You Know What's Great About You? You Just Can't Take (or Give) a Compliment

Is there anything we crave more –- and trust less –- than a compliment? It's axiomatic that compliments can be hard to take; as Anna North put it, accepting them is "a skill that often escapes even the most accomplished women." While giving praise seems so much easier, there are still "no-go zones" for more than a few women –- like complimenting a straight man you don't know well on his appearance. Few of us have as much ease accepting and giving them as we'd like. As the research shows, there are some things we can do to start to change that.

In a just concluded four-part series at The Beheld, Autumn Whitefield-Madrano examines complimenting behavior from almost every imaginable perspective. Her first essay looks at the complex role compliments play in women's relationships with each other; the second explores the research on sex differences in compliment-giving; the third discusses the broader cultural purpose of praise; the fourth considers the complex impact men's compliments have on their female romantic partners. Taken together, the posts offer an important mix of analysis and introspection as well as a terrific summary of three decades worth of scientific studies on the subject.

It's not news to point out that men are taught to use compliments as a seduction technique. Looks-based praise is such a familiar staple of straight men's hook-up patter that pick-up consultants advise their students to use the "neg" — a gentle, teasing insult — in order to surprise and intrigue the women they're hitting on. Since everyone knows that complimenting a woman on her looks is the cornerstone of so many men's seduction technique, their initial affirmations of desirability, however welcome, don't always carry a great deal of weight.

It's in relationships, however, that compliments become more problematic. Eagerly anticipated but also easily dismissed as well as often overanalyzed, Whitefield-Madrano writes that there's almost "no way for a (male) partner to win" at the game of giving praise.

Compliments become laden with tension: Does "You look pretty" carry less weight than "You are beautiful"? Does "You are beautiful" become diminished if it follows "Do I look okay"? Does a dropoff in compliments mean that our partners are less attracted to us, or that they're comfortable enough to express admiration in other ways, or that they don't want us to think they only find us beautiful when they explicitly say so? Or does an unflagging stream of compliments mean that they're uttered by rote and don't "count"?

That tension isn't just rooted in women's insecurity. Though she writes that she's never "really found a comfortable place to exist with compliments," Whitefield-Madrano said in a Skype interview that part of that problem lies in how men themselves deploy compliments in a relationship. Just as guys are taught to praise a woman's looks as a strategy to get her into bed, many use compliments to soothe or distract anxious or discontented girlfriends or wives. (The classic example: woman asks man if she looks okay; he avers that she looks "beautiful" or "fine," but does so without even gazing at her closely.)

Though Whitefield-Madrano says that men "can't win," the blame for that isn't just due to what she calls women's "contradictory" expectations for men's compliments. Just as women are raised to "perform beauty," many men learn early to "perform compliments" as a tool for everything from seduction to conflict resolution. Men's compliments come with an agenda every bit as intentional as women's efforts to look a certain way in order to invite validation. When Whitefield-Madrano insists "it's me, not you," she's letting her male partners off the hook a little too quickly.

What about the flip side: the compliments women give to men? Both Whitefield-Madrano and the extant research focus primarily on the appearance-based compliments women give each other and that men give to women. The reason that we know less about female-to-male compliments is obvious: it's still tremendously risky for women to praise the looks of men with whom they're not in a romantic relationship. Two recent studies (both in PDF) have looked at the compliments women give men. Both found that women are much more likely to praise men for skills rather than appearance, while guys are much more likely to praise the ladies for their looks. Though there are many reasons for the discrepancy, women's fear of having a compliment misinterpreted as a sexual invitation ranked at the top.

Researchers Christopher Parisi and Peter Wogan discovered that "compliment guardedness is the female counterpart to female caution about where to walk at night." It's not that women notice men's appearance any less than men notice theirs –- it's that for women, the consequences of praising what they see can be so much more dire. When asked about that conclusion, Whitefield-Madrano agreed. "I can't imagine telling a man I wasn't intimately involved with that he was handsome," she said, "not because I wouldn't want to but because of the likelihood he'd misconstrue it as a come-on." As Parisi and Wogan found, gay men attracted a whoppingly disproportionate share of appearance-based compliments simply because women felt confident that they "wouldn't take it the wrong way."

In 2012, it's no secret that men care about their looks. But the evidence is that we're getting far fewer compliments about our appearance than we'd like – and that women would like to give. In order to get that longed-for validation men have to take on the responsibility of making it safer for women to tell us what they like about faces, our bodies, and our style. When I asked Whitefield-Madrano for one way men could start to shift that dynamic to make women more comfortable, she suggested that (straight) men could start complimenting other men's appearance. That would make two things clear, she noted: first, that compliments aren't just part of the "feminine realm," but that men can and do both give and want them. Secondly, it would establish men's ability to hear a looks-based affirmation as something other than evidence of sexual desire. The more men can do to show that we can distinguish aesthetic appreciation from lust, the more compliments we're likely to get. (Better grooming might help too.)

As Whitefield-Madrano writes, we want more than to just hear "you're so pretty" or "you're looking handsome." From a friend we want to know we've been seen and found pleasing to the eye; from a partner, we're looking to hear "I am attracted to you. I want to be near you. I choose you; you are special to me." Those words carry far more power when we can trust their sincerity. The more men do to rethink how they've been socialized to use compliments –- and how they frequently misinterpret the ones they receive – the closer we'll all be to getting the validation we crave.


Jezebel columnist Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College, and is a nationally-known speaker on sex, masculinity, body image and beauty culture. He also blogs at his eponymous site. Follow him on Twitter: @hugoschwyzer.