Miss Conduct

Advice: Is it obnoxious to comment on a tattoo?

It’s a form of art and therefore fair game for remarks — or is that bad form? Plus, it bugs me when students bring their coffee to meetings.

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So many people of all ages are sporting tattoos. I often wonder if it’s OK to comment about a person’s body art. It’s meant to be seen, right? Once I said to a young woman at my optometrist’s office, “Wow, that must have taken a long time,” and she seemed quite pleased that I noticed her colorful, almost full-sleeve tattoo. She told me about it, its significance, who inked it, etc. That’s the only time I have ever commented on anyone’s tattoo. What is the etiquette about commenting on tattoos?

L.S./ Salem

I don’t know about you, L.S., but personally I always forget how prevalent body art is until spring, when you can see skin again! And then you realize how mainstream tattoos have become. Now that we’ve all emerged from our down-quilted cocoons again, into the fabulous yet sensible Boston butterflies we are, let’s review the dual etiquette of appearance compliments as it applies to body art, hair treatments, and dress:

First, it is rude to comment on people’s bodies, positively or negatively.

Second, it is acceptable to compliment people’s style choices.


In other words, you can comment on what people do, but not what they are. Compliment the hairstyle, not the hair; the clothes, not the body.

Tattoos are a choice, like clothing or jewelry, so you may admire the art (without touching it, just as you would in a museum). The compliment — “I like your tattoo,” “Those colors are lovely,” etc. — is an invitation to conversation. If your inked interlocutor replies with a flat “thanks” and changes the subject, don’t pursue it. But if she responds with details, as the woman in the optometrist’s office did, feel free to ask respectful questions — i.e., those that are neither too intimate nor implicitly judgmental. Follow the other person’s conversational lead.

Tattoos, like jewelry, can be a public statement of a very private commitment, so don’t interrogate about the origin of the tattoo, or its cost in pain or pence. If you saw someone wearing a St. Jude medal, you wouldn’t ask them what the most hopeless cause in their life was.

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Students come to my consulate seeking visas to study abroad. Is it rude for them to bring a cup of coffee to drink while I am processing their paperwork?

P.G./ Boston

Not in this culture, not anymore. It would be inadvisable in a formal meeting — I wouldn’t tote a Starbucks to a job interview — but it’s become a norm pretty much everywhere else. Disapprove of that cultural norm if you like, but don’t take it personally. You aren’t being treated with individual disrespect.

Your clientele are juggling ever-changing class schedules and the gig economy and one of the worst cities for traffic in the United States. Staying adequately hydrated and caffeinated at all times is one of the few aspects of their daily life they can control, so they do. You have an office to keep your coffee in, and maybe even a door to close to sip it in private. They don’t.


You can draw the limit at coffee and make them put away snack bars, though. Crumbs attract mice.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.