As part of writing non-consent and gender degradation erotica in a responsible manner, I regularly present Reality Check articles, touching base with safe, respectful, equitable behaviour in kink, in relationships, and in the world generally.
This article is primarily aimed at men who want to compliment women – because so many men are so bad at doing this – and I’m going to use pronouns and genders throughout the article accordingly. But the advice here applies to everyone.
1) Compliment friends and family.
It is unfortunately the case that a lot of guys only think about compliments in the context of a woman they’re romantically or sexually interested in. And that means you’ve gone wrong before you even started.
Yes, compliments are a great tool when it comes to flirting or dating. But that’s because compliments are a great tool generally to let the people who you like and value know that they’re liked and valued.
If you only give out compliments to women you’re interested in dating, those compliments are *always* going to sound creepy and insincere. Don’t be that guy.
Compliment your friends and family – especially, and including, other men. Tell your mate, “Hey, that’s a great shirt.” Tell your sibling, “I loved that thing you said the other day.” Tell your dad, “Your new haircut looks great.”
Compliments are a key way to let the people you care about know that you care about them – and some of the specific things you like about them. You should give them out to all the people who are important to you. It helps relationships be more open and expressive. It’s nice to receive a compliment. It makes you feel good.
2) Compliment other men.
I’m also going to repeat this point – compliment other men. If you feel uncomfortable with that, it’s precisely because of the problem I’m raising in this point – that men too often only use compliments on women they’re attracted to. That’s a cycle that you need to be part of breaking.
Practice giving compliments to your male friends and family members. Tell them when their clothes look good on them. Tell them when they did something in a way that impressed you. Tell them when they did something you appreciate.
When we talk about “toxic masculinity”, we’re not saying that masculinity is toxic. I’m a guy. I like being a guy. I’m proud to be a guy. “Toxic” masculinity is when conforming to someone’s idea of being a guy means that your relationships and behaviours stop making yourself and the people in your life healthy, happy and safe. If you don’t feel like you can give – or receive – compliments from other men, that’s toxic masculinity.
Men are just as entitled to compliments as anyone else, and you should work to create a culture where men compliment other men, and receive compliments, as a normal part of healthy interaction with friends and family.
3) Be sincere.
If you’re giving someone a compliment, it’s presumably because you like them. (This column isn’t intended to cover insecure flattery and ass-kissing.) That means you like something about them. Tell them what you like. (Subject to some points lower down in this article.) It shouldn’t be hard to find an honest compliment about a person that you like.
But sincerity is more than just honesty. It’s about giving a compliment with no greater aim than to make someone happy. It’s not sincere if you’re trying to change their behaviour. It’s not sincere if you expect something in return (such as romantic affection).
A compliment is a thing that you say to people that you like, to let them know what you like about them. It makes them happy.
The reason that we compliment women that we like is because we like them, and because we want them to know that. It’s not to try and trick them into sex or affection. A sincere compliment is a thing that you would still say to a woman even if you did not want to date her.
If your compliment isn’t sincere, it’s going to be creepy. Check the three points above. Do you compliment your friends that way? Do you compliment men that way? Would you say it if you didn’t want to date her? If you meet all those points, the chances are it’s a good compliment.
4) Don’t compliment people you’re not already interacting with.
The fact you may have a sincere compliment for someone doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to give it to them. In most cases, it is not a good idea to just walk up to someone you don’t know and lead with a compliment.
There are, maybe, some social situations where that expectation is different, primarily limited to events that are intended for people to meet other people, and particularly if they’re aimed at helping people find romantic or sexual hookups. Singles bars, kink events, and other social mixers can be okay places to lead with a compliment – but check the points above and below about sincere compliments, and context-appropriate compliments. Once again, a good compliment is one that you would still say to someone you didn’t want to hook up with.
This applies online, too. Don’t drop into someone’s DMs with a compliment if you don’t have an existing mutual relationship with them. (Fan mail to creatives is fine, but again, there’s a difference between complimenting someone and hitting on them.)
In particular, do NOT go complimenting people who are clearly NOT socialising with you. Women who are reading a book, who have headphones on, who are exercising, who are in a private social space, who are eating alone at a restaurant, who are engaged in conversation with another person that you would be interrupting – none of these are good people to start a conversation with. Leave them alone.
5) Compliment things that people have control over.
“Nice tits” is a terrible compliment, for many, many reasons.
“That outfit looks great” is (in most circumstances) a great compliment.
The difference is control. A person makes a choice about their outfit. They (usually) don’t make a choice about how their breasts look. One compliment is empowering, and the other is objectifying.
To put it another way, one is a compliment about what they do, and the other is a compliment about who they are. Compliments about what people do almost always feel better to receive.
Some things that are good to compliment include:
- Hairstyles and new haircuts
- Clothes, outfits, shoes, and accessories
- Turns of phrase or specific expressions of opinion
- Bravery, resilience, empathy, charity and other qualities that are demonstrated through actions
- Mastery of skills or areas of knowledge (be specific – “you’re so intelligent” can make some people feel weird; but “I’m impressed by how much you know about X” is almost always a good compliment).
- Possessions they have previously indicated they are proud of, such as their home, car, or a collectable or trophy
- A project that they have completed (gardening, writing, renovation, etc)
6) Take responsibility for your compliment, and back off if it’s unwanted.
Sometimes you might get it wrong, and give a compliment to someone who doesn’t want one, or make an intended compliment that isn’t received as one.
Take responsibility. Do NOT argue that they should have felt complimented. Communication takes two people, and to the extent that they didn’t receive your intended message, that’s your failure. Apologise. Then back off.
No one owes you the chance to compliment them. Maybe your compliment was lovely, and maybe they really did misinterpret it. That’s their loss. You still need to make a sincere apology, and back off. You took an action, and you are responsible for the consequences.
7) Professional relationships require professional interactions.
It shouldn’t need to be said, but do NOT hit on people you are having a professional interaction with. None of the following people are potential romantic partners.
- People you’ve engaged to provide professional services, such as doctors, lawyers, accountants, tradespeople, masseurs, or sex workers. (No, you should not expect to “evolve” from hiring a sex worker to dating her.)
- Retail staff or hospitality staff who are serving you as a customer. (Even after they “get off shift”.)
- Clients who you are providing any service to because of your job.
- Your employers, employees or co-workers.
- Anyone else who is only interacting with you because of the nature of your job, or their job.
It’s fine to compliment someone within the nature of your professional relationship. You can say “nice work” or “great office” or “wow, you did that so fast, I’m impressed”. But don’t compliment their appearance or anything else that might suggest you want to date them. Yes, sometimes someone might be into that, but if they’re not into it (and the majority of the time they won’t be) you’re putting them in an awkward and unfair position. And they may not feel safe to tell you that the compliment is unwanted because of the nature of the relationship. Just don’t.
There’s a lot of “DO NOT DO THIS” warnings in this article. And you should take them seriously. Unsolicited comments from men to women have a long history of being used to control, objectify, intimidate and coerce women in inappropriate ways. You, personally, may never have been a creep to a woman, but you still need to do your part in reversing the culture that got us here, and that requires a little extra care and caution, and a very clear respect for boundaries.
But it’s not that difficult or scary. It genuinely is the case that if you get into the habit of giving sincere compliments to all the people in your life on a regular basis, you’ll find that it becomes natural and normal to compliment the women that you like, and who you have an existing relationship with, in ways that feel appropriate, non-creepy, and satisfying for everyone involved.
As always, I’m happy to take questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope this article has been helpful!
– All These Roadworks, January 2022.