Saturday, April 6, 2013

How to give a woman a compliment on her looks: Advice for Obama and other men

President Obama got in a spot of trouble this week when he gave a compliment to Kamala Harris, the Attorney General of California, calling her "the best looking attorney general." He later apologized to her. It seems odd that Obama, who has an excellent history of supporting women's rights, and is clearly very comfortable with powerful, highly accomplished women, would have made such a simple mistake.

My issue with the entire affair is that reactions seem to fall into two camps: "it's not that big of a deal, why can't men give women compliments?" and "he was a jerk who made a demeaning comment." I'm here to offer a more nuanced perspective.

Before I do so, however, I would like to point out that, if the worst thing that happens during Obama's presidency in terms of his personal relations with women is that he gets into 5 minutes of trouble for giving a good friend a compliment, he's doing really well. And so are we.

Obviously, there are times when it is appropriate to give a woman a compliment on her appearance. Most women at some point put a great deal of effort into how they look - they buy expensive clothes, they put on makeup, they might work out. Even women who spend most of their time in jeans and t-shirts occasionally like to dress up. But there are also times when giving a woman a compliment is rude and inappropriate. How to tell the difference? Here are three guidelines:

1. Professional vs. social environment. It's generally not a good idea to give a woman a compliment on her looks in a professional environment; it's far more acceptable to do so in a social environment. The exception to the professional rule is if the woman has a job in which her looks are important professionally; model, singer, or actress, for example. Why is this? 2 reasons. First, if you comment on her looks, it means that you think her looks are more important, at least at that moment, than her intelligence or her abilities. Which means that you aren't paying attention to those. Which means that, at least for that moment, you aren't taking her seriously. If there are other men with you, you probably aren't paying attention to their looks. So you are taking her male colleagues seriously in terms of their abilities, but not her. The second reason is that most professional relationships have at least some adversarial aspect to them. Even if you have the nicest boss in the world, you still have some interests in conflict with her. But giving a woman a compliment on her appearance is an act of intimacy, even if it's a very mild intimacy, and you are asking her to be emotionally vulnerable as she accepts your compliment. That may interfere with the adversarial nature of your relationship.
In a social setting, it's much more acceptable to make an emotionally intimate connection with a woman, because those situations are generally not adversarial, and there's probably a much higher level of trust. Obama's mistake was confusing the social and the professional. Apparently he and Kamala Harris are good friends personally, and have known each other for a long time. So he felt free to give her a compliment as a friend. If he had done so in a private setting, like at a fundraising dinner with only other Democrats present, he might have gotten away with it. But Kamala Harris, as Attorney General of California, has LOTS of adversarial professional relationships, more so than almost anyone else in the country. The issue is not that she doesn't want to be emotionally intimate with people; she's also a politician. But she wants to be the one in control of when she is. See #3 below.
There are some situations where people who know each other professionally interact in a social setting, for example at a conference. Err on the side of being professional, but, again, see #3 below.

2. It's generally OK to give a woman a compliment if she is getting - and wants - lots of attention. At a wedding, the bride will be getting lots of attention, particularly for her appearance. She wants that attention in that setting. So give it to her. The bridesmaids, and even most of the other women, will feel the same. If a woman or girl is at a formal dance (like a prom), she probably wants attention paid to her appearance. If she is receiving some kind of award or special recognition, and has dressed up for the occasion, it may be appropriate to compliment her appearance, as long as you also recognize her accomplishments. This may be one of those situations where the professional and the personal mix.

3. The most important factor in deciding whether or not to give a woman a compliment is: take your cues from her.  Repeat: take your cues from her. If there is any question in your mind about whether or not she wants the compliment, first, stop and think. Try to put yourself in her shoes. Is there anything unusual about this situation that would indicate that it's either appropriate or not? Did she clearly make an effort to look particularly good on this occasion? How well do you know her? Are you equals, or are you her superior, or her inferior, professionally? Are you giving more attention to her than to other women in the room? Are you giving attention to her that you would not give to men around you? Maybe not OK. Or are you at a bar late on a Saturday night, and she's been checking you out for the last 10 minutes? Are you at a party and she's wearing a tight skirt and a low-cut blouse? Probably OK.

Taking your cues from her means that you are listening to her, maybe even before she has said anything. And the best way to get a woman to listen to you is to show her, first, that you are listening to her.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Oscar Predictions - 2013

Oscars are tomorrow! So it's time once again for Oscar predictions. This year is exciting, because there are a couple of races that look like sure things, but some that are wide open.

I take what I call a "Resource Allocation" approach to the Oscars. I start with the idea that there are some movies for which the nomination itself is the award; those probably won't win anything. Some of these are nominated in the technical/craft categories, like sound effects or music. Some are nominated for the "big" categories. The director of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin, was nominated for Best Director. He's a very long shot to win, but the fact that he was nominated at all is a huge deal for him. These movies are generally very good, but not great.

But there are some movies that, at least in my opinion, SHOULD win something. These are the movies that either are great movies in and of themselves, or some aspect of them is great. For this year, these are the movies that I think should win at least one Oscar:

Les Miserables
Life of Pi

There are a couple of movies that are on the fence: they probably should win something, but it's as clear as the others:

Django Unchained
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

I would like to put Zero Dark Thirty in the first category, because I think it was a fantastic movie, but the torture controversy has weakened its chances. My feelings about the torture scenes in ZD30 are that if you were opposed to torture before, a movie will probably not change your mind. If you were in favor of torture before, this movie might confirm your opinion. But I don't think it's the responsibility of the filmmakers to take a position, and I think they handled it well.

Then I move on to which movies are most likely to win SOMETHING. This year, there are two virtual locks: Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, and Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables. I haven't followed the technical awards shows very closely, but there's a fairly good chance that Life of Pi will win at least one technical award, probably visual effects. I completely bought the idea that Richard Parker, the tiger, was real. So let's assume Life of Pi wins for visual effects.

That leaves Argo as the one movie among the "should" list that we aren't sure about. It's possible that Alan Arkin will win for Best Supporting Actor, but not a sure thing by any means. His performance was good, but his performance is not the reason it's a great movie. There are two other possibilities: Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay. The screenplay awards are sometimes a "second place" award for Best Picture or Best Director, particularly if the director is also one of the screenwriters. See Tarantino, Quentin, for Pulp Fiction. But Ben Affleck didn't write the screenplay. And Argo has been sweeping up all kinds of awards that suggest it will win Best Picture. So Argo looks like it's got an excellent chance of winning Best Picture.

In the "might" category, Amour might, and probably will, win Best Foreign Language. The categories that we don't know are:
Best Director
Best Actress
Best Supporting Actor
Best Original Screenplay

Best Adapted Screenplay is also somewhat up in the air. Best Director comes down to Spielberg vs. Ang Lee. While I liked Life of Pi, and I think the technical aspects are amazing, the end of the story didn't grab me. I haven't read the book, but I've heard many times that it was considered unfilmable, because of the depth of the spiritual/religious concerns addressed. For me, the technical achievement overshadowed the story; I was blown away by the CGI, but the spiritual aspects of the story, while nicely done, didn't impress me as all that substantive. In terms of story, I think Spielberg did a more interesting job in Lincoln. Just taking on telling the story of one of the most famous men in history is an impressive feat. I felt like I learned something about how Lincoln actually got things done and how the American political process worked, which was wonderful. So Best Director to Spielberg.

Best Actress is a tough one, because there are two strong contenders, Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain. Lawrence's performance was much more showy, and she showed a lot of maturity for an actress of her age (she's 22). Chastain's performance was much more restrained, but it's one hell of a role. My gut tells me that a lot of the women in the Academy would like to see more roles for women that are highly accomplished, very gutsy professionals. Also, I personally feel that, although Silver Linings Playbook is a very good movie, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, Zero Dark Thirty is close to a masterpiece, and a better movie that Silver Linings. Using my logic of a great movie deserving at least one Oscar, this could be the only one that ZD30 wins. So my pick is Jessica Chastain for Best Actress, because ZD30 should win something, and the fact that a female CIA agent is at the core is one of the things that makes it unusual.

We're left with Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor. Screenplay comes down to Zero Dark Thirty or Django Unchained, although Amour has a shot as well. The writer of ZD30, Mark Boal, is also a producer, so this would be a good way of awarding that movie second place for Best Picture. Quentin Tarantino is the writer and director of Django Unchained. He wasn't nominated for Best Director, and he doesn't have a producer credit, so Best Original Screenplay would be the only way to recognize him directly for this movie. It's a very good script, but it's also very much a Quentin Tarantino script. Mark Boal told a story for which the audience not only knew the ending, but were very familiar with it. But it's still fascinating. Tarantino came up with a clever idea and executed it well, but I think Boal had the harder job, particularly given the level of secrecy surrounding the specifics. So I think Boal and Zero Dark Thirty win Best Original screenplay.

Which leaves us with two movies - Django Unchained and Silver Linings Playbook, and one category, Best Supporting Actor. I thot De Niro did a good job, but it didn't feel like a particularly meaty role for an actor of his caliber. He hasn't been nominated in a long time, but that's partially because he hasn't chosen a great role in a while. Tommy Lee Jones was very good in Lincoln, but he was playing a crusty old man, and we've seen him in that role before. Christoph Waltz has already won an Oscar for being in a Tarantino movie, and this isn't really a supporting role - he's in basically every scene until he's no longer in the movie, and he has far more dialogue than anyone else (at least it feels that way). But he carries the movie brilliantly. It's a very demanding role, and he pulls it off beautifully. Christoph Waltz for Best Supporting Actor.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Why Republicans Are Opposing Chuck Hagel

GOP Senators are opposing Obama's presumptive nominee for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel. Their rationale is that he is weak on support for Israel and on sanctions against Iran.

That's plausible, but I'm not buying it. Republican senators are opposing Hagel's nomination for the same reason that they opposed Susan Rice's nomination for Secretary of State: they think they can take out the nominee, and thereby win a minor skirmish with Obama, and make him look weak. Susan Rice was a decent candidate for Secretary of State, but not great. There are generally 3 kinds of nominees for that job: career diplomats, prominent figures within the president's party, and people close to the president. Susan Rice is a career diplomat who is close to the president, but she's not a prominent figure within the party. As Republicans were opposing her, there were some other rumblings that she wasn't eminently qualified. So the GOP smelled blood in the water, and wanted a scalp. Fortunately for Obama, Rice figured out what was going on, and saved herself and the president a lot of grief.

They're doing the same thing with Hagel. This time there is some opposition to the nomination from the left, which isn't thrilled about the idea of another Democrat president choosing a Republican Secretary of Defense just to look tough on national security. So the GOP is betting that, if they gang up on Hagel, their opposition, combined with the qualms on the left, will sink the nomination, making Obama look weak on national security. They don't really care about whether or not Hagel is qualified or not to be Secretary of Defense; they just want to beat Obama somehow.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Suggestions for Jury Duty Reform

I was called in for jury duty in December. I went in to the courthouse, but wasn't called. Not much of a surprise, because apparently the courts aren't all that busy in December.

I received the notice that I had to serve a couple of months before I was called. I had the option to postpone or decline, but only for very good reason. I am currently working for a large law firm, and they give you 10 days off if you are called to serve on a jury. It wasn't a hardship for me or my coworkers. But for many people, I'm sure it is.

So my idea is this: let citizens who are called for jury duty request or suggest particular times of the year when they will be called to serve. Many people have seasonal jobs. Wedding planners, for example, are busy in the spring and summer, but not the fall and winter. Accountants and tax preparers are busy until April 15. Athletes and coaches on sports team are busy during the season, but not the offseason. Politicians and their campaign staff are busy during campaign season, but not afterwards.

Many people also have specific commitments that they know about well in advance. Weddings, for example, are generally planned months in advance. Students and professors who plan to spend a semester or more off-campus - for example, studying abroad, or teaching at another college - usually know about that well ahead of time. People who work in the entertainment industry travel constantly - musicians go on tour, films and TV shows shoot on location.

It would work like this: the local court administrator sends out mail in the fall to prospective jurors for the next year. Those jurors can specify which months of the year they would prefer to serve, and which months they would prefer not to serve. They might select three months that they would like to serve, three months that they would not, or cannot serve, and six months that they are neutral about. Or they might list the months in order of their preference, from 1 to 12. The sooner they get their response in, the more likely they will be to receive their preference, so people with tight schedules have a strong incentive to get their requests in early. Notifications would then be sent out in December, letting people know when they will be called to serve on jury duty. This would greatly reduce stress on all parties involved.

Then, if something comes up over the course of the year, and someone will not be able to serve jury duty, they will, hopefully, be able to give advance notice. If someone suddenly has to move, or go out of town for an extended basis, they can inform the court as soon as they know, and reschedule appropriately.

I served on a jury once, and I enjoyed it (the judge declared a mistrial, so we didn't reach a verdict), but I've heard stories from friends for whom serving on a jury was a significant hassle. This proposal would, hopefully, go a long way towards making jury duty much more manageable for many more Americans.