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Miss Conduct

Be a good baby face

Tips on succeeding in the workplace whether you’re young or just young-looking.

Lucy Truman

> Last night, another member of a women’s professional group told me that I “look 12.” I know she meant well, and we laughed it off. But do I need to start wearing makeup to look my actual age (29)? I have worn makeup to these meetings because I speak at them (I’m the president), but it’s not an everyday thing.

D.K. / Natick

So you’re the victim of a minor girl-on-girl crime, and your response is to assume good intent, brush over the awkwardness, and then use the incident to self-reflect and possibly life-hack your way into greater social effectiveness? Yes, I can see how you became president of a professional women’s organization before 30.

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It’s possible that your acquaintance’s comment had little to do with your physical appearance. There’s this moment in middle age when everyone younger than 30 starts looking as though you were seeing them from the wrong end of a telescope. The feeling of time’s whooshing velocity can overwhelm a person, and in the effort to express that feeling, a person can say something stupid, like “You look 12.” It’s kindest for you young ones to ignore us when we say things like that and ask us for more tales of the ’90s.

Alternately, perhaps you do look 12. The clubwoman ought not to have offered that observation, but your question isn’t about her faux pas, it’s about your face paint.

While etiquette teaches that we ought not judge others by their physical appearance, social science teaches that we do, and that those judgments are swift, unconscious, and predictable. Multiple studies show that baby-faced people (men and women both) are thought of as guileless, friendly, weak-willed, submissive, non-threatening, honest, warm, kind, and trustworthy. Less likely to embezzle, more likely to be bamboozled. It can be harder to prove your competence as a baby-faced person, but much easier to prove your good intent.

If that’s what you’re up against, D.K., cosmetics are probably not your best solution. You’re right to wear some face paint when you’re speaking in public, as it helps the audience read your lips and facial expressions better. On the day-to-day, wear as much or as little as is appropriate for your work and style, and don’t try to use it to change what you fundamentally look like.

To ensure that your baby face is not working against you, avoid frills and pastels and any styles that are infantilizing (you’ll want to skip the great 2013 Romper Revival). Scrub any whine and giggle from your voice. Keep your silhouette simple, your colors warm or soothing. This is advice, by the way, useful to those who actually are young, not just young-looking.

Take advantage of the fact that in a frightened world, you are perceived as non-threatening. Learn to ask tough questions in a tender voice. At work or in your community, look for opportunities to be a link between groups or to represent your team or company to the outside world. And while you’re doing this, keep meticulous track of your objective, quantitative career accomplishments so that your hard skills are never in question. And never, ever use the power of the baby face for evil, of course.

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

NEED ADVICE ON A WORKPLACE DILEMMA? HAVE A NASTY COLLEAGUE? Write to Miss Conduct at missconduct@globe.com. And read her blog at Boston.com/missconduct.

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