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Background

This happened in Netherlands. I have some mixed ancestry. I mostly look like a Dutch person, except for my curly bush of hair and my olive skin. In school I got bullied a lot because of my hair. I've only recently stopped straightening my hair and started embracing my curls. I now believe that all types of hair (or lack thereof) are beautiful and everyone deserves to be proud of their hair.

Situation

Today, I went to grab a coffee from a local coffee shop (American style). The woman who served me had cornrows, the traditional African braids. I love those, but I know a lot of people do not.

I told her, when she handed me my coffee, that I loved her hairstyle. She immediately went silent and she seemed very nervous afterwards. I felt awkward and left the shop.

I fear she might have taken my compliment as a mockery of her hair. I'm wondering if I could've handled that better.

P.S. I'm an aspie.

  • 1
    Do you remember the exact words you used or was it simply: "I love your hairstyle"? – XtremeBaumer Jan 10 at 13:52
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    @XtremeBaumer It was "Ik vind je haar erg leuk" which translates roughly to "I love your hair(style)". – Belle Jan 10 at 13:57
  • How was the situation around that sentence? Was there smalltalk or was it completely out of the blue? – XtremeBaumer Jan 10 at 13:59
  • @XtremeBaumer It was a tad out of the blue. It's a Starbucks-style shop, were you just take your coffee and go. – Belle Jan 10 at 14:01
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    If it's any consolation I'm not an aspie and I've yet to give a successful hair compliment to a worker. :) – Lux Claridge Jan 10 at 14:31
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I don't typically comment on aspects of people's appearances because I try to avoid finding myself in a situation such as you've found yourself in, but I have witnessed it on many occasions, and I have never seen someone react poorly to receiving a compliment.

There are lines that can be crossed though. One common one is asking to touch the hair (which you didn't do). Many blogs written by women of African heritage who live among largely white populations confirm that compliments are generally fine, but asking to touch is a bad idea.

This blog on HuffPost puts it quite well

Yes, the first part is a compliment. I do appreciate that you appreciate my hair. However, by asking to touch my hair you’re making me feel like an exhibit in a museum.

She does go on to mention that it often seems like the only thing people can seem to compliment her on is her hair, so it's not a bad idea to look for other things to compliment her on, such as a choice in jewelry. I've had many women tell me that they prefer compliments on their clothing or jewelry rather than on their physical features. The reason for this is that those things are conscious choices that they've made which you are affirming with your compliments.

This article from the root also cautions to be aware of the context in which you give these compliments

Keeping in mind a general sensitivity toward people who don’t like to be put on the spot—especially when that would mean having their racial differences highlighted—keep your compliments between you and the owner of the hair, and don’t make a scene with your praise. Keep this in mind especially in situations in which her race and gender make her a minority (think classroom or boardroom versus coffee shop).

Most likely, you ran into a person who is uncomfortable with receiving compliments, so I wouldn't worry too much, but it is good to keep in mind the fact that you are pointing out a cultural difference, and there is unfortunately going to be some degree of risk that you make the other person uncomfortable.

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    Its not quite the same, but this answer should definitly be considered. Its asking out vs. complimenting, but still relevant in my eyes to understand how people feel while working. – XtremeBaumer Jan 10 at 14:32
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    To expand on @XtremeBaumer 's comment that seems so relevant to the context, I'd keep in mind that any employee facing such a weird situation will fear the "secret shopper syndrom" and its possible bad outcomes. More reading HERE. Be professional at all times, please :) – OldPadawan Jan 10 at 15:54

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