Street harassment is very much in my news feeds these days. It’s something many of us are paying more attention to. I see a lot of women talking about it – and a lot of men responding somewhat defensively, “We’re just trying to give you a compliment, geez!”
What many men do not understand is that for women, there is no correct response to a physical compliment from a male stranger. If we accept the compliment, we may be leading you on – and then we become responsible for whatever happens next. If we dismiss or rebuff the compliment we risk verbal or physical violence in retaliation.
This is one of the many problems with making women responsible for preventing their own rapes. We are always walking on that double edged sword.
In addition, many women see catcalling and “Hey beautiful” as male entitlement – men feeling entitled to our bodies, even in a public space, in a way that we do not feel entitled to theirs. I do not feel entitled to tell a strange man that he has a nice ass. I wish unknown men did not feel entitled to comment on my anatomy.
But to many men, these compliments are less about entitlement and more a manifestation of The Golden Rule that we’ve all been taught from birth – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Catcalls, wolf whistles, “give me a smile, baby” – these things are clumsy, ill-educated attempts to be seen.
They are a way of reaching out – of enacting the Golden Rule in real time.
“I want to be seen, so I will let you know that I see you.”
The problem, as George Bernard Shaw once succinctly put it is that, there is no Golden Rule. His famous quote implores us, “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.”
A simpler way of stating this is “Do unto others as they would like you to do.” Of course, this means you have to ask first. And how do you ask a stranger if you can give them a compliment?
Which brings us back to – when is it okay for a man to extend a compliment to a woman he does not know?
I don’t believe the answer is “Never!” Genuine compliments can be great ice breakers and conversation starters.
So, here’s “Complimenting Strangers 101” – A ten point checklist for beginners.
1. First– let’s go back for a moment to the Golden Rule. If you were in her shoes, doing what she is doing, in the space she is in, would you want a complete stranger to compliment you, catcall you or “holla” at you without warning? Would you feel safe, empowered, complimented – or just freaked out?
If you realize that you would not want to be approached in those circumstances, back off. Keep your compliments to yourself. This is not an appropriate time/place.
2. Next, ask yourself – Why do you feel compelled to give this woman a compliment? Is it because she has done something amazing, or because you want something in return? (Whether you want a look, a smile, an acknowledgement of your own worth or hot sex.)
If it’s for her, and you don’t care what her reaction is, keep moving down the check list.
If it’s for you – pause and consider how you will react if you don’t get what you are hoping for. You don’t know this person, you don’t know what mood they are in, you don’t know if they want to be bothered – they may not respond favorably. Are you okay with that?
3. Has she made eye contact with you? Did she hold it, or drop it like a hot potato?
Look at her posture and presentation. Does it look like she is open and receptive to interacting with the world, or is her head down? Does it look like she is bracing herself against the world?
Women often feel the need to walk “tough” in order to feel safe. Respect that emotional boundary. Popping it will not make her feel complimented, it will make her feel threatened.
On the other hand – there are times and spaces when women are feeling comfortable, confident and are looking for a compliment. Their body language will tell you this. They’ll hold eye contact, flirt and make the first move.
4. Is she standing still or is she in motion?
If she is walking, riding a bike or otherwise going somewhere – let her get there. If she is engaged in some physical activity, let her continue.
If she is moving toward you and you make eye contact, feel free to smile at her. Remember, she is not obligated to smile back. You do not know where her head is.
If she is moving away from you, you have missed your opportunity. Do not call to her backside and make her turn around for you.
5. Will you have to interrupt something she is doing in order to give her this compliment?
Imagine you’re working on something complex. You are deep in thought and you almost have the answer. Someone you don’t know shouts at you, “Hey sexy pants!” Your concentration is broken, the answer you almost had is gone.
Do you feel complimented, or frustrated?
If you are already engaged in a conversation with this person, it is easier to slip in a sincere and genuine compliment than if you first have to get their attention and make them stop whatever they are doing to tell them their hair is nice, or whatever.
6. Are you close enough to her to speak in a normal tone of voice or will you have to shout across the street?
If you have to shout across the street, catcall or whistle to get her attention, please, keep your compliment to yourself. Otherwise you are not only popping her bubble, you are also turning her into a public spectacle and drawing other people’s attention to her. You have put a spotlight on her and are asking her to perform, without her permission and without a script.
7. What is it you are complimenting? Is it something she has done – performed lifesaving street-side surgery on a wounded dog, scored an impressive point, created particularly artful foam on your latte, put together a truly fantastic outfit or is it just her body or face?
There are subtle layers there. It’s the difference between me complimenting a shirtless guy for throwing a nice pass and complimenting his ripped abs. One is appropriate from a stranger, one is creepy.
8. Along this point, are you truly giving her a compliment?
“You’d be prettier if you smiled.” is not a compliment, it is a subtle request – As a stranger, you don’t have the right to ask me to smile for you. I am not your pet.
“Hey baby” is not a compliment, it is asking her to acknowledge you – without telling her to what end.
A catcall is not a compliment, it is dehumanizing and often threatening.
“Nice ass” may seem like a compliment, but as a stranger it is one you have not earned the right to use.
9. When in doubt, be humble, be gentle, think small. Perhaps eye contact and a smile will suffice.
You can even throw in a “hello” or banal comment like “Nice day, isn’t it?” if you just want her to know you see her.
Open the door just a crack and give the other person the opportunity to walk through it.
Then, don’t take it personally if they choose not to.
10. Compliments that are *almost* always acceptable –
“Nice job, you’re clearly a trained professional!”
“I appreciate the way you ___________. Well done.”
“You’re really good at ___________.”
Notice these are all complimenting something other than her body or face. They are acknowledging that she’s a person who does things.
If you must, for some reason, compliment her physicality – try going for something that might also reflect something about her personality.
“I really love your mohawk. Pink is one of my favorite colors.” – You took notice of a physical choice she made, not just something she was born with. Also, you were looking at more than her tits.
“Great tee-shirt. Where did you get it? I think my wife/daughter/niece would love it.” – This tells her you have other women in your life and are probably not creeping on her.
“You’re looking radiant today! I hope the rest of your day goes well.” – You noticed her energy, and you hope she gets to maintain it.