I've been putting off writing about male-to-female compliments because, quite honestly, it’s touchy. I crave hearing compliments within my relationships, but I also know that when I’ve gotten them, I still feel dissatisfied. In fact, the compliments given to me by men I’m not dating tend to be the ones that stick. This is somewhat in line with research indicating that women are likelier to respond with a “thank you” to compliments from men than they are to those given by other women. The author of that study speculated that it was because compliments can indicate social status, and since generally speaking men are seen as having more status, women may treat compliments from them as coming from a social superior? Or something. Honestly, I think it’s more that when a guy friend compliments me, what I read into it is that he sees me first and foremost as his friend, but that sometimes I might do something with my appearance that reminds him, Oh yeah, you’re also a nominally attractive woman—and that he’s comfortable enough with our relationship to say something approximating that without it becoming weird. I take it at more face value than I would with a partner, or with a female friend, because I know from my own experience that giving compliments to other women has a different sort of function.
So when it comes to male-to-female compliments, I feel able to hear and accept them from male friends and acquaintances and not get all angsty about it. Not so for men I’m dating. Naturally, my interest was piqued when I came across this study examining the role of compliments in heterosexual relationships. (Unfortunately, the study didn't look at same-sex relationships; I'm very curious about how compliment patterns might differ between female friends and female partners.) The general body of research on this is minimal, but here’s what stood out:
- Compliments between romantic partners frequently differ from compliments given to friends. The role and intent of compliments are always contextual, and nothing provides a broader context than culture. Intimate relationships are a sort of “microculture” that’s reflected in the form and content of compliments. In Japan, a statement like “Those earrings are pure gold, aren’t they?” would be taken as a compliment (according to compliment scholar Robert Herbert), whereas in the United States it would be more likely to be seen as a question. The form (roundabout) and content (wealth and taste) tell us something about cultural values in Japan. Similarly, in a relationship’s microculture, “There’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be than in your arms” becomes a compliment despite not resembling one structurally; these emotion-based compliments were the number-one type recalled by participants of both sexes. Whereas compliments among friends are often roundabout ways of expressing “I like you,” in romances there’s freedom to say exactly that, and to still have it experienced as a compliment by the receiver.
- Women are likelier than men to be aware of the presence—or absence—of compliments. But listen to the flipside: Both sexes equally value the role of compliments in relationships. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. I’m guessing it has something to do with the traditional role of women as the gatekeepers of emotion, which would lead women to be more sensitive to all sorts of emotional indicators. Alternately, women’s heightened awareness of the role compliments serve with female friends and acquaintances might lead them to a similarly heightened awareness of compliments in their partnerships.
- The more compliments, the better. The study found a correlation between relationship satisfaction and the number of compliments given and received—and also a correlation between relationship satisfaction and feelings about the number of compliments received. It’s unclear which comes first: Are we happier with compliments because we’re happier with the relationship, or are we happier with our relationships and therefore more likely to give and receive—or at least, remember giving and receiving—compliments? Whatever the case, it seems like it wouldn’t hurt to tell someone you love that, oh I don’t know, the brightness of her cheek would shame the stars as daylight doth a lamp, or whatever floats your boat, really.
In truth, only the rare compliment can ever “count,” because the very thing we seek in a compliment—validation—is a host of ambiguities and contradictions. Validation, by definition, relies upon one party affirming something about the other that has not yet been confirmed, and the thing being affirmed must already hold some water. That is, you can’t validate something that neither party really believes is true, or even that only one party believes is true; if you tell me I’m an excellent cook but I believe I’m just doing the bare minimum, I might be pleased by your compliment but I won’t feel validated by it, because there’s no preexisting belief to be affirmed. Similarly, when someone confirms something we already know to be true, validation isn’t in play—I don’t feel validated by being seen as a woman, but a transgendered woman may well feel validated by being called ma’am. With beauty, most of us hover between these poles: We might think under the right light that we might not look half-bad, but we’re not necessarily entirely sure of it. In order for an act to be one of validation as opposed to confirmation or presentation, we need both the possibility of the quality being true and the possibility of it being untrue. In other words, if you’re seeking romantic validation in a compliment, chances are you’re never going to get it.
Not that that stops us—or rather, not that that stops me—from searching for validation in compliments anyway. I’ve dated men all over the compliments scale, from one who actually stopped and sighed while I was brushing my teeth to tell me how beautiful I was, to one who told me early on that he didn’t “do” compliments. Nowhere in there have I ever really found a comfortable place to exist with compliments. With the stingy men I treat each compliment like a rare jewel; with the overkill guys I become exasperated and begin to suspect their words are building a pedestal I don’t want to be on. And with the men who have a moderate, sincere, and appreciative attitude toward compliments, I usually just wind up feeling frozen. I'm not proud of this, and I don't think I've taken out my compliment complex on the men I've been involved with, but I admit it seems like there's no way for a partner to win here.
Yes, yes, it's me, not you, sure. Yet there’s an inherent paradox in compliments that can make them difficult to receive from those we love. The moment a compliment escapes the giver’s lips, a division is created: It’s a reminder that we are being looked at instead of being experienced as a part of a cohesive unit. A looks-based compliment is a reminder of the impossibility of merging with another person—and whether or not merging is actually your goal in a relationship, the whole "the two will become one flesh" bit is pretty much the basis of marriage in the western world.
More importantly, a looks-based compliment can be a reminder of the existence of our own feminine performance—our beauty work, our sleight-of-hand that supports the overall impression of beauty. If the end goal of feminine performance is looking beautiful, sexy, pretty, cute, and then we’re complimented for meeting that goal, it can be hard to shake the feeling that perhaps it’s the performance being complimented, not us. The first response I usually have après-compliment is not to feel pretty but rather to feel as though I need to keep on looking pretty. That is, my knee-jerk reaction is not to experience a compliment as an affirmation of who I am but of what I do. Continuing the performance is the only way to not reveal ourselves to be frauds, even if the fraudulence is benign and socially engineered; we’re not actually beautiful, we just look it right now. By calling attention to the end goal of the performance—a proper signaling of our femininity—compliments pull us out of the assumed nonchalance that makes feminine performance. Even if the goal has been successfully reached, part of the goal of feminine performance is to keep up the illusion that there’s no performance taking place.
No wonder, then, that so many women report ways of defending against compliments: One woman reports scrunching up her face whenever her boyfriend tells her she looks beautiful; another bats her eyelashes “absurdly” when complimented on her eyes; another says she feels “caught” for not being able to follow the compliment script when, in truth, she feels unsure of how to react when a partner says she looks lovely. The gap between the safety of love and the precarity of being seen as an image is a space of uncertainty—and in relationships that already host a good deal of uncertainty, that gap can easily become toxic.
I take heart, though, in one of the findings of the partnership compliment study: The number-one topic of compliments between partners was neither appearance nor skill nor personality, but emotions. Not You look amazing but You make me feel amazing. When I first read that this sort of statement was considered a compliment within the bounds of the study, I hedged—that’s a statement of love, not a compliment, right? But that’s exactly what compliments are: an expression of admiration, appreciation, or plain old liking—and perhaps, with the people we choose to really let in, an expression of love. And it’s not like I—or the women I’ve talked with who wrestle with looks-based compliments from their partners—value our appearance above those expressions of emotion. But framing these statements—which, in good relationships, have flowed easily regardless of the number of You’re so prettys that spill forth—as compliments helps put that urge to hear You’re so pretty in proper perspective.
In fact, it’s exactly that—understanding the true significance of any compliment—that might shoo away that urge for good. According to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, when people with low self-esteem went beyond merely hearing compliments from partners and instead described the meaning and significance of them, they started to feel better about the compliments, their relationships, and indeed themselves. In fact, once people with low self-esteem did this sort of reframing, they started to behave as people with high self-esteem do.
Now, I’m not sure where I’d fall on the self-esteem scale, but when it comes to my looks, it’s not like I’m always standing on solid ground. I’m hoping that the next time I long to hear a looks-based compliment from a partner, I’ll be able to remember what I’m really looking for: the meaning and significance of things like You’re so pretty, not the words themselves. That is, I’m looking to hear I am attracted to you. I want to be near you. I choose you; you are special to me. And with the right person, the reminders of these facts—for with the right person, they will be facts—should be just that, reminders. You’re so pretty, with luck and patience, can be put aside, where it belongs.