As a linguistics major in college, I got to learn all sorts of facts about the way we communicate with others. Stuff I still think about, decades later. For example, the effects of pausing preference (the amount of time we wait before we assume the person we’re talking to is done speaking, and we can speak). Men’s pausing preference is shorter than women’s, which leads to men speaking more often in a conversation. Not just that, but women walk away from the conversation feeling like they were constantly interrupted, but men walk away thinking everything went smoothly. All because of pausing preference. (The same is true for northerners vs. southerners. Southerners have a longer pausing preference than northerners. Generally speaking.)
For more information about this, check out conversation analysis. But today’s post isn’t about that. It’s about a segment of sociolinguistics, the study of how language is used in society. Today, we’re talking about “things you can talk to strangers and acquaintances about.”
It’s been a while since I had my class, but this is what I remember: in English, there are certain topics that are considered “safe” conversation starters. The weather is the old go-to. You can talk about the weather with just about anyone you’d like. Go up to a person in the park and say, “Lovely sunshine, isn’t it?” and you might have a brief chat about today’s weather, tomorrow’s weather, and the like. Similarly, you can talk to strangers if they have a dog or pet with them, or a baby. As long as you’re saying nice things, of course. There’s a big difference between telling a person, “What a lovely baby!” and telling a person, “Your baby looks seriously messed up. Did you do something to it?”
Compliments are safe. Critiques are not.
With acquaintances, there’s another category of safe conversation starters: change in appearance. If you see someone is wearing a new dress, or has a new haircut, it’s totally fine to go up to them and compliment the new dress or haircut. Or even just observe that they look different, with the implication that it looks nice.
Sure, you’ll get people from time to time who don’t fully understand this. They might comment how much they dislike your haircut. Or how ugly that dress is. But these people are generally socially awkward. They’re trying to follow the norms, and failing. They’re the exception.
Interestingly, I’ve observed this all fall apart in one specific area of appearance: beards. If you have a beard (particularly if you’ve just started growing a beard), people seem to feel entitled to say exactly what they think about that beard, regardless of how well they know you. “You look like a mountain man.” “Hey there, Grizzly Adams.” “Your beard looks so shaggy.” “When are you going to shave?” “I prefer beards that are neatly trimmed.” “Your beard is too gray.” “That’s ugly.”
When I was growing a beard, and for several years after I first had one, I had all of these things said to me. Exact quotes. (Well the one about being gray is something that’s a new addition to the mixture.) But I’ve seen the same thing happen to friends who have beards. Somehow, it seems that society or certain people in society believe that not only are beards safe to comment about, but they’re safe to critique.
Imagine for a moment if I went up to a woman and made some of these same observations about her dress, or her hair, or her general appearance. “You look ugly.” “Didn’t have too much time to get ready this morning, did you?” “I like you much better with more/less makeup.” “That haircut is hideous.”
As I write those, it just now occurs to me that perhaps those are all things women have to put up with all the time. Not being a woman myself (and generally being a polite person who doesn’t comment on my personal opinion of others’ appearances), I might just not get exposed to that. But I’d like to think that if women get those remarks, it’s a sign that the person making the remark is a sexist jerk, or fairly petty. Correct me in the comments, and my apologies in advance if I’m just not better informed about that.
The people commenting on my beard (and my friends’ beards) are generally people who I don’t think would go up to a person and insult their appearance. Somehow, however, they feel like their personal preference for or against facial hair is something they should share with as many people as possible. Certainly with people who have facial hair.
To those people, might I just say that this innate feeling to critique a man’s facial hair is . . . misplaced? Misguided? Unwanted? I’d like to see more people lump beards in with hair cuts and new clothes. You can comment if you think it looks nice, but otherwise . . .
Just don’t mention it.