Last week, in case you missed it, President Obama hopped on the mic and told the nation that I'mma let you finish, but California Attorney General Kamala Harris is like the banginest Attorney General of all time (sorry, Richard Gordon Kleindienst). He later apologized after the thinking humans of the nation were like ":-|" and everything really could have ended there. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of AGILFgate, it appears that certain men are mega-befuddled about "the rules" of "when" they're "allowed" to compliment women. Freedom-fighters, all of them. First they came for the nonconsensual bun-grabs and I said nothing!
Aggrieved White Male Jack Engelhard, who is purportedly a real person and was not grown in a lab at the Onion headquarters, has a lot of feelings about Obama's comments and subsequent public reprimand. Specifically, Engelhard frets:
Please, give us a chance to learn the rules. Give us a minute to catch our breath.
...We were taught (most of us were) that girls and women were to be given flowers for their beauty of character and good looks.
Exactly what is wrong with this?
But one morning we were told that it is okay, even required, to tell a woman that she looks marvelous. Next morning, hey, we can go to jail for this!
Awwwwwww, the rules are changing so fast! Political correctness gone mad, innit. I remember the good old days when the President could post a picture of an attractive colleague on hotornot.com and be awarded a Purple Heart. I mean, it's like you can't even tell the Secretary of State that you want to "put the bang in Benghazi" anymore without getting looked at like this! That's not Engelhard's America, so what sort of strange feminazi Looking-Glass Unmerica is it, anyway!? WHAT HAVE WE BECOME?
Men, I sense your distress, I feel for you, and I'm here to help. Don't even worry your pretty little heads about this thoughtcrime shit anymore—here are "the rules" for when and how you may compliment women. Laminate it, study it, be it.
So. When "can" you compliment women!?
1. Literally any time!
Yay! I bet this is easier than you thought! Here's the thing. Do you have a reason to compliment the woman in question? Wait. Let me rephrase that. Do you have a reason to compliment her that doesn't have anything to do with your penis? If you're in a professional setting (like, say, you're the fucking President publicly addressing a colleague), you are welcome to compliment women on on anything with actual relevance to that woman's professional life. For instance, if you work in an office and a woman from IT fixes your computer, you may officially go nuts complimenting her on her computer-fixing skills! It is not appropriate, however, to compliment her on her boobs. Unless she fixed your computer with her boobs, in which case, loophole! Ka-ching.
If you are friends with a woman in your office, you two are hanging out in the break room, and you notice that she's gotten a fetching new haircut, it's completely normal to say, "Hey, Cheryl, righteous haircut." But, say, if you are in the middle of a meeting, and Cheryl has just presented her quarterly report to the board, it is not appropriate to raise your hand and say, "I'd just like to point out the flattering way in which Cheryl's blazer nips in at the waist." Can you see the difference? One is giving a high-five to a friend in a relaxed, unprofessional setting. The other is derailing and devaluing a colleague's professional contributions; drawing attention to the fact that she's a woman in the board room, not a person in the board room; and reminding her that her primary utility, in your eyes, is as a decorative and/or sexual object.
That might seem silly to you—of course you weren't doing that!—but if you really want an answer to this question about "rules," you need to wrap your head around the fact that the world is not balanced. Women's experiences do not mirror yours. Women's lives are entirely circumscribed by contemporary standards of beauty in a way that yours is not. If a woman is "too ugly," she is worthless. If a woman is "too pretty," she isn't taken seriously. Every woman you encounter in your professional sphere has fought every day of her life against gendered conditioning (hey, put down your brother's erector set and play with this pooping baby doll!), relentless othering (know your place, sweetie), sexual objectification and/or victimization (I'm confused—who let this semi-sentient bag of bone-holes into my engineering program?), subtle or not-so-subtle discouragement (are you sure this is the field for you? It's really hard, and you're so pretty!), and kneejerk skepticism of her abilities (I think you'd be perfect for the Party Planning Committee!).
Imagine if every day you came into work and your boss said, "Really fillin' out those pants today, Jerry," and he never said anything else. Do you think you'd eventually mention it to HR? Well, now imagine that "Really fillin' out those pants today, Jerry" was built, systemically, into the entire culture's attitude toward you from birth onward. Do you think you might be annoyed if the President of the United States pulled a "Really fillin' out those pants today, Jerry," on one of the only Jerries ever allowed to hold public office? I think you would.
2. If a woman is making eye contact with you in a public social space such as a bar or discotheque.
Sometimes women are totally trynna bone. Sometimes women go out looking for compliments. Sometimes those women would like to receive compliments from you! If a woman is out and about, smiling and making eye contact with strangers and generally looking great, it is perfectly fine to tell her she looks great. If you compliment her and she responds with negative signals—frowning, looking away, smiling uncomfortably, grunting monosyllabically—your compliement was not well-received and you should move on with your life.
You interact with men on a daily basis, right? Can you tell when a man doesn't want to talk to you anymore? Here is a tip: Women are people, just like men! So just take the understanding of social cues that you use on men (the default humans, I know) and then apply it to your interactions with women. This should help you to accurately interpret women's feelings about your advances 99% of the time (unless you find yourself interacting with some sort of carnivorous land-Siren or other species of mythical con-artist). Seriously, try it. It's like a Game Genie for your dick!
If a woman is avoiding eye contact with you—like, say, while walking down the street in the process of living her damn life—IT IS NOT A GOOD TIME FOR A COMPLIMENT.
3. Compliments are not currency.
One reason why men are reluctant to let go of their "right" to fixate, vocally, on women's looks to the exclusion of all else, is because historically compliments have been profitable for men. It's an instant "in." Because the expectation that's modeled for women and drilled into us from childhood is that if someone is nice to you, you owe him something: He buys you dinner, you owe him sex. He compliments you, you owe him a smile. Overhauling that system drains men's social bank accounts. But it doesn't have to be that way! You can interact with us on a human-to-human level instead of a collector-to-curio level and I promise we will love you for it. Telling people they look nice is perfectly fine—it just can't be the primary form of currency.
4. Women are not stupid.
We can feel it when you're saying "I want to have sex with you" instead of "I like your haircut." We know. If you aren't sure which one you're saying, and you're in a setting wherein sexual advances are not appropriate (i.e. WOOOOOOORK!!!!!), then err on the side of not fucking saying it. Okay? This is not hard.
5. Being attractive to you isn't a woman's job.
Oh, Mr. Engelhard! I forgot about you! What else?
Someone suggested that women would be safer from sexist remarks if they dressed like men.
Do we want all our women to resemble Alan Colmes and Rush Limbaugh? Really?
Maybe don't refer to them as "our women," as, like, the goddamn baseline.
6. Are we dating? In love? Friends? Are you my hairdresser? Did I just ask you how I look in this hat? Do you have an established track record of respecting me as a human being? Are we in the middle of having sex?
GO FUCKING NUTS.
7. Please stop digging in your heels against evolution.
Progress is natural. Progress is what we do. And progress does not negate the past. Here's Engelhard again:
If our culture has become so neutered, soon we may be forbidden from watching Guys and Dolls.
Forget South Pacific and that roaring number of gratitude, “there ain’t nothin’ like a dame.”
NO ONE IS TAKING AWAY YOUR GUYS OR YOUR DOLLS. Women asking to be treated with respect in our current workplaces does not erase all the bigoted parts of human history you enjoy. You can still enjoy those things, even while regarding them with some critical understanding.
You've had at least 50 years to "catch your breath." You live in the same culture I do—you are a part of the culture that is currently changing the rules—which means that the only reason you're not evolving along with it is that you're actively digging in your heels. Stop doing that and you won't be so confused! Voila!
8. This isn't a game.
This entire premise is flawed. The idea isn't to identify some specific set of "rules" so that you can get away with as much as possible. The idea is to interact respectfully with women and treat them like human beings. You don't need to learn the rules, you need to change your ridiculous dinosaur brain.
Women didn't set up this system—you did. These so-called "rules" that you're finding so oppressive, about when and how you should compliment women? These rules aren't the system—they are negative space pushing against the system. They are a reaction to the millions of rules set up by a patriarchal culture that has told women for millenia how to behave and dress and interact with men. YOU are the one with all the rules. We are trying to break them.