Who is being insensitive/too sensitive?
September 7, 2016 4:08 PM   Subscribe

Is "not bad" a compliment or an insult to a 34-yo lady?

I have a friend who I would certainly consider attractive. Granted, having a kid took a toll on her body but she is far from obese or anything like that.

Twice in the past year she has gotten the same feedback -- "not bad"

1. She is an amateur pilot. Last summer, a blockbuster movie was shooting at the airport she flies out of. She had the chance to meet an A-List movie star briefly. He was fresh and rather princely. Upon learning she was a pilot he gave her a quick once-over and said "not bad"

2. Today she was buying a bottle of wine and got ID'd (drinking age here is 19). She was thrilled with this. Female cashier said "not bad"

My friend interprets both comments as an affront, or at least a back-handed compliment. I was not present for either interaction but posit that these are compliments from both movie star and (female) retail worker. Neither could be expected to effusively say "wow, you are 34 and a pilot and look so young? You are awesome!!!" in the context of these interactions.

Hive mind, what say you?

PS -- she is concerned that I have framed this from my (male) perspective. Seems accurate to me but keep in mind a guy wrote this.
posted by raider to Human Relations (30 answers total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: Poster's request -- restless_nomad

"Not bad" varies a lot in meaning depending on tone of voice. If said in an impressed tone of voice it is definitely a compliment. If said in a grudging way, or in a hesitant tone of voice, that's a different thing.
posted by w0mbat at 4:13 PM on September 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

1 is a bit boorish and sexist, but it's meant as a straightforward compliment. 2 is a straightforward compliment (though 'age = bad, young = good' is kind of a low bar for conversational comedy).
posted by so fucking future at 4:14 PM on September 7, 2016 [6 favorites]

First one strikes me (a woman) as creepy, second one strikes me as a hamfisted attempt to be genuinely complimentary. They are both definitely commenting on her looks (the first one with the implication "you look like that and you're a pilot?" Nobody 'looks somebody up and down' and then pays them a compliment that isn't about their body, that doesn't even make sense.)
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:14 PM on September 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

In the context of one stranger that is trying to be laid back and not come across as overly complimentary, I (context: a man) would take it as a chill compliment.
posted by Think_Long at 4:15 PM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Granted, having a kid took a toll on her body but she is far from obese or anything like that.

I actually find this sentiment most insensitive and offensive.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 4:16 PM on September 7, 2016 [98 favorites]

"Not bad" is generally not a compliment. It means slightly on the side of good, but not actually good. An actual compliment would have been "Nice!"
posted by yawper at 4:17 PM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

I (female) would find both incidents insulting, as they're comments rooted in sexism and ageism which I find really tiresome coming from strangers, but it's kind of hard to understand if that's the issue she has with it.
posted by stray at 4:18 PM on September 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

"Not bad" can mean "I'm mildly impressed" or a not very enthusiastic "cool". It's not necessarily an insult, but in those contexts I can understand why it'd be considered insulting to the receiver.
posted by destructive cactus at 4:20 PM on September 7, 2016

Who cares?

This woman should not be setting so much store in what a person whose visage appears on basic cable reruns a lot thinks of her appearance. I mean, she's a pilot for chrissakes! A pilot!

Re the second thing, wow, I have no idea what that means but wouldn't really regard it as a comment on my appearance at all. Certainly I wouldn't give it enough thought to be offended.

I'm around the same age as your friend, and the reality of not being 22 anymore hit me pretty hard a couple years ago. However, the way that I counter this is by reminding myself constantly that I am not property whose main duty in life is to look attractive. This is something that women are brought up to believe without question, and it can be hard to break yourself of this. But it is so, so worth doing.

Her notion that people need to find her attractive or provide her with appearance-based compliments is far more sexist than either situation she describes. I'm more offended at the idea of a strange man making comments about my appearance at all (no matter how famous) than I am that the comment might have been a put-down or sort of backhanded.
posted by Sara C. at 4:21 PM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

My friend interprets both comments as an affront, or at least a back-handed compliment. I was not present for either interaction

She was there. You were not. You say you are a friend. Take her at her word and make sympathetic noises. Quit mansplaining her life to her.
posted by Michele in California at 4:24 PM on September 7, 2016 [53 favorites]

Seconding Michele in California. Also, if she's insecure about her looks, nothing you are going to say about those comments is going to help.
posted by ottereroticist at 4:27 PM on September 7, 2016

I would be offended by both interactions even if they had said, "Oh my god you're stunningly beautiful." Because being judged in both instances by appearance in such a way - especially in what seems like a situation where 1) it was in relation to her job/body and 2) in relation to her age - would be gross. It's not like either of them said "wow, love your outfit/hair/earrings/style" or a compliment that isn't based on judging your worth by your physical looks.

I also would be offended by a friend saying, "having a kid took a toll on her body but she is far from obese or anything like that." Because again, you're reducing her to her looks.

Nthing Michele in California to take her at her word about the feelings of her experience. Her feelings are valid.
posted by Crystalinne at 4:31 PM on September 7, 2016 [8 favorites]

As a woman, hearing a man-who-has-sex-with-women say "not bad" in reference to my attractiveness always meant something like "I guess I'd hit that if I was bored and nothing better came along." It is not a compliment.

Granted, having a kid took a toll on her body but she is far from obese or anything like that.

I don't even know where to start explaining why this sentence is insulting, sexist, and just plain gross. Please think about what you're implying here.
posted by jesourie at 4:31 PM on September 7, 2016 [27 favorites]

I would find these comments slightly offensive, maybe irksome is a better word, though I'm sure they were intended as mild compliments. What irks me is, if you're going to go to the trouble to say something ostensibly positive about how I look, you might was well put in the extra non-effort to say something actually nice. I get cat-called or commented on by men extremely rarely*, but I once got "not bad" and it was almost funny. Like seriously, dude, you couldn't even say "pretty lady" or "looking good" or whatever the other guys say, you have to have to say something that's one step above just muttering "average?" Why even bother? As for the checkout girl, that's also a little odd. I think I've had people say "oh you look younger" or similar when they card me, and that's more a normal conversational statement of surprise that makes me feel good. (Until the next time I buy wine and the person doesn't card me at all.)

I, too, find your comment about her body to be worse than the comments of these two strangers who probably said whatever they thought of in the moment.

*If I got it all the damn time, I'd probably be offended even if it was always about my great beauty. Hearing maybe one comment once a year or so, it doesn't bother me. So if your friend says she was bothered, then it was bothersome.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 4:38 PM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm going to ignore the sexism and ridiculous aspects of this question, but "not bad" is very regional. Where are you located?

In much of the Upper Midwest it is always a positive, no matter if you are talking about someone's attractiveness or how their day is going.

If you ask me how my day is going and I say "not bad" it's a very good day, and is better than if I had said "good."
posted by littlewater at 4:41 PM on September 7, 2016 [8 favorites]

Evidence for littlewater's assertion. The beer is from a brewery based in Madison, WI.
posted by LionIndex at 4:47 PM on September 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

It would be hard to imagine the first instance being anything other than rude damning with faint praise, based on her description. Depending on his intentions, it may fall under "negging." If he hadn't "given her a once over" and was talking solely about, "Hey, person, cool thing you do when I just look good on TV," but from her description, nope, it was just tasteless.

In the second circumstance, I'd have taken it in the same manner as when people say, of a cushy situation, "nice work if you can get it!" meaning, "Hey, that's pretty cool." But I didn't hear the female cashier, so I can't judge. But I don't have to -- your friend is in the best position to do that.

There's not bad, as in, "Meh, it's OK" and there's the more cheerful not bad, as in, "Hey, nifty!" and the meaning all depends on the communication style of the user (and not merely the wording, just as "fine" can mean "sure/fine/whatever/bored now" and "fine, as in fine china").

I wasn't there. You weren't there, raider. Your friend is the best judge of the interpretation, and that you doubt her says more about you than about the actor or the cashier. Your comment about the toll on her body and "not obese or anything" is gagworthy and insulting. That is more than damning with faint praise. That's tacky. Please rethink how you speak about your fellow humans.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 4:47 PM on September 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

Point taken on the backlash on my description. In hindsight I violated Rule #1. But the intention was just to paint an accurate picture.

Sorry all, and sorry LT.
posted by raider at 4:47 PM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

There's a bit in James Clavell's first novel about this expression - an American prisoner in a Japanese POW camp serves up some eggs and is quite offended by a British prisoner's assessment that they're "not bad" -- which the latter meant as a compliment. The exchange illustrated different speaking styles between US and UK English (and class was probably also a factor).
posted by Rash at 4:51 PM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

They're both silly, but they're intended to be compliments. I would be a bit skeeved by the first, amused by the second.
posted by stoneandstar at 4:53 PM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Comments on looks can be insulting even when they are unambiguously positive.
In the first case, dude could have been impressed with her pilot skills. But instead he had to be an ass and indicate that her looks mattered more. It's hardly relevant what he said about them.

As for the cashier, I am going to trust your friend's self report. (From the situation as reported I can't tell; it's context dependent. Your friend knows the context because she was there; neither you nor I should second-guess that.)
posted by nat at 5:05 PM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

If I said "not bad" in those contexts (leaving aside the sexism bit) I would mean it as a compliment, but a casual compliment - I'd want to say something positive but not inappropriately effusive/too emotional for my relationship to the person. I say "not bad" as a compliment a lot, actually - it's an understated thing to say, but positive.
posted by Frowner at 5:12 PM on September 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

Is "not bad" a compliment or an insult to a 34-yo lady?

Why does it make a difference what her age/gender is? It's either an insult or it isn't.

Like littlewater said, being from the Midwest, "not bad" means good:

Reporter: "You just won a million dollars, how do you feel?"
Midwesterner: "Not bad."

But most people are probably familiar with the concept of understatement, so unless you strongly feel there is some kind of cultural misunderstanding, just take her at her word.

And really, even if they meant to be complimentary, she can still be offended. Some people don't like strangers to make comments, either positive or negative, about their appearance.

On preview, I see your follow-up. I'm sure you had good intentions and just want your friend to feel better. I'm not sure if your apology is just about your description or also about not supporting and trusting your friend. In case it's the former...maybe take the blowback as a sign that you're not the most cognizant of these issues (not everyone is) and start trusting your friends when they say something is problematic? If it's the later, obviously disregard this last bit, you got the message.
posted by ghost phoneme at 5:14 PM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

1. She is a person who has 34 years of experience of what different people say to women who look like her, and what kinds of situations and relationships develop after these things are said. She is an expert on how to tell when a man is objectifying her or showing contempt for her humanity. You are not an expert in this. You have never been, and unless you transition, you will never will be, an expert on what it feels like to be a woman who is reduced to her looks in dehumanizing and upsetting ways.

2. She is basing her feelings about these particular comments on things that cannot be conveyed to you in words, things like quality and duration of eye contact, how the person looked at her body, their tone of voice, warmth or contempt, physical stance, timing, facial expressions, surroundings, and relative status in that moment. She is an expert in these interactions in general, and these two interactions in particular. She has amassed knowledge, insights, instincts and and observations that are accurate and valuable. You are not an expert in these interactions. You are actually trying to gaslight her about something you didn't even witness.

3. You reduced her to her looks in a dehumanizing way in your question, while also asking if she was "too sensitive" (gendered language, annoying).... and you didn't even know it. Even your apology doubles down about how "accurate" you were in your description of her body and how you certainly consider her attractive even though she was made less so by birthing human lives. You are obviously clumsy as hell around "ladies' sensitivities".

4. It is the absolute jawdropping height of arrogance that you have asked this question at all.

5. I wish she saw you more clearly, because I do not think you have been a good friend to her at all in this situation, and I suspect you do this kind of thing to her a lot.

6. Men who try to explain to women that they are "too sensitive" about misogyny, (or white people who explain to PoC that they are "too sensitive" about racism, or able-bodied ppl who explain to disabled people that they are "too sensitive" about ableism, rinse and repeat), are just infuriating. And then when you received valid critiques here, you called them "backlash", which is dismissive.

7. Please take a seat and think about how women are people and they know things.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 5:15 PM on September 7, 2016 [20 favorites]

Putting aside the mansplaining aspect and speaking directly to your friend, I think both cases sound more like someone trying to say something nice off the cuff and it comes out sounding terrible. That's not to say you're being "too" anything by finding them insulting. You were there and we weren't. But if it makes you feel better I don't think you have to think an A-list movie star insulted you to your face.
posted by bleep at 5:21 PM on September 7, 2016

But the intention was just to paint an accurate picture.

This whole thing is rife with so many unstated assumptions, like the fact that what she looks like is even relevant to how she feels about any of this. In my youth, everyone told me I was gorgeous. I also was raped and given the message it was my fault for being too pretty to resist.

How a woman looks in no way innoculates her against toxic sexist BS where even a pilot has to be pretty to be of value in the eyes of society. Do you think a male pilot would be given such crap at his place of employment?

I can't comprehend why you even asked this question. It looks like you are trying to get a bunch of internet strangers who were also not there to back you up in dismissing her opinions about her own experiences.

This happened twice in a year. Unless she is haranguing you eight hours a day about it and you just desperately want her to shut up, the only answer I can imagine is that it kills you for a woman to stand her ground, so you are relying on social pressure to help you "win" this.

That is all kinds of wrong coming from a so-called friend. I am irked at the idea that anyone who answers your actual question about whether or not these remarks can be taken as insulting is inadvertently helping you be dismissive of her, apparently solely because she is a woman, thus she must measure her worth entirely through the eyes of other people and what they think about her damn looks.

It is a no win situation even if they think you look good. I am okay with her being offended by that fact.
posted by Michele in California at 5:34 PM on September 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

[Raider, one of the things with AskMe is that it's basically one-way. I'm sorry you're getting criticism that you didn't intend, but it's not the place to try to counter it. ]
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 5:49 PM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Neither could be expected to effusively say "wow, you are 34 and a pilot and look so young? You are awesome!!!" in the context of these interactions.

Except that the cashier didn't know she was a pilot and the Fresh Prince of Belair didn't know she was 34. He wasn't complimenting her on looking young. He made a sexist remark he would never have made to a male pilot. It's not respectful. Do you get this? That women get this crap all day long? Even from you, apparently.

Granted, having a kid took a toll on her body but she is far from obese or anything like that.

This is beyond offensive. Please stop saying that childbirth "takes a toll" on a woman's body. And thank god she isn't fat, or "anything like that". Dude.
posted by the webmistress at 5:59 PM on September 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

Dude. Your opinion is irrelevant. Who cares if it was meant as an insult or not? It made your friend feel bad. She wants your support, not a poll on whether her feelings are valid.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:01 PM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Is it possible that rather than feeling that these people intended to be offensive, your friend was offended by the way they casually judged and felt entitled to comment on her body/appearance? If I were your friend, I would be royally pissed off about both of these situations, and I wouldn't care one bit whether the A-list asshole or the check-out chick meant to pay me a compliment or not.

Positive or negative doesn't really matter, what these remarks are is entitled, intrusive, and inappropriate.
posted by snorkmaiden at 6:06 PM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

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