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Answer by Gayle Laakmann McDowell:
Forget about the word offensive. That word confuses a lot of people and causes silly debate over what qualifies as harm. What matters is if it’s hurtful/harmful. It often is.
If someone is yawning frequently, then it’s reasonable to conclude that he or she is sleepy. It’s fine, mostly, to say, “You seem tired.” (I say “mostly” because even if he or she is tired and you had reason to believe that, there might be a better way to ask.)
But when you conclude that someone looks tired, you’re going based off his or her physical appearance. Maybe his facial color seems a little off, or maybe she seems like she has bags under her eyes. These are generally considered to be unattractive things. Although your intentions might be showing concern and care, you’re signalling that the person’s physical characteristics are not attractive that day. That is a mildly hurtful thing; it’s calling her a little bit ugly and making her self-conscious. It’s better to just avoid such a comment. Even if you are basing this on the person’s actions, it can still be annoying. If it happens frequently, it makes a person have to be hyperaware of how he or she is coming across.
There’s a person I know who does this regularly. If I answer the phone and don’t sound sufficiently “bubbly,” she’ll say: “Is everything OK? You seem kind of down.” This happens about 30 percent of the time, immediately after I answer the phone. I’ve learned to fake a bubbly tone when I answer the phone for her just to avoid this question. She means well, but it’s annoying.
If you really want to inquire about the person, it’s better to ask in an open-ended way: “How are things?” This doesn’t pass any judgement on his or her emotional state or physical appearance. And if the person is actually in an upbeat mood, it gives him or her the opportunity to talk about this, instead of having to justify No, really, I’m fine.
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