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Flirts, Compliments, and Catcalls


Every so often I’ll come across some guy lamenting that women just can’t take a compliment anymore, as if what was once a sea of happily receptive women has been hardened into a glacier of frigid ice queens.

Nothing I say here will be news to women, who live with the reality every day. My audience here is the hypothetical heterosexual man who is perturbed that he’s not allowed to tell women what he thinks of their appearance. I have no idea if any such people are reading this blog, but I suppose it’s possible.

Rather than speak for women, which would be inappropriate in this or any context, I will speak on behalf of myself, and perhaps like-minded men.

If I were to boil it down to a few key points, they would be:

  1. Learn to understand context.
  2. Think beyond yourself and your own wants and needs.
  3. Respect boundaries.
  4. Accept the consequences.

Context: there are times and places where it might be appropriate to give a woman an unsolicited compliment. I am not going to list them because that would be impossible. Instead, consider the dynamics of the situation as well as how you’ve both been behaving. Don’t take mere politeness as flirting or a sign of interest–especially if you are a customer and she is interacting with you as part of providing you a service. In any instance where a woman is obliged by her role to treat you kindly and respectfully, don’t read into her behavior that she’s coming onto you. She is probably just trying to do her job. Likewise, a woman going about her business in public is not giving you an open invitation for come-ons just because she happens to be in earshot. I shouldn’t have to say “don’t catcall,” but don’t catcall. If she talks to you first and seems like she might be interested, go for it. Have a nice chat. Otherwise, leave her alone.

It’s not that you can never talk to women, just learn when it’s appropriate and potentially welcome.

Think beyond yourself: do you ever try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagine how they might feel if the situation was reversed? Do you ever consider that the way you see a situation might not be how someone else in that situation sees it? Do you take into account the emotions and needs of others, even if you don’t understand or agree with them? If not, you should try it. Our culture is rife with toxic masculinity that all but beats empathy out of us. Nevertheless, it can be rediscovered and nurtured. You can go a lot further in life by being able to read, relate to, and anticipate the thoughts and feelings of others. For one thing, it will help you avoid misunderstandings where you were “just trying to offer a compliment” and end up with a drink in your face. Don’t just think of yourself–consider whether you are offering others something they actually want.

Respecting boundaries: “no” means “no.” Again, it shouldn’t have to be said. When you are turned down or brushed off, take it seriously. Respect her decision and her agency. It’s not an opportunity for “negging.” If you served up a compliment and got a cold shoulder, that’s not a sign you need to try harder–it’s a sign you need to walk away. It’s been said that persistence pays off. For some matters, this may be true. When it comes to interacting with women, don’t press your luck–it only makes you look like a creep. If you ever absorbed the tactics of pick-up artists, forget them. Respect personal space, too. If she moves closer to you, that’s a sign she wants you closer. If you try to move in and she backs away, take the hint. If she’s with friends and trying to pay attention to them, don’t insist on intruding. Respect: it’s a simple concept, isn’t it?

Accepting consequences: everything about the dating scene is a risk. Remember that, for one thing, it’s almost always much riskier for a woman than a man. There’s a proverb I’ve seen make the rounds that illustrates the disparity very well. Men are worried women will reject them; women are worried men will rape them. Keep that in mind. You might consider it hyperbolic, but it’s not. And while you may intend a compliment or a greeting or some other interaction in a completely innocuous way, your intentions do not control the response. Women aren’t mind-readers who can magically tell whether your smile and kind words are genuine, or a mask hiding a real monster. Sometimes the risk just isn’t worth finding out. You are not entitled to a friendly reaction just because you intended to be friendly. When you try to strike up a conversation, or flirt, or offer a compliment–whatever it is–you are taking a risk, however small, and have to accept the consequences of it. Maybe your feelings will be hurt because she ignored you or responded rudely. Don’t take it out on her; remember, she doesn’t owe you anything, not even her attention.

This advice is hardly comprehensive, but I hope it gets the point across. The gist is pretty simple, though. Don’t assume women want your attention just because they exist; only give it if it seems like they’re interested. And if they shut you down, don’t get pissy, just move on. Easy, right?

Photo by Made Underground