How to give a compliment to a stranger (without making them uncomfortable).
If a man pays a woman a compliment, he usually uses it to a) sexualize her with the compliment, or b) open up a conversation with the compliment.
So if you want to pay a stranger a compliment, you need to make clear that a) you’re not claiming ownership over that person’s body, and b) that’s all you wanted to say, and you’re not demanding a personal interaction.
So what does a good compliment look like?
Step one: don’t sexualize them
You might ask why I’m comparing sexualizing someone’s body to claiming ownership over someone’s body. If I go outside in a cute dress and some dude drives by and says “baby, you’re looking *fine*” he has decided, without my permission, to interact with me in a sexual way. I didn’t allow him to involve me in his sexual thoughts, or to let me know about his sexual thoughts. He’s decided, on his own, that he gets to do that with me. That’s claiming ownership over me and my experiences.
A number of comments and compliments do that same thing – anything that sexualizes someone and alerts them to the fact that you’re sexualizing them is claiming ownership over someone’s body or their experiences. That’s not okay.
Make sure you’re complimenting a *choice* someone made, and not how they exist in the world.
Nope: you look gorgeous
Maybe: you look great in that dress / that dress looks really good on you
Yes: your dress is so great!
What’s the difference among these three kinds of compliments? Well, Nope and Maybe are both talking about how someone exists in the world – it’s not telling them “well done!” for something they’ve chosen to do. Even if you mean to compliment the choice of dress by saying “that looks really good on you!” you’re still adding your potentially-sexual appreciation of their body into the interaction.
“I’m really impressed with how you applied your eye-makeup!” or “you’re such a great violin player!” Not about their bodies or appearance at all – 100% about their skill!
The following words are great:
These are way better than:
You should be specific about it, if you can. Why do you even want to compliment someone in the first place? Do you see something they’re doing or wearing that is just so, so great that you HAVE to say something? Tell them what exactly it is that made you want to say something, because that sounds more genuine than just a generic “lookin’ good!”
“Hey, your blouse is such a rad color!” “Wow, the way you braided your hair* is really impressive.” “I love those shoes – the sparkles are fantastic!” “Nice shirt – I love that show!”
Step two: don’t make them think that they’re trapped in a conversation with you.
You might ask why using a compliment to open up a conversation isn’t okay. It’s not that you’re never allowed to chat with strangers, but that many people use a compliment to *force* the beginning of a conversation, and don’t allow the other person to escape an interaction that they may not have wanted to be having. Sometimes people just want to be left alone and don’t want to chat, or they feel threatened into a conversation and want to escape. When you give a compliment, you need to build in assurance that you’re not stomping all over their personal bubble, or demanding that they engage with you.
My advice – give the compliment to the other person, smile, then glance at your phone/ a map/ the skyline/ your friend/ shoes/ whatever. Use your body language to indicate that all you wanted out of that interaction was to say something nice, one time, and that you’re not demanding their attention with enforced eye contact.
If they want to say something in response that starts a conversation, they will! They’ll say “thanks, I got it from my grandmother – it’s so cool that I’m the same size she was when she was my age!” or “thanks, it took me ages to learn how to braid it like this!” or “Yeah, it’s really fun to wear them outside! I’m so glad it’s finally summer.” These are all a tentative invitation to smile back and possibly chat. Use your judgement from there.
But if all you get back is “thanks!” or a chuckle or a smile, that’s it. You smile at them (if you want to) and move on.
If your compliment *is* intended to start a conversation, and that’s why you’re giving it, stop. That’s you-directed motivation, not them-directed motivation.
I know there’s a lot of fear about complimenting strangers. That’s good, honestly. Err on the side of caution where you don’t ruin some person’s day by making them feel sexualized or trapped. But sometimes receiving a genuine and pleasant compliment can make you feel awesome! It can brighten up your day! Honest human interactions can be so lovely and warm. Just be sure that you’re making someone feel good for something they’ve done.
*if you are white, I’d suggest not complimenting a Black person that you’re not close with on their hair, even with the tips I provided here. There is a lot of cultural baggage tied up in white people touching or interacting with the very personal entity that is Black hair, and claiming ownership over Black bodies. So appreciate that silently.