Modern Etiquette: Let's talk about cosmetic surgery

(Mary M. Mitchell has written several books on the subject of etiquette, including “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Etiquette” and “Class Acts.” She is also the founder of executive training consultancy The Mitchell Organization with the website The opinions expressed are her own.)

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Four generations coexist in today’s workplace, each with a different set of perception glasses through which they see the world, their colleagues, their work, and themselves.

And generational differences aside, each individual has a different set of needs, a different set of motivations. There is, however, some commonality: everybody wants to be at their best, to feel good, to look good, and to perform well.

The Wall Street Journal reports, not surprisingly, that more Baby Boomers are having cosmetic surgery than ever before. A recent wire service story reported that image scanners are now looking into individuals’ original appearance before cosmetic surgery to validate identification. This technology never would have been conceived were it not for the numbers of people who are changing their appearance.

When we change the way we look, it almost automatically changes the way others react to us. One would do well to adopt the approach of “mine not to reason why”, to paraphrase Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

That requires setting some parameters.

“Plastic surgery takes on a polarizing effect like religion or politics. People have very strong opinions about it,” commented Mary Lee Peters, a board-certified Seattle-based plastic surgeon.

Indeed they do.

Haven’t we all been privy to snarky comments about people we claim “have had work done?”

“There is no getting around it and no denying it. It is foolish to pretend that comfort in one’s body doesn’t matter. The people most likely to deny it are mostly uncomfortable with their own appearance,” continued Dr. Peters.

“Men are more reluctant to come up with reasons why they want to turn to cosmetic surgery. My observation is that men do it when either their economic status or their power structure is threatened.”

With all due respect to Dr. Peters, my own experience is that, irrespective of gender, our dissatisfaction with our appearance ultimately impacts our perceptions of power structure and economic status. Yet, in terms of how we deal with others, does this really matter?

If you run into someone whose appearance is markedly different and you suspect cosmetic surgery, here are some suggestions for what you can do to keep the situation comfortable for all parties.

Don’t blurt out a comment.

Chances are this person is undoubtedly feeling sensitive about their appearance anyway, so, if you must ask, keep it to a simple question of concern and avoid any exaggerated reaction.

The person to whom you are talking, hopefully, in private, may not choose to acknowledge the recent surgery.

“While it is an intensely personal and private decision to respond, doing so in the affirmative withdraws anyone’s capacity to use it against you,” Dr. Peters said. “It also gives permission to the other person to discuss the surgery for personal, informational purposes.”

Don’t ask.

Even if you’re dying to know, it’s bad manners to ask if a person has had a “nose job” or “eye job.” In fact, those terms should be avoided altogether. Again, if you must say something, try something like: “You look wonderful. Whatever you are doing lately, it agrees with you.”

Don’t criticize.

If someone tells you he is she is contemplating cosmetic surgery, resist the temptation to call it a “crazy idea” and to try to talk the person out of it. It is equally important not to agree that the person does, indeed, need the work done. Respect the ability of others to decide for themselves, and honor their choices.

Don’t judge.

If a person tells you the cosmetic surgery has been done, the safest response is to ask if he or she is pleased with the results. Even if pressed, never judge the results. This is a classic “shoot the messenger” situation. The most diplomatic response, when the details of the surgery are shared, is to say, “I see what you mean, but only when you point it out.”

Don’t gossip.

Never volunteer the names of others you know who have undergone cosmetic surgery. In fact, any gossiping about the subject is out of line. Any “cosmetic” procedure is, in fact, a medical procedure and therefore serious business.

Be solicitous.

When people tell you they have had cosmetic surgery, ask how they’re feeling. They will be glad you care enough to ask. If you’re the one who has had the surgery, and you look markedly different, you can make it easier on those around you by opening the conversational door.

“In the last analysis, it’s like choosing butter over olive oil, or vice versa,” Dr. Peters said. “If you want to do it, and you are able to, why would that be any different from using resources to go to Europe or anywhere else?”

This columnist happens to agree.

Editing by Paul Casciato