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Which adjectives can be used to say to someone, like a colleague, lecturer or boss, in a formal or semi-formal way without sounding flirty, that they are dressed nicely? I am looking for a simple compliment.

I think there are some adjectives that can be used both for men and women, but there are some also that only can be used for men or women.

These are some adjectives I know in this sense but I don't know how informal/formal they are or whether they're appropriate for both men and women: Smart (mostly UK), decent, dapper, chic.

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    We shouldn't really be giving advice on how to compliment a boss or coworker on how they're dressed. "Corporate culture" varies a great deal, and what is acceptable in one milieu might be considered "sexist" or unprofessional in another. Best to compliment one's boss and colleagues on their work, and not on their appearance. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Mar 11 '15 at 14:40
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    I'd suggest "sharp". – Nathan Long Mar 11 '15 at 15:07
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    Your relationship with that person and your relative genders will greatly affect your wording. If you're good friends, you can be more informal, even if it's your boss... and, of course, (unless you have a same-sex gender preference and people know about it) you can always be more informal with people of your own gender. – Catija Mar 11 '15 at 17:14
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    WhAT @TRomano said. In the vast majority on "office" contexts I think it's wholly inappropriate to comment on other people's dress, so ELL shouldn't be providing opinion-based alternative phrasings in the first place. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Mar 11 '15 at 19:26
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    I think that we can give some guidance on a reasonable phrase that is the appropriate tone without having to get into the quagmire of workplace harassment. I work at a company that takes "inclusion" very seriously, and compliments on appearance are not taboo. Our team regularly acknowledges new haircuts and outfits and such with no bad will or HR incidents. – ColleenV parted ways Mar 11 '15 at 20:22
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In a formal professional setting, it can be better not to discuss another person's appearance. Some people take compliments better than others and some will read more into it than you mean regardless of what you say.

Complimenting appearance is generally (arguably) more commonly done by women to other women or (less frequently) men. There are times where a male may compliment a female, particularly likely at a special event or out-of-work meeting where their dress is considerably different from their usual appearance. Note that this is a generalization and does not necessarily apply to all people.

If you feel it necessary, I think that the most gender non-specific way of telling someone they look good that won't have any issues with impropriety is to say:

You look nice.

This can seem a bit vague but it can still be very effective if you make it specific to the person you're addressing and how you say it will make it seem sincere.

You can add a bit to it to make it less terse,

You look very nice tonight.

It can also be followed by a specific thing you think they've done well:

You look nice. I really like your dress/suit.

You look nice. That color really suits you.

You could also go this route but be careful to use only if it's really obvious they've made a change to their look:

You look nice. Did you get a new hair cut/glasses?

In general, people like getting affirmation that their new look suits them as they can be a little unsure.

This can all go out the window the second you become friendly with your coworkers/boss and your gender in relation to theirs can greatly affect what's appropriate.

  • I agree "You look nice!" is a good general purpose, gender neutral way to compliment someone's outfit. I like to be more specific, especially with colleagues I know well. "That color looks great on you." "I like your tie/shoes/jacket." I try to avoid "Did you get a new hair cut, lose weight, etc. questions that require a response that may be "Uh, no." I like to make my compliments statements because some folks can be a little shy or uncomfortable about receiving compliments. That's just my personal preference; I don't think asking a polite question like "Is that new?" is bad. – ColleenV parted ways Mar 11 '15 at 17:36
  • @ColleenV Thanks! I only ask about haircuts, for example, if it's extremely obvious but maybe I should make note of that. – Catija Mar 11 '15 at 17:39
  • A male coworker cannot say to a male boss, "You look nice", at least not in the majority of workplaces. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Mar 11 '15 at 21:57
  • @TRomano I guess I don't usually run across guys complimenting each other on their looks in general. – Catija Mar 11 '15 at 23:09
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    I think at least here in the UK it would be more appropriate in a professional environment to tell someone that their outfit looks nice - or say "That looks nice" rather than "You look nice", which could be seen as a little forward/overly personal/flirtatious, particularly with some gender combinations (e.g. man saying it to woman). Specifics will of course depend on your particular workplace and company culture. – starsplusplus Mar 12 '15 at 14:51
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I always use "sharp" in this context (US). Even "nice," I think, can be taken as flirty. To me, "sharp" leans mechanical (w/c?) and sort of disarms any flirtatious connotation.

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    I would only use sharp when talking to a man. As a woman, I don't think I'd like being told I look sharp. – Catija Mar 11 '15 at 23:53
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    My instinct is the same, and that's kind of why I suggest it -- it's clearly a compliment, but it carries absolutely no baggage other than being conventionally used for men. – Doug Chase Mar 12 '15 at 3:29
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    Just don't do the same in German - there "sharp" (scharf) has an explicite sexual connotation. However, I would like to add that "nice" seems appropriate to me. When a man compliments a woman it can always be taken flirty by her, no matter what expression is used. – Patric Hartmann Mar 12 '15 at 14:01
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    Or when a woman compliments a man the same may hold too, @Patric Hartmann. The only safely non-sexual compliment of a person's dress and appearance in US corporate culture (IMO) is woman-to-woman, where the compliments enjoy free range from head to toe. I like what you've done with your hair...Where'd you get those shoes?? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Mar 12 '15 at 18:02
  • @TRomano My experience is completely different. I've given and received compliments from and to both men and women in my workplace. Whether it is appropriate to compliment a particular person at a particular time isn't a question of language. The connotation of "sharp" as mostly used for men is a language question. – ColleenV parted ways Mar 12 '15 at 19:02
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"Elegant" could be suited for such a situation.

  • Is business attire ever elegant? Or are we at a soirée? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Mar 12 '15 at 19:51
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You can use the word "sophisticated" in this sense, which is complimentary without being perceived as flirty.

  • It implies that at other times they look unsophisticated. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Mar 11 '15 at 22:41
  • Yes, but that doesn't have to be offensive e.g. "You are dressing casually today" would not be seen as an offensive remark, yet is also implying that the person has not dressed in a sophisticated manner. – mjbk88 Mar 12 '15 at 10:07
  • Casual is not the opposite of sophisticated in my world. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Mar 12 '15 at 10:58
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There's no need for a formal word or phrase to tell someone they have dressed for the occasion. Just tell them they are "well dressed".

You're very well dressed tonight.

This may not be a 'fancy' word, but it's the least likely phrase to be taken as flirtatious, and is non-gendered, so regardless of what gender colleague you're addressing, it's appropriate to say.

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A bit dated:

Nice threads

Hey, looking snappy today!

A mouthful, also a Commonwealth-English idiom:

You're looking well-turned out.

These have strong fashion connotations:

swank

chic

dapper

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There is no such adjective. In fact, unless the word also implies that the wearer was unattractive, there can not be a word that is both complimentary on personal appearance and non-flirty. A compliment upon a persons appearance always says that you like the way the person looks, whether that is taken or intended to be flirty is a personal matter.

The closest you can come is complimenting the clothes themselves.

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    While this answer is technically correct, it's not practical. Of course any compliment can be taken as flirtation by a listener seeking it - but as you say in the answer itself, you can minimize this by offering a comment that is less likely to be taken as flirtation. – Zibbobz Mar 11 '15 at 20:22
  • @Zibbobz: that is exactly my point. The answer is practical: the word does not exist, do not look for it. The question isn't how to compliment someone without appearing to flirt, it is what word can be used to say this. English does not have such a word. That is my answer. – jmoreno Mar 11 '15 at 20:28
  • The phrase used in the question, "without sounding flirty", strongly suggests the asker is asking for a word where the speaker does not appear to be flirting, not explicitly saying "I am not flirting with you". – Zibbobz Mar 11 '15 at 20:53
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    If that is what you think, then I think you are reading far too much into innocent compliments. – Zibbobz Mar 12 '15 at 15:23
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    Our executive council was visiting our location recently, so we all were dressed in our "Sunday best" during the duration of their visit. Lots of folks were complimentary on others' appearance and there was no perception of flirting. Granted, we may be a bit more friendly than colleagues might be in a different company, but we do have a professional work environment. I have to agree with @Zibbobz that if you believe that someone is flirting with you simply because they notice how you look, you're misinterpreting most folks' intentions. – ColleenV parted ways Mar 12 '15 at 18:25

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