Picture this: you’re a woman sitting by the pool in your apartment complex with your laptop. The sun has long set, it’s cold even in your jacket, and you’re just trying to bang out the last item on your day’s to-do list. A strange man appears, walks over to you, and volunteers “you look nice”…
Let’s break the situation down:
- I (the woman in question) was clearly busy working.
- It was dark.
- I was alone.
- He was much bigger than me.
- Just to be crystal clear, I was rugged up in night-time clothes. I was not lounging around in a swimsuit — though that should not make one iota of difference.
There are a few different possibilities here. Perhaps he thought he was being kind, and that I would like to hear (the most original compliment of all time) “you look nice”.
Perhaps he didn’t think to consider what I was doing or what I would like, and just did an I-think-and-so-I-speak. Perhaps he wasn’t aware that, given the circumstances, his compliment would make me feel unsafe. Or perhaps he was, and it was his intention to make me feel unsafe. We’ll never know.
But it did make me feel unsafe, so I quickly packed up and left.
Which leads me into the following question: are unsolicited compliments from strangers good or bad?
As a woman who receives an awful lot of them (at least one per day that I leave the house), I vote bad. From my perspective, whatever small positives there may be are far outweighed by the negatives: feeling ogled, judged, threatened, pursued, and unsafe. (That being said, I am aware that some women like to receive unsolicited compliments from strangers — I can’t really speak to that.)
Think of unsolicited compliments like you do unsolicited advice. Most people do not value random “help” from strangers that they didn’t ask for. Changing a tire? Some strange person coming up to you out of the blue and instructing you to jack the car up higher probably isn’t what you want. If you’re having trouble and seek help, that’s a different story. But competently performing a task on your own only to be offered unsolicited advice from a stranger is annoying at best and terrifying at worst.
Why? If you’re changing a tire, and somebody feels to need to approach you and tell you how do it “better”, they are assuming that they know more than you, or that you can’t do it yourself. So a random stranger has glanced at you, decided that your tire-changing skills are inferior, and come over to impart their wisdom. See what I’m saying?
Unsolicited compliments from strangers are just the same. Generally, you’re just minding your business when some random person decides that you should hear a compliment. Who asked you, buddy? What made you think that I wanted to hear your opinion on my appearance / my outfit / my hair? Because I sure don’t.
The majority of unsolicited compliments make me feel uncomfortable — and, depending on the context, unsafe. I would greatly prefer to never receive unsolicited compliments from strangers: 99% of the time it’s a negative experience. If you feel like you absolutely must compliment somebody, please take a look around and consider whether your compliment might make your complimentee feel unsafe. If there’s a chance it might, or if you’re not sure, don’t do it!
The only reason to give somebody a compliment that might make them feel unsafe is to make yourself feel a certain way — powerful, important, whatever. So the “I was just trying to make them feel good” reasoning doesn’t fly. Please refrain.