4 Reasons People Hate It When You Compliment Them
A couple weeks ago, a video made the rounds of an attractive woman walking down the streets of New York while a hidden camera watched and documented the various attempts men made to compliment, hit on, or otherwise shout at her. It's worth watching if you haven't seen it yet; they counted over 100 various harassing remarks in a 10-hour period, some of which were pretty aggressive.
The matter was discussed in the forums and comment sections where our finest minds congregate, many of them putting forward the opinion that these were compliments being offered to this woman and that she should be flattered, not offended. Although it might strain your belief to hear that someone on the Internet was wrong about something, that appears to be the case here, in particular the assumption that compliments are always complimentary. Which they most certainly are not.
"You've got a real pretty mouth."
Here then, for your street-harassment-avoidance pleasure, are four reasons why compliments might not be very complimentary.
They Come With Insulting Conditions
What if someone told you, "You're pretty smart for someone who went to a technical college." That is technically a compliment, but it's also pretty goddamned condescending, as it includes a harsh judgment about you and your education. Any compliment that comes with a condition like that is in danger of being overwhelmed by that caveat. Like, "You're really good for a girl." Or, "That's great! You're really getting better!" Or, "You've achieved so much for a flipper-baby."
"Your parent-cousins would be so proud if they had survived that moonshine-still explosion to be here today."
The condition, and what it implies about you, are often far more insulting than the compliment is complimentary. Even if you have crossed a low bar, like if you are legitimately a novice at something, it's pretty crass pointing that out to you within the compliment itself. "You're pretty good for a 3-year-old" only flies because 3-year-olds are too dumb to know they're being insulted.
"Thanks a lot, dad! Hey, I don't care what mom says about you; you're all right."
And if you're not a novice, if what you've done is legitimately impressive, having someone attach a fucking condition to it, implying you crossed a lower bar than you did, is downright offensive. Telling someone she's pretty good for a girl is a great way to have a pretty-good-for-a-girl punch land in your throat.
They Come From Someone Who Wants Something
Let's say a co-worker comes up to you and tells you, "Hey, you're really good at printing labels." That's also technically a compliment, but with your sense for the subtleties of human fuckwadery, you detect something else is coming on its heels. And, sure enough, a second later your co-worker springs, "So, do you think you could do up a couple thousand labels for me?"
"No problem. Hey, I've actually got two of them here in my pockets."
Your oh-so-elite label-printing skill doesn't really feel like something to be proud of here, like you'd expect for something that was just complimented. It kind of feels like a liability. Even if your co-worker hadn't followed it up right away with a request for you to do something, like if they just mentioned it casually in conversation, you'd still be a little wary of them setting you up for work in the future. Or if they gave you a different, entirely unrelated compliment, completely out of nowhere, you might still wonder if they were buttering you up for something.
(thinking) "But I suck. What could she really be after?"
Fun fact: We're always judging everyone around us. We judge our close friends a bit less, but that's only because we've judged them so much by that point that we don't have to anymore. But everyone else is getting full-judged all the time; we need to if we hope to navigate even basic human interactions.
(thinking) "This car salesman is being nice to me. He must be my friend."
Which means that when someone compliments us -- just like in any other interaction -- we quietly assess what they really mean by it. This doesn't just have to be because they want something from us. Imagine a really popular kid in high school complimenting you. Like way more popular than you, someone who never talks to you. Your mouth might say, "Cool, thanks!" but you'd also be a fool not to divert all power to your sarcasm sensors. You fucking nerd.
"I don't think they're genuinely impressed with my bo fighting stances."
In this case, the fact that they want to mock you kind of mutes some of the positive effects of the compliment. Or, if you're a girl and a guy on the street says that you'd look really good sitting on his face, you can deduce that he might have another motive in complimenting you, which might detract somewhat from its complimentary effect.
(thinking) "Would I really look good sitting on his face, or is he just saying that? What sort of twisted game could he be playing?"
They Compliment Something You Don't Want Attention Drawn To
Let's say you're really good at Super Smash Bros. You know all the moves, tactics, and strategies, and regularly beat the crap out of your friends and roommates. You're awesome at Super Smash Bros., and in fact are kind of proud of it. You played the game a lot and even kind of worked at it to become so good. So when someone compliments you on your skill, that feels good, right?
Like this. Only for video games.
Now imagine you're at work. It's a good job, your actual career or something you want to turn into a career. And someone important visits the office, a senior manager or the team lead for a cool project you'd like to work on. And as this important person is being shown around, your boss introduces you, slapping you on the back, and saying, "And this guy right here is incredible at Super Smash Bros. It's this little game with Mario and Pikachu just wailing on each other. He's unbelievable. Trashes everyone. Dude plays it all the time."
You freeze. The important person's smile tightens. He nods. And off he goes to the next person.
(thinking) "I can't believe I almost touched a gamer."
In this context, you really didn't want your video game skills celebrated. Your idiot of a boss, although complimenting you, chose to compliment the worst possible thing about you, instead of your work-related attributes or skills.
"Tom tells me you're also insane at making labels?"
This is something that people trip up on a lot in workplaces. A simple, polite compliment about a female co-worker's appearance might sound fine to your ears, and in some circumstances may be totally acceptable. But remember that this co-worker also wouldn't mind being complimented for lots of other things, like being smart, funny, talented, or hard-working. You know. All those human things that humans do. And if the majority of compliments she receives, from you or anyone else, are about her appearance, that will grate on her. It kind of implies that she doesn't have any of those other qualities.
"And this is Helen. She led the team in Q2 sales. The Mittleton deal was all her. Oh and in the fall, boy can she really wear a sweater."
They Come From Someone You Don't Like
So let's say you're a dude and a woman comes up to you and compliments your pants. "They look good on you," she says. "Especially from the rear." She smiles. You mentally pump your fist.
Awwwwww yeah. Someone's looking at your butt and thinking sex thoughts.
OK. But what if that woman is your aunt?
Awwwwww yeah. Dad's sister Brenda is looking at your butt and thinking sex thoughts.
That's kind of weird, right? I mean, you might not flip out or feel grossly insulted or anything, but it is a little unsettling. Exact same compliment, but you're definitely reacting differently based on who it's coming from. How we receive a compliment depends a lot on our perception of who it's coming from. For sexual compliments, that means they will mean a lot more when they come from someone we are ourselves sexually attracted to.
"Thanks, Uncle Charlie. No, I haven't been working out. Aunt Brenda wondered the same thing."
That's the big stumbling block most of these dudes in the catcalling video don't seem to realize. They're not being attractive. Even if they're good-looking, that's not necessarily enough; lots of other things go into making us attractive, like our sense of humor, shoe choices, and motorcycle ownership. Also: knowing how to behave in public.
Hint: Whispering sexual comments to strangers is terrifying, not attractive.
Society decided a long time ago that shouting at strangers isn't really a cool thing to do. Even if an attractive dude offers an entirely legitimate and heartfelt compliment, by shouting it at a woman on the street he's proving that he doesn't give two shits about these basic social rules. This makes him much less attractive (and, again, kind of terrifying), which in turn makes his compliment far less complimentary.
He may also be unattractive for more conventional reasons.
Chris Bucholz is a Cracked columnist and has never been complimented in his life. His first novel, Severance, is incredible, coming out on Dec. 9, and is available for preorder on Amazon or Apex Books. Join him on Facebook or Twitter.
For more from Bucholz on Cracked, check out 4 Personal Questions People Seem to Think Are Small Talk and 6 Overused Phrases It's Time to Retire.
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