The dean whose college sponsored the talk came over to say hello to the invited speaker. I knew him already, but the other two, both middle-age professors at a university across the country, both established and well published, and a long-term couple, didn’t. I introduced my friends to the dean.

The professors said, “You’re the dean? How old are you?”

The professors said, “This place lets 12-year-olds become deans?”

The professors said, “Baby dean!”

The dean demurred. Put his head down.

I said, “No doubt being dean for the last year has aged you.”

He said, “I’ve got more wrinkles and have gained 15 pounds.”

I said, “So now you look closer to your age and are at a normal weight.”

The professors said, “Baby dean!”

Then one of the professors took the stage, gave the talk she’d been hired to deliver and garnered great applause.

But I woke up the next morning with a moral hangover.

I replayed our conversation. The translation of “baby dean” was, Hey! It’s great that someone so young has risen quickly through the academic ranks. It seemed remarkable, and so, it was remarked on.

My sense is the dean does his job well and doesn’t take himself so seriously that this exchange would have much bothered him, if he thought about it at all. Someone overhearing the conversation might have seen him blush and thought he’d felt complimented, which was, after all, how the comments were intended.

But good intentions are only part of every story and often count for little.

The next night, at dinner, I told my visiting friends that I’d had some misgivings about our interaction with the dean.

“The baby dean?”

I pointed out that if we had been three middle-age men and he was a woman that conversation would not have been OK. They immediately saw the problem.

“That was not OK,” one of them said.

“It was me,” the other said.

“It was all of us,” I said. “And we need to do better, be better.”

We’re living in a curious time. Even those who profess a commitment to issues of diversity and tolerance slip up in their speech and betray old-fangled ways of thinking. It can be hard to remember that we need to be aware of the unintended consequences of our words.

Some of my colleagues and friends rail against what they see as restrictions on speech. “You have to think about everything you say these days,” they carp.

Darn tootin’.

I remember watching the congressional hearings for a Supreme Court nominee who had asked a woman in his employ, “Who put a pubic hair on my Coke can?” Men said stuff like that all the time in my office at a prestigious New York publisher in those days. It never occurred to me that taking any kind of action or even speaking up was an option.

When I was younger, men routinely made suggestive comments that I laughed off. I thanked them for “compliments” on my clothes and my body. My experience was not, of course, unique.

But women, in fact, paid closer attention to how I looked. Even now, my female friends tend to spend way more time commenting on the shoes, hair, clothes and skin of other women than the men do. Most guys – at least those who want to keep their jobs – have learned to keep their evaluations to themselves.

A few years after I started teaching I made a blanket rule for myself: No comments on students’ appearance. Sometimes, a guy would come to class barely recognizable. He may have shaved off a lumberjack beard or started wearing glasses. I’d be tempted to blurt what I had figured out but held back. He didn’t need me to tell him that yes, he’d shaved; my opinion of how he looked was none of his business. I had to work even harder to contain my comments on the women, especially when they looked fantastic having lost or gained weight, or when I coveted a piece of their clothing (as I often do). I learned to muzzle myself even when I wanted to gush.

I don’t think outward appearance should be the most important thing about people. I cringe when I see my teenage (and millennial) friends’ Instagram streams – pretty girls who I know are smart and talented posing for the camera and writing semi-literate captions that provoke responses like, “U so beautiful” and “Oh, pretty!!!!!” “ur cute!” And then, the “Thank yous!” and hearts that inevitably follow.

Offering a “like” or a verbal pat on the back can be a shortcut to making someone feel good about herself. It is also, by extension, a cheap way by those who want to be liked to buy goodwill.

These days I prefer to focus on what someone has done, said, or made and give positive feedback on those accomplishments rather than comment on how they look. I want those around me, particularly students and youngsters, to know that their actions, words and thoughts matter more than their choices in shoes or facial hair.

Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. She is the author of one novel and five books of nonfiction.

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