ethnicity.

You have no idea what is going on with someone. You don’t know if their house just burned down and they have only one outfit left. Or that they look thinner because they just finished cancer treatments. Or that their hair is shorter because they are recovering from a bad perm. Or they are insecure about their public appearance and hate how they look on video.

And if you don’t know the person well, none of that is any of your business. You have little to gain. And you are putting the person at a disadvantage. Why start your conversation with an unprofessional interaction that reflects poorly on your judgment?

How to respond

I responded to the comment with a smartass remark of my own. That was a decision in the moment, and not the best choice.

I think the best response is, “Let’s just focus on the work we’re doing, okay?” Then refuse to engage on the topic further.

Outrage or questioning the commenter’s judgment would be natural. So would justifying or explaining your appearance. But as justified as you may be by such a comment, you’ll be off into a discussion that is not going to benefit whatever you are doing next.

There are exceptions

Here’s when it is okay to comment on someone’s appearance.

  • They’re about to go on stage or on video with an audience, and something is wrong (for example, food on their lip, tie askew, something looks wrong in the background of the video).
  • They outright ask your opinion.
  • You know them fairly well and would like to give them a compliment. “You look great!” is fine for someone you’ve worked with a lot, or “The new hairstyle suits you.” But only if you’ve got a friendly working relationship. Move on quickly. And unsolicited advice is never a good idea.

Obviously, if you are close friends, the parameters of your relationship and how you talk about your looks will be highly personal. But we’re not talking about close friends. We are talking about business relationships.

Everyone notices people’s looks. It’s takes a bit of maturity not to immediately comment, but you’re a lot better off if you don’t. Business is about ideas; looks shouldn’t enter into it.

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  1. If I had made the offending comment, your best response would certainly be a learning moment for me, but it also would make me feel embarrassed and diminished. I suppose there are circumstances in which a person in your position would be ok with that outcome, but in general wouldn’t a less prickly response be more appropriate?

  2. Totally understand how you felt blindsided and wanted the person to know what he said was not OK. But you may not have had time to weigh the benefits of creating a teaching moment vs ignoring the comment and simply steering the conversation back to business. If it’s the latter, something like, “So what did you think about the revised proposal?” leaves the option open to address it at a later time, should you decide to, when the relationship is on firmer footing. It could also be that the guy is on the spectrum or has ADHD, both of which impair impulse control, and people have admonished him his whole life for a disability that leads him to say inappropriate things.

      1. All the more true if he’s in a position to give you work you’d enjoy. Every conversation you’re having with him is an interview. Best to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume poor social skills. He may have been as blindsided by your response as you were to his original comment.