When someone pays you a compliment, does it ever linger in your mind and body? Does it change how you feel, how your see yourself, how you see the person who gave it to you? Does it ever make you feel worse? Beneath the surface of compliments is a complex network of social norms and cultural baggage that can shift and change depending on the context. The Man Repeller editorial team explored this the other day in a chat conversation after Leandra posed a question that didn’t have an easy answer. Read on to see where it took us and then weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments.
Leandra Medine, Founder: I was recently chatting with my youngest brother (compassionate, sincere, well-intentioned, but definitely rough around the edges) about something and I’m curious as to your opinions: Can he, as a straight man, compliment a woman without seeming like he might be pushing a dubious agenda?
Haley Nahman, Deputy Editor: Interesting question. It brings two thoughts to mind: The first is that I’m wary of this post-Me Too narrative that men are now living in fear that they are harassing women without knowing it, because it implies that women are exaggerating their experiences of being harassed. The second is that I understand how even casual, well-intentioned compliments can come off wrong, and that it can easily get murky. My boyfriend and I were just debating this the other day, because we sometimes hesitate to compliment each other’s bodies for fear of objectifying the other.
Leandra: I hear you — the other thing is that it assumes a guy might be deserving of a free pass because he “didn’t mean anything by it.” But there is also an alternative reality where a truly well-intentioned male genuinely offering a compliment doesn’t know that he’s liable to upset you or me as a function of what he absorbed as normal before rationale kicked in when he was growing up. I know this is a very specific example, but I’m mostly thinking about young men/boys who don’t maintain concrete moral frameworks yet, who are curious, thoughtful, sincere and thus poised to learn when taught, but probably also recoil when scolded?
Haley: Maybe it’s just rare to hear a man ask with genuine curiosity, versus approach it somewhat defensively. I’m sure your brother was the former.
Emma Bracy, Associate Editor: But I wonder where the onus of education lies? I think in addition to everyone being held accountable for their own actions, we should have conversations about who is responsible for teaching. I don’t believe the burden to teach should be freighted onto the more … vulnerable person (unless they are specifically down to do that work!), especially not while Google is still free! Men can access plenty of opportunities for learning how to live more consciously without potentially burdening womxn/femmes/GNC folks (Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne is a good book!), just like white people can access plenty of opportunities for learning about race and anti-racism without burdening POC (So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Olou is more recommended reading!). I think we are all aware that times are changing and need to put in the work to keep up.
This chat is a great example of how to do that, so thanks for bringing it up, Leandra!
Amelia Diamond, Head of Creative: Totally. Also, to answer the initial question, I think the type of compliment matters. Assuming we’re talking about, “You look really nice today,” not, “Great job on the presentation.” Context matters, too. The office versus a date versus strangers on the sidewalk…
Harling Ross, Fashion Editor: Yes, was just thinking that. I feel very differently when someone compliments me on my appearance versus, say, my writing. Delivery/circumstance/who the people are in the scenario is key. If you both know each other well and your intentions are clear, people feel more comfortable giving and receiving compliments. But if a man I didn’t know gave me a compliment on the street, I would feel vulnerable/uncomfortable/eager to escape the situation.
Leandra: Why is that, do you think?
Harling: I’ve been taught from a young age that if a strange man says something to me on the sidewalk, I should be wary, and I think that’s especially true when it comes to a comment about my appearance because that can easily veer into catcalling/street harassment, especially if it’s unsolicited and repeated.
Emma: Same. And it’s not only that I have been taught to be wary, but I’ve learned to be wary through experience. I love both giving and receiving compliments, but it’s not so simple. When random men on the street tell me I look good, it always feels…disingenuous. And the compliments I offer? They go mostly to QTPOC — which again points back to level of intimacy. These are the people I am most often with in social settings, feel most comfortable with, etc.
Leandra: Do random men compliment you guys often? I can’t recall the last time I was complimented by a guy I didn’t know!
Emma: Random men “compliment” me often, yes.
Amelia: A drunk guy on the street the other night stopped me and was like, “You have an incredible sense of style.” I was truly like, What the fuck, why are you talking to me? Because it was startling. And I didn’t know him, and it was late, and I could tell he was drunk, all those things that give you the creeps.
But who knows: If it had been daytime and he didn’t seem creepy and drunk, and we were on the subway, surrounded by lots of other people, and he was like, “Hey, sorry to bother you: Your outfit is just really cool,” I’d probably be like, A nice young man on the subway said he liked my outfit! People can be nice!
Haley: A guy randomly complimenting me on the street would feel loaded — as if offered as an entry-point into conversation that I didn’t invite. That’s what makes me feel uncomfortable. Because then I have to either be a jerk or perform niceness. Both are bad options.
Amelia: I’ve had guys say to me, “Cool X” before, like at a coffee shop or something, and it’s felt genuine. Not as a lead up to get hit on, but as a mutual appreciation of us both wearing plaid or whatever. Again, it’s about context.
Leandra: Would any of you take offense to a compliment by a male superior in the workplace?
Haley: It would make me feel like he was hitting on me.
Emma: Yeah. Often, a guy complimenting me anywhere, anytime feels…uncomfortable at best. Because in my experience, the intention hasn’t solely been just, “Let me make this person feel good!” If I were friends with the male superior, I might be more comfortable in this scenario, but it would definitely depend on what the compliment was.
Harling: I don’t think I would be offended if I knew the male superior well and he was complimenting my outfit or something. Anything physical would feel weird though.
Leandra: It boils down to context in every circumstance, doesn’t it?
Amelia: It does. Like if Abie came through the Man Repeller office and said to me, “I love your shirt!” I’d take it as a genuine compliment (particularly because I love his style, like when he layers a puffer vest under his winter coats). And I know him outside of work. And this is a company where style is part of our daily conversation. Could be a whole different story elsewhere, with different power structures/different relationships.
Haley: I also think it gets more complicated when a compliment betrays the giver’s internal monologue. If that’s a monologue informed by outdated cultural scripts that need rewriting, then it’s worth re-examining whether that compliment is actually kind or worth giving. (For example, “You look so skinny today!” might be meant as a compliment to a certain kind of person, but it aggressively assigns virtue to taking up less space, i.e., it’s a broader insult to women).
Emma: Yes, the cultural scripts are my core issue because I have received unwanted attention, especially in the form of something disguised as a compliment, which then requires me to respond in a way that belies my true feelings about said attention because of the way I’m “supposed” to receive compliments.
Haley: Yes — being forced to reply a certain way to a compliment makes them feel intrusive.
Harling: Or if it thrusts the other person’s perception of you ONTO you in an unwanted way.
Amelia: It’s in line with the “smile more” thing. It’s an assumption about how women are supposed to act.
Emma: It has made me feel bad about myself, even. Like, I know that I don’t want to give any of my time to this guy telling me my hair looks nice while I buy scrunchies at Walgreens because he probably wants to do more than just compliment me and, surprise surprise, now he’s following me around trying to make small talk despite the fact that that’s weird and intrusive…but what will happen if I don’t?! So I give him my time because I’m afraid of what will happen otherwise, or it’s the path of least resistance, or because of some combination of reasons, and then, once it’s all over, I think to myself, You probably didn’t have to do that…And then I’m mad at myself.
Amelia: Reminds me of Otegha’s story about catcalling, where she talks about how, in that context, there’s almost no right answer beyond doing what feels most protective of yourself in that moment. But sometimes that feels like shit, too.
Haley: Yeah, I’ve only recently realized the extent of the burden placed on women in those situations. Either in constantly weighing how to respond to people, or even just dealing with prying eyes. Women are made to worry about their bodies and hair and demeanor while in public all the time, when they could be giving that energy and attention elsewhere. Ideally, to something that is their choice.
Leandra: Emma, what are you scared of in that kind of situation?
Emma: Being ignored and erased — sometimes when men compliment me, I thank them, and then when they inevitably shift into hitting on me I’ll be like, “I’m not interested!” yet they behave as though they literally cannot hear me in their attempt to bulldoze right over what I want and who I am. This is an existential, spiritual wounding that I sometimes just want to avoid.
But I’m also scared of more tangible attacks. Being called a name. Being physically hurt. I’ve been called a bitch, a cunt…I’ve had men threaten me with sexual assault for telling them I’d rather shop than entertain their conversations. I’ve been COUGHED ON. I’m scared of men, often, and the experiences I’ve had out in the world support that I should be.
Amelia: And I think that’s such a frequent experience and fear.
Haley: Absolutely. It’s for good reason. I think there is a firm case to be made that men should never compliment women they do not know unless the context is explicitly tailored for it.
Emma: I’ve been thinking a lot about how self-awareness and movements of power play into this conversation. I think that as compliment-givers, we should all be aware of the positions we occupy. We should be aware of the positions that the person on the receiving end occupies, too, and take all these placements into consideration. And find useful ways to hold each other accountable.
Haley: Completely agree, which is why we need to reevaluate how we give compliments in intimate settings, too, even between friends or women. For example, complimenting someone’s weight used to be way more acceptable (have you ever had someone from an older generation comment on your weight super casually?), but that’s changing quickly. Today, I would never comment on anyone’s body, whereas I might have even 10 years ago.
Leandra: Being pregnant was super interesting because there is this assumption that your body becomes public property. Suddenly everyone wants to say something about how you look, and for the most part, I accepted it, and as a matter of fact wanted to talk about it — I was excited to be pregnant and all of that. But the way my post-baby body became a point of conversation in which I was not an active participant and thus was being spoken for was pretty infuriating.
Haley: Yes — I always thought people complimenting you on your post-baby body was just as weird as people criticizing it. I just wish none of it happened at all (for your and all women’s sakes).
Harling: I think entitlement relates to this whole conversation. A compliment is bothersome when it elicits a conversation that the compliment giver feels entitled to have and the compliment receiver does not.
Haley: That’s a really good way of putting it.
Leandra: Harling with the droplets of wisdom.
Emma: Thank you, Harling, for putting words to what I’ve been thinking!
Leandra: You’re so right.
Harling: Wow guys. COMPLIMENT ME MORE.
Haley: I think that’s why it’s worth exploring what is a “good” compliment, and why “I’m just trying to be nice/make you feel good” is not a satisfying reason.
Leandra: Well, niceness is irrelevant and can actually be fairly harmful; what we’re after is kindness. But if something rolls off your tongue impulsively and speaks to your inherent kindness, even though it pertains to an outdated cultural script, how should the following conversation unfold? Your point about those monologues running their course is a good one!
Haley: One time, years ago, I lost weight after a period of sadness, and I privately liked it (I had body issues). At one point I said something about it to my boyfriend, and he said something — meant completely as a compliment — about how I looked great. This was not a person who ever cared about my weight (as far as I knew), but I never forgot that tiny comment. And it made me self-conscious when I gained the weight back.
Leandra: How did you approach it with him, if you did at all?
Haley: When I told him why that stung, he was super apologetic. It lead to a good conversation and wasn’t a wedge between us at all. But I never forgot that lesson — that commenting on someone’s anything actually has the potential to make them feel worse. Like, if you say someone looks pretty after they applied a full face of makeup, for instance, does that make them feel a certain way about going bare-faced? This is where I think thoughtfulness and phrasing can go a long way.
Leandra: Ooooh, I think about that in context of my kids, too.
Haley: So glad you brought that up! “How to compliment little girls” is such a hot topic. It used to be, “Don’t compliment their appearance, compliment their mind!” Then it was, “Don’t tell them they’re smart, either!” And now it’s something about complimenting their intentions? Or something?
Leandra: When they get a little older and can absorb the compliments we give them, it feels super important to emphasize the variables they control as opposed to the ones that are done for them (e.g., “You must have worked really hard to get this good grade,” as opposed to, “You’re so smart.”)
Haley: That’s a better way of putting it. Maybe that’s what truly delineates a good compliment from a bad compliment, for people of all ages. (With power structures and intimacy level considered as well, of course.)
Leandra: I think it might.
Haley: Also, the differentiation between complimenting something in a person’s control is making me think that’s also the kind of compliment that is easier to “accept” when you receive it. Because I always feel weird saying “thanks” if someone says my shoes are cool. Like, I didn’t make them! People are always mad at women for not properly accepting compliments, but maybe most people just suck at giving them.
Harling: I think women also bond through compliments. It’s a love language.
Amelia: Yes, when I’ve wanted to make friends with someone in the past, I’ve tended to lead first with a compliment. Or in the workplace, a compliment feels more personal than “How was your weekend?” (Because the answer’s always the same: “Too short!” or “Fun!” or whatever). But to say, “I love your pants,” that’s one step further — it’s a way of connecting.
Haley: Yes, I remember once reading about how deflecting compliments is actually one way women connect (because “thanks” is a conversation-ender).
Leandra: FYI Amelia befriended me by complimenting a tie-dye dress I was wearing in 2008.
Amelia: I always think about how, when I interviewed my friend Katie Schloss for an article on Small Talk, she said she never asks what people do. She asks, “What are you interested in right now?” And that’s such a disarming first question to throw at someone, but I thought it was cool because it was the opposite of superficial. There’s no way to give that a one-word answer.
Leandra: I usually lead by asking, “What’s keeping you up at night?”
Amelia: “What’s making you want to vomit currently?”
Leandra: “What’s your core issue?”
Haley: “When is the last time you cried?”
Amelia: “What internal problem are YOU WORKING ON?”
Leandra: And ending with, “If I promised you entry to heaven, would you choose death over life right now?
Amelia: “Not after watching The Good Place.”
Harling: If anyone asked me these Qs, I would just send them a link to my author page at Man Repeller.
Haley: But really, asking genuinely curious questions can sometimes be even kinder than paying a compliment.
Leandra: Completely agree. It’s a core tenant of Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Which is a terrible name for a book because it comes off so disingenuous and slimy, but there is some truly great stuff in there!
Amelia: Yes BUT! Asking thoughtful questions can be heavy/loaded/time-consuming. Whereas sometimes a compliment is a quick zing. A nice one. Like HI YOU LOOK COOL I’M LATE FOR THIS TRAIN BYE.
Haley: I would take that as the highest compliment.
What do you think?
Collage by Emily Zirimis.