Compliments from Strangers (Alissa Grosso)

I don't much go in for the whole women are from Venus, men are from Mars sort of thing. For starters, I'm not convinced that gender is as clearly delineated as some would have us believe, and I bristle at labels of any sort, even when they are as basic as men and women, because I like to think that everyone is a free-thinking individual. But I can't help but feel there is a cultural difference when it comes to giving compliments.

First of all, this is not some long term scientific study, just my own casual observations. I think it's also worth noting that my perspective is that of a Generation X woman. So my experiences might be different that those who are younger or older than me. I'm also focusing on compliments from and to strangers, because this is a very different situation than giving compliments to someone who is close to you.

1. Women Are Good At Giving Other Women Compliments
If you are a woman or have observed the interactions of women in the wild at any time, then you probably already know that despite our shortcomings, the one thing we are particularly good at is giving each other compliments. We like each other's purses, leggings, fingernails, leggings, hair color,  shoes, make-up, etc. If you are a woman, no doubt you've had the experience of going to the store, going to the dentist's office or posting a comment on Twitter and have then had an encounter with another woman where she complimented you on your accessory choice or nail polish or some such thing. An example encounter might go something like:
Woman 1: I love your purse.
Woman 2: Thank you!
I love this Betsey Johnson bag, and so, I have heard, do other women.

Woman 1: Is it Betsey Johnson?
Woman  2: It is!
Woman 1: I love Betsey!
Woman 2: Me too!
And that's a long encounter. Sometimes it's as simple as I love your (fill in the blank) followed by a polite thank you.

2. Women Seem to be Good at Complimenting Men as Well
Okay, as I mentioned, I'm not a man, and so I have to base this on observations of how women compliment the men I know, and this usually means my boyfriend. It's also worth noting that his style and taste in clothing and such tends to be a bit more understated than me. It's also worth noting that he rarely accessorizes. So, there are a lot less opportunities to compliment him on his fashion choices. That said, he has nice choice in sneakers, and more than once I've heard women compliment him on his footwear choice, and it pretty much goes the same as the purse exchange above, except without the Betsey Johnson bit, since he doesn't wear Betsey Johnson shoes, which reminds me I need to find some new black flats, be right back. (Okay, I'm back now and there are now two pairs of shoes neither of which are black and a resin toilet seat with silver flakes in it in my Amazon shopping cart because that's how the internet works.)

My grandparents once had an even cooler resin toilet seat.
3. Women Give Compliments Even When They Don't Want to Have Sex With You
Again, I'm basing this on my own observations, but I get a lot of compliments from seemingly hetero women, and since they are usually short exchanges that don't even hint at sex in any way, I think it's safe to say that women have a habit of giving compliments just because they generally do like your shirt/shoes/purse/toilet seat.

4. Men Need to Work on Their Compliment Game
So, because I know how the internet works (see my black flat shoes shopping experience above for proof of this) I feel like I need to preface this part with the caveat that not all men do this, and this is only based on one person's casual observations, etc. So, what I've experienced is that when guys I do not know give me compliments, it's not quite as simple as that hypothetical Betsey Johnson purse exchange above. From my experience guys don't usually give a compliment without also making it clear that they are sexually attracted to you. It might start off innocently enough with a compliment about your dress or your shirt or something, but then they make it weird with leering or innuendo or even something to the effect of how much they appreciate you wearing such things as if when you were picking out your outfit in the morning the thing you were thinking about was whether or not it would satisfy some random stranger. In my experience, a compliment from a strange woman usually brightens my mood, but a compliment from a strange man leaves me feeling uncomfortable.

5. Men Don't Really Compliment Other Guys
So, once again this is based on casual observations of the men in my life, which usually means my boyfriend, and the experience might be different for someone who is not so heteronormative, but it does not seem to work the same way it does for women. To the best of my knowledge no guy has ever come up to him and said, "I love your shoes," and like I said his sneakers are quite nice, so you would think something like this might happen, but it doesn't. But maybe I'm being unfair, and I'm coming at this from a woman-centric perspective. Because I have heard men compliment each other on cars and motorcycles and things of that nature. Maybe they feel safer offering compliments on things that are less intimately acquainted with them like an automobile. The only time I can recall a woman I didn't know complimenting me on a car, was unfortunately after one was totalled. This was seconds after a man driving a Dodge Durango rear-ended my Plymouth Neon in traffic in Florida, and a woman walking past on the sidewalk shouted to ask if everyone was okay, and then said, "Well, you had nice cars!" To be fair, I don't think a man has ever complimented me on a car either, but once when after that Neon was totalled and I was driving a Jeep Cherokee, I went to an auto parts store to buy an air filter. This was an old Cherokee (I'm not sure how the new ones are) but replacing the air filter required no more tools or skills then you would need to open a bottle of soda. Still a random man in the store (not an employee) felt the need to follow me out to the parking lot and offered to replace the filter for me. I declined. Then asked me if I was a mother. I wasn't. He wanted to know why I would be driving a "mom car" if I wasn't. And I spent a long time after than wondering if a Cherokee was truly a "mom car." 
Mom car? 

6. I'm Wary of Compliments From Strange Men
Now, for some bad news. Because of my experiences, because of what I've observed about men complimenting each other or not complimenting each other, as the case may be, I find I'm a little wary when it comes to compliments from men. I'm not naturally suspicious of them, but I've learned to find myself questioning their motive if I do happen to receive a compliment from a strange man. The thing is, this happens so rarely that it isn't that much of an issue. But it does mean if you are a man reading this, and have decided to follow the lead about women and improve your compliment-giving skills, be prepared for some mixed results. You're bucking decades, if not centuries of cultural norms, it's going to take some time to feel comfortable enough to reply with a simple thank you and maybe singing the praises of Betsey Johnson before promptly leaving your life, and if you're a guy thinking but wait I just gave her a compliment, she's not supposed to run off like that, then I need to point out that you are doing this compliment thing all wrong.

Alissa Grosso is the author of the books Unnamed Roads, Shallow Pond, Ferocity Summer and Popular. None of them are about cultural norms, cute handbags or fancy toilet seats, but she's still received a few compliments on them. You can find out more about her and her books at


  1. From a guy perspective (I'm one and 70), I think many of us don't compliment women we don't know because of the current climate regarding sexual innuendos and harassment. However when I see something outstanding like the mascara/eye shadow artistry that a young woman at Staples was sporting, I break that rule. She was quite surprised when I did, pleasantly so, I might add.

  2. This is awesome. I need to compliment so much more.

  3. I do the compliment thing to other women but am rather embarrassed to admit I've never complimented a man because I didn't want to be perceived as flirting.

  4. We've got to start teaching our kids how to talk to each other early on. Telling them "Be nice" doesn't seem to be cutting it. Excellent post.


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