How to Compliment Respectfully

I end up thinking about random compliments a lot, oddly enough. In part because I’m a woman in the #MeToo era, but mostly because I’m an online sex worker. Weird, gross comments about my appearance are a normal, expected part of doing business.

Also, because I have social anxiety, compliments sometimes have a huge effect on me, whether I want them to or not. Positive, pleasant interactions with strangers give me a high I float on for hours, while especially negative, unpleasant interactions can send me down a spiral that lingers for days or even weeks.

So I find myself often pondering what makes a compliment good to receive and what makes one lackluster or outright upsetting.

Here’s what I’ve come up with.



Guess why none of these Twitter DMs got a response from me.

Compliments should involve words.

That means no wolf-whistling or dick pics. No bizarre string of emojis in response to someone’s newest Instagram photo. If you want to compliment someone, you should form an actual meaningful sentence. Otherwise, it’s just noise.

Compliments should not be sexual.

There are caveats to this, of course. If I’m sexually involved with someone, like my wife, overt sexual compliments are awesome. Go ahead and tell me my tits look delicious. I’m into it. And some people have friendships that thrive on this sort of interaction, and that’s cool too.

But otherwise? No. No mentioning someone’s tits, ass, cock, or pussy. No bringing up or hinting at sexual acts. No innuendo. No terms like “hot” or “sexy.”

If a parent would call the authorities on you for saying it to their child, you should not say it to someone you don’t know very well.

If there is any doubt in your mind about whether something you want to say is “sexual” or not, you should keep it to yourself.

Compliments related to choices or actions mean more.

Consider “You have nice legs” vs. “Those jeans look good on you.” You might think that the former would be more flattering, since it’s focusing on a natural, essential part of the person. But for me at least, that’s not the case.

For one, complimenting a body part—even if it’s not an overtly sexual one like breasts—can carry an oddly sexual bent. By commenting on my legs specifically, you are commenting on my attractiveness, or my sexual appeal.

Commenting on my jeans can be a comment on my attractiveness too, but it also encompasses my eye for flattering clothes, my outfit decision that day, etc. That makes it more meaningful for me. Chances are, I will remember that these are the pair of jeans that someone once told me “look good.”

Note that this still does not excuse sexual compliments. “Your tits look good in that shirt” is just as gross and unwelcome as “Your tits are hot.”

Tone matters.

Let’s be honest. No matter how carefully and benignly your compliment is phrased, you can taint it with the wrong tone.

You want your tone to be polite, friendly, and matter-of-fact, not terribly different from if you were asking someone to pass the salt. Admiration or even excitement can be fine in reasonable doses too.

Leering, on the other hand, is creepy and off-putting. So are winking, smirking, and ogling.

Instead, smile and keep your tone as kind and respectful as the compliment you’re passing on.

Do not linger.

A follow-up question or comment—like if you want to know where the person got that shirt or what product they used to get their hair to look like that—is fine. If it naturally spawns a conversation, that’s great.

But if the person says “Thank you” and moves on, and especially if they turn away from you and seem unwilling to further engage, do not try to return to the subject or start tacking on additional compliments in hopes of getting them to respond more favorably. Follow their example and move on yourself.

Definitely do not start piling on insults or trying to take your compliment back. Doing so basically signals that you are the worst and this person should never interact with you again.

Compliments should not have expectations.

Compliments often have motives, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. There’s nothing offensive about “Nice shoes. Where did you get them?” even though the compliment is motivated by a selfish desire to buy a pair for yourself. And compliments are an effective way to build rapport with someone or test the waters before you start flirting.

The problem is when compliments come with strings attached.

If you will accept nothing but a very particular response to your compliment, your compliment has strings, and you should not be giving it.

Just like when giving gifts, you have to be okay with the possibility that your compliment won’t be accepted the way you want it to be. Sometimes the person won’t remember where they bought their shoes, or they’re not interested in getting to know you better, or they respond rudely or not at all. That’s just life.

If you can’t handle that, keep your compliments to yourself.

Compliments should not be weird or backhanded.

Okay, I just really wanted to tell this story, but it doesn’t fit under a good category aside from, well, this.

When I was in grad school, I was sitting at the campus bus station waiting for my bus to take me home for the day. I was wearing a pair of leather knee-high boots, which were my absolute favorite.

A woman sitting across from me said, “I love your boots,” and just as I was puffing up, preening over my beloved shoes and about to thank her, she cheerfully followed up with “But they’re pretty old, huh?”

Ouch. I mean, it’s true; I’d had them for probably a good year or two, and I didn’t take care of the leather as much as I should have, so they looked worn and dull. But what a weird thing to say to me. I had no idea how to respond, and the comment has stayed with me all these years.

So, you know, don’t do something like that.

Anyone else have any insight into what makes a good or bad compliment? Or a story about a weird compliment to share?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s