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January 05, 2006



will, I believe what zuzu was saying is that complimenting someone's clothing choices is different than complimenting their appearance. "Nice suit," or "Hey, sharp tie" from a work colleague probably means "You look professional and you have good taste in clothes." Comments about physical attractiveness are rarely appropriate, as are comments from strangers.

I mean, if a judge told you "Lookin' fine in those pants, Counsel," you'd probably be a little weirded out.

But another thing that's going on here is that in our culture, women are judged on their attractiveness to men and it's generally considered appropriate for men to notice and comment on that. And, as Lynn alludes to, while it's silly to assume every man is interested in sleeping with you, you can also get into trouble assuming none of them are.


Someone brought up compliments given men about their wives'/girlfriends'/sig. others' looks. This happened to me recently -- I was holiday shopping with a woman and a saleswoman/proprietor said something lie "your wife is very pretty". I was taken aback, first by the assumption of marriage, but then by the "compliment". I was actually being complimented for... what, exactly? For having captured a pretty girl? For my taste in women? For being powerful enough (in whatever way) to attract beautiful partners? What if I'd been with a physically unattractive woman? Obviously that would reflect poorly on me, no matter how smart, caring, funny, outgoing, talented, or successful she was -- and, for that matter, no matter how smart, caring, funny, outgoing, talented, or successful *I* am.

But more to the point, these kind of compliments reinforce the notion that women are property, that a man's worth is expressed through his ability to surround himself with beautiful objects -- a woman, a car, the right clothes, the right jewelry, the right home and furnishings, and so on. "My" woman becomes an attribute of my self.

Now, I know women comment on their friends' boyfriends looks, but is there a similar thing among strangers? I don't think many men or women would tell a stranger "your boyfriend is very handsome". But if they do -- is it the same thing? I'm not sure at all.



I would think the judge was stroking me a little before totally rejecting my argument.

We agree on the rest.


Are the property notions your's or the salesperson's? While I agree with you that those compliments can sound eerily similar to compliments about something that you own (I've had the same thoughts as you), I wonder whether those thoughts result from our own feelings of worthiness? Just a thought.



I don't *think* I was projecting, but who knows? I remember at the time being speechless, wondering how I was supposed to respond. Do I thank her? After all, I didn't have anything to do with the loveliness or lack thereof of, well, of anyone -- even, for the most part, myself. Should I feel pleased? I know a lot of men like the way other people look at them when they have a beautiful woman on their arm (q.v. Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight") -- is it a point of pride to be complimented on the attractiveness of a woman "under my charge", so to speak? (I could say "in my stable" too, couldn't I? I mean, people do say such things...)

In the event, I felt angry. I should add that the context was a Chinatown jade shop, specifically the jewelry counter -- the gist of the conversation was that I ought to buy some *very* expensive jewelry for such a lovely lady. Apparently, another man had bought his wife a bracelet (they ran about $600!) and came back to get the matching earrings and necklace. The compliment itself was immersed in a sales pitch, which only intensified my feeling that a man "such as myself", who obviously has good taste in things (as witness my taste in women), should recognize the value of the items on display. But more than that, I felt -- why wouldn't the salesperson compliment *the woman herself*? My companion actually played a part in the construction of her public "face". If you buy into the notion that it's better for a woman to be conventionally attractive than conventionally unattractive, surely the woman is the proper recipient of such a compliment, no? What motives could someone have to congratualte *me* on my companion's attractiveness?



On a related topic, I HATE jewelry commercials. From October to February, we are bombarded with this message:

Women: If your man doesnt buy you expensive jewelry, you are a loser and he is probably having sex with someone else.

Men: If you do not buy "your" woman expensive jewelry, you do not love her and you are a loser.

I hope that we can all get behind hating those commercials.


Oh GOD YES! I hate jewelery commericials: not only are they buying into the commericialistic aspect of what love is supposed to be, I HATE FREAKING DIAMONDS and I hate the presumption that I'm supposed to like them. Someone who's buying me diamonds might as well be saying "I know nothing about you so here's a totally generic gift that I spent a lot of money on, isn't that kewl?"

Will and Alexander, I'm getting the impression that you want to continue being able to compliment females on their looks, or at the very least, being able to without there being any negative consequences. Am I understanding you?

The questions I have, if this presumption is right, is "Why"? Why do you feel it's so important to be able to comment on a woman's appearance? Or, at the very least, realize that when you do compliment a woman on her appearance, it comes with a whole slew of societal expectations and history, that women may find (at least collectively) presumptious?

Alexander, it sucks to have to be the guy that has to work up the courage to ask a girl down. It sucks just as much to be the chick who has to passively put out the signals of wanting to get together with a guy, especially since this has the negative effect of getting the guy you don't want and him feeling entiteled to your company. When you go up to a female, you have the option of her saying "yes" or "no", end of conversation. I could go out, and have tons of guys I have to say "No" to about fifty million times before they get hit by a clue-by-four.

Let me repeat my point: if women do not want men to compliment them then fine, we sensitive men will not compliment women. Will that make women happy?

Point has been stated, but I'll repeat the sentiment. Why is it when we say "Complimenting us on our appearance is patronizing" you hear "I can't compliment women"? There are a million other ways to compliment women, but *gasp* they aren't a one-size fits all for every women and they need to reflect us as INDIVIDUALS?

Or will we see women start complaining that men no longer compliment them?

Only if, you know, you actually stop complimenting women. And there are worse things that could happen then a group of people complaining about another group of women.

Obviously, this is part of 50,000 years of male neglect of women.

I'm not even sure what this is all about. The Patriarchy has been actively oppressing women for eons, but that isn't neglect, and patriarchy does not equal men.

Perhaps we will see new feminist inspired laws requiring men to compliment women or face lawsuits for "date neglect"?

Again, I'm not even sure what this is about. Is this in reference to "date rape" laws, that judging from your phrasing, you think are an unnecessary infringement by feminists (and women in general) on men? Or, what exactly? Where did you get the link from "Beauty compliments are not helpful" to "mandatory compliments of the PC variety or get locked up in jail"?

Honestly, Alexander, I tried to be polite on this one, but you are awfully close to making me want to go flame war on your nalgas.



women might collectively find presumptious?

Do you think a majority of women find a compliment presumptious?

Personally, I agree with Lynn that the propriety of compliments depends so much on context.

I was/am really more curious as to the assumptions and presumptions of those who think that compliments always have hidden meanings. Two different men might give the same compliment to the same women. One will cause the woman to want to rush and take a shower. The other might cause no bad feelings.

Likewise, two different women might receive a compliment in entirely different ways.

Knowing your audience and knowing the complimentor make a big difference.

Having said all of that, I find the situation of the stranger complimenting on a great outfit the most interesting question. If the complimentor will have no further contact with the woman, there is no expection of getting some "action." I think the only time that I have ever done that is I once told a woman that she had a great hat. I was walking with my girlfriend and she agreed.

The Happy Feminist

Now that's interesting. I happen to have a collection of great hats. I get lots of compliments from strangers, both men and women, on my great hats. These compliments don't rub me the wrong way in the least. I think that's because: a) the compliment has nothing to do with my physical attributes, it has to do with my taste in hats; b) the hat is not attached to any part of my body that could be considered sexual ("Great skirt!" or "Great T-shirt!" would be a bit more ambiguous because it implies that the person's looking maybe a little too closely at those portions of my anatomy); and c) a hat is sort of an unusual item of apparel in our culture so most of these compliments almost come across as people reacting in surprise as opposed to going out of their way to approach and compliment me.


I now know that if I were to ever try any cases against HappyF, I should nodd leeringly, and say "great skirt" to to try to throw her off so she wouldnt beat up on me in court.

The Happy Feminist

Another aspect of all this is the compliments we give to little boys and girls. Watching my niece and nephew grow up, I've noticed that from infancy onwards, they have attracted very different kinds of compliments from adults. My nephew gets the stereotypical compliments that focus on his potential ability to do well athletically: "My how you've grown! You should try out for the basketball team! I hear your serve is improving!" My niece always gets, "Oh how pretty you are! What a pretty little dress!" I think a lifetime of this kind of thing contributes to the internalized expectations boys and girls have of themselves and what they have to offer the world.

The Happy Feminist

This is why I remain anonymous -- so no one can tell my real opposing counsel all my secret weaknesses.



My son played football this year for the first time (not my idea!).

Associated with his team is a huge cheerleading team. I hated it. Absolutely hate the idea of girls cheerleading for boys. Of course, there is also the horribly sexy moves that they have these little girls do. Awful.

The Happy Feminist

Oh yeah -- don't even get me going on cheerleading. Or Miss America.


will, there are also people who are clearly harassing who don't expect to get action. The guy who yells "Nice ass!" out of a speeding car is not really expecting me to run after the car and hop onto his lap; he just wants to express his opinion and, possibly, to annoy me.

Where I practice law, if you said "Nice skirt" you would probably be asked if you wanted to know where to get one just like it. ;)

Watching my niece and nephew grow up, I've noticed that from infancy onwards, they have attracted very different kinds of compliments from adults.

Weird, isn't it? When my oldest was a baby, she wore a lot of blue hand-me-downs and got comments like "Hi, Tiger!" and "What a big, strong boy!" Whereas if people first found out she was a girl, she'd get comments about what a pretty baby she was.



I agree that someone who yells out "nice ass" is really just showing his.

With regard to the "Nice Skirt" comment, doesnt it depend on what my intentions are? It is ok for your friend to say "nice skirt"? It is ok for your husband to say "nice skirt"? It is not generally ok for your boss or the judge to say "nice skirt"?

But how about a female coworker? Is it just men who are prohibited from complimenting you?

How about if we are equals (ie I am not in a position of power over you) and I am standing with my wife?

Are we in a society were you assume that I am either harassing you or want to jump you by complimenting you? Why must there be hidden meanings in what people say? Maybe "nice skirt" means "nice skirt."


That's what I mean by collectively. Individually, someone complimenting me on my looks, or even just commenting on my looks, may not make that big of deal to my psyche. I may even appreciate it (ie, I dressed up very nicely for my bf, I'd hope that he noticed that I put a lot of effort into my appearance).

But years of many people complimenting/commenting on my looks adds up. And that's the point: total strangers over time, end up making me feel like the only thing important is my looks.


Are we in a society were you assume that I am either harassing you or want to jump you by complimenting you?

I thought we were in a society where it was considered inappropriate and rude to volunteer comments on the physical appearance of strangers. The rule that says you shouldn't yell "Love your top, baby!" as you drive past is the same rule that says it's inappropriate for my children to walk up to a child in leg braces and ask "Why do you walk funny?"

There are no hidden messages from the guy yelling "nice ass" either. The mere fact that the meaning is plain and there are no hidden motives is not really the issue, is it?

On top of that, you can add issues of power (my boss should not be commenting on how nice my tits are, and thankfully doesn't), familiarity (opposing counsel may not be my friends, but I know them fairly well) and sexuality (nobody is ever going to tell you that you really know how to work that tie, and tie length is not like hem length).

Communication is a two-way street. Good intentions are important but not determinative--as you probably know, an awful lot of men who make inappropriate, even harassing, comments genuinely believe they are being complimentary and that it's unreasonable to react negatively to them.



Let's eliminate physical attributes for a moment. (I am certainly not arguing that I should be able to tell you that you have a great ass or to nodd leeringly, look at your breasts, and say "Love your shirt".)

Please address compliments without issues of power. Can only women compliment you on your clothes? Or is that not allowed either?


I like you and I do not know or care what you look like. I do understand that it is important to give the message to women and men that their minds are the most important body part.


Can only women compliment you on your clothes?

Again, I don't know where you practice law, but where I am, it would be a mistake to assume that men are sexually interested in me or women aren't.

I don't see that it's so hard to limit one's comments about other people's appearance to situations where you know your comments are appropriate and will be taken as such. If you don't know that I will say "Thanks, I like this suit too," why do you have to tell me your opinion of it? Is your larynx going to explode?



I had hoped that it was clear that I do not walk around complimenting people that I do not know. I practice law in Virginia. And I do not think that your comment about mistaken assumptions is limited to your area. Same sex interest is not limited by geography.

But, I am curious about whether your reaction is the same when a female compliments your clothes as a man. You seem to imply that it is, but I am not sure.


PS: I am starting to feel like a neanderthal simply by expressing my curiosity about your opinions. I really am not a leecherous, leering, breast-ogling, compliment maker.


When a man compliments me about a specific piece of clothing, I will probably think he is gay...

Really I don't see what the big deal here is. Some people have better social skills than others so unless you are confident that you can read a situation and a person well enough to know that what you intend as a compliment will be recieved in the spirit you intend it, well, restrain yourself. It's really not going to hurt...


How compliments are recived/taken, or the suitability of the compliments themselves depend on the relationship (or lack thereof), personal/and or professional- between the giver and the receiver. I had a male boss that would make comments like, "nice skirt." That said, he was a great boss, very professional, and he used to work as a fashion buyer for a major high-end depratment store for decades before he retired to start his own company (doing something completely different). He would easily tell a guy that his shirt was a beautiful color as much as he would tell a woman her jacket is tailored exceptionally well. His demeanor, his tone, and his personality made it a genuine compliment and nothing more (and no, he was not gay). He made it a point to give everyone compliments once a day about something- especially those that were based on performance.

I don't believe that there's anything wrong with making compliments- I think it's important to put some thought into the compliment, be polite, and be more specific. I think it's important to compliment people without having an ulterior motive. I think that it's also important to give recognition (which is essentially what a compliment is) to someone's talents and effort- not just their appearance. I know that the best compliments I have received were thoughtful ones that pointed out a specific detail, because it also gave me an indication about the person giving it as well.


Let's eliminate physical attributes for a moment. (I am certainly not arguing that I should be able to tell you that you have a great ass or to nodd leeringly, look at your breasts, and say "Love your shirt".)

Please address compliments without issues of power. Can only women compliment you on your clothes? Or is that not allowed either?

That's one reason I brought up that woman my sister worked with who was very heavy. For her, being sure that people commented on her clothes instead of on her body was a means of ensuring that she wasn't insulted or subject to negative attention. Sort of the inverse of the situation most people are discussing here, where the person doing the complimenting tries to avoid making a positive comment on the person's body by making a more neutral comment on the person's clothes.

Lynn Gazis-Sax

When a man compliments me about a specific piece of clothing, I will probably think he is gay...

For me, it depends a lot on the item of clothing. I have an embroidered Hungarian vest that I've been complimented on; if a man compliments me on that I assume that it's because the vest is so unusual, not because he's starting at my breasts or because he's gay. On the other hand, if a guy ever said "nice shorts" to me, I'd suspect a sexual interest. And if a guy complimented me on, say, a bracelet, I'd think he was unusually interested in jewelry for a guy.

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