Thanks to the #MeToo movement, we all know not to tell colleagues that they look “hot.” But language that isn’t overtly sexual can also cause problems. Even a seemingly innocuous word like “lovely” can be used in a gendered way that has surprisingly bad outcomes for productivity and effectiveness. Here’s a real-life illustration of why avoiding “lovely” matters, and some suggestions for what to say instead.

The Lowdown on “Loveliness”

At a leadership conference I attended recently, I bristled a bit in my seat when the host, a male senior executive, referred to a female senior executive who was acting as the MC as “the lovely Millicent” (not her real name) before he asked her to continue the proceedings. Later, during a break, I chatted with another male senior executive, a sophisticated, cosmopolitan type, about organizational issues, his life as an ex-pat, and generational differences in the workplace. As we returned to a session, he indicated that I should proceed him through the door, and as I did, he called me “Lovely Lady” in a way that was clearly meant to be complimentary — possibly even gallant.

I took a deep breath. “I hope you’ll forgive me,” I said. “I think you’re trying to show that you appreciated our conversation. But I hope you’re not calling the women you work with ‘lovely’ as a way to show approval. It creates a kind of double bind — they may want to accept what sounds like a compliment, but it’s strangely trivializing, as if you’re patting them on the head. I don’t know if you noticed this morning when Jack [not his real name] called Millicent ‘lovely’ instead of all the strong, concrete things he said about the men he introduced.”

His eyes widened, and now he took a breath. “I probably do that all the time,” he said. “Thank you. No one’s ever said anything about that to me before, but it makes sense, and I’ll try not do it.”

Unintended Consequences of Personal Compliments

In most workplaces, people use different language to talk about — and to address — men and women. It would be quite unusual, for instance, to refer to a male executive as “the handsome” or even “the gallant” in an introduction, or as a way to signify professional approval. Certainly loveliness is a wonderful human quality. But when we call someone “lovely,” or similar descriptors like “beautiful” or “sweet,” such language doesn’t suggest competence, effectiveness, or drive — in fact, words like these may actually imply the opposite. Would you rather be lovely or powerful? Lovely or authoritative? Lovely or knowledgeable?

Referring to female executives as “lovely” is an example of benevolent sexism, which assumes that women need the protection of paternalistic men in order to be successful and feel worthy, and that if they behave independently or competitively they won’t “deserve” that protection and will be subject to negative consequences. The underlying premise is that women have a traditional place, and should stay in it.

Women are often described with language derived from physical appearance, which can imply — even at work — that they are there to be pleasing to men, rather than to support themselves and/or satisfy their ambitions. This kind of language doesn’t acknowledge the strengths that women bring to move a business forward; instead, it highlights gender stereotypes that value women for their appearance, prizing them as decorations rather than as doers.

When women are trivialized in the workplace, their careers also progress more slowly. When men try to show their support for women through complimentary language, if that language happens to be gendered, then subsequent treatment of women, including consideration for promotion or other plum assignments, is also more likely to be biased. Worse, when biased treatment is present, women are more likely to conduct themselves in ways that confirm the very stereotypes that hold them back.

It doesn’t take overt harassment for someone to feel out of place. Just going unrecognized as a competent, achievement-oriented person can be enough to make women feel isolated from their colleagues and disengaged from their work. So if we want to be positive and complimentary, what can we say instead of using benevolent, gendered language?

Workplaces should be focused on the behaviors, accomplishments, and results that create successful outcomes for the company, and effective compliments can reflect that focus. For instance, Jack, the conference host, could have introduced the MC as “the expert and engaging Millicent Smith,” and my gallant new colleague could have told me that our conversation had been thought-provoking, or even that he had been glad to meet me.

Statements like “I appreciate the energy and tenacity you brought to the ABC project” or “I admire the way you’re always so welcoming and gracious, even when you’re on deadline,” and “You do a great job at pulling the team together and knowing what everyone needs” are more relevant ways of highlighting what are inaccurately called “soft skills.” And “Thank you for everything you did to bring the project in on time and under budget” is a compliment that anyone would be glad to receive.