It was just before 10am in Victoria Station, London. The crowd was waning at the tail end of rush hour, yet still thronging. I was making my way across the concourse, strapped up with my rucksack of stationery and electronics, my duffle bag of clothes, and my sling of broken arm, mentally preparing for a 4-hour coach journey northwards that I didn’t want to take.
For me, I wasn’t dressed particularly ostentatiously — I was traveling, after all. Black Doctor Martens with yellow laces, washed-out blue skinny jeans, a white, chunky-knit cardigan, a blue and silver paisley scarf, thigh-length camel coat, a well-groomed moustache and my most recent addition: Lavender grey hair, previously skin-shaven in an undercut, but the mottled dark and tawny of the back and sides now show through.
Suddenly, out of the crowd came this middle-aged woman in a suit, about two thirds my size. Before I could register, she’d come uncomfortably close, and made this odd, invasive kind of eye contact. It was then I was unwillingly bestowed with words that would occupy me a little too much for the rest of the morning: “Ooh, stylish!”
I’m sure many of you may agree that this is bizarre behaviour. Some of you may feel that is very kind, out of place friendliness for central London, and that I should’ve taken the compliment. However you interpret that action, it opens up an interesting conversation about public entitlement and what I like to call naïve communication; communicating with someone you’ve never spoken to before.
One of the things which threw me was the register of her voice. It could’ve been sarcastic, but wasn’t overwhelmingly so. It may have been a genuine complement, but again, I couldn’t place it.
So how is best to compliment a stranger? Well, be assertive. Assertiveness shows honesty with your feelings, yet respects the person you’re addressing. “I like your [style, hair, coat, bag, X]”, something which is registers instantly through the furore, stated matter-of-factly.
Alternatively, if this was a negative sentiment, that makes this whole interaction even more bizarre. Sarcasm or smarminess can turn the interaction sour instantly. It implies a leeriness, a non-reciprocal derivation of pleasure. Passive-aggressiveness indicates a lack of respect to the person you’re addressing, while being dishonest about your own feelings.
If you see someone whose style you dislike, maybe question what you dislike about it. Start to examine your reasoning, your prejudice, your emotional state. The ideal response to a stranger’s style that you don’t like is to say nothing. Why waste your energy? Why waste their energy?
I’m lucky in that I was assigned male at birth (AMAB). I’m 193cm (6'4" in old money), and broad. My male-passing privilege shields me from much of this, but feminine people of all stripes get this daily. It’s written about, but not for every single instance, as it happens so much that it’s an often accepted part of being in public.
We all need to examine how we relate to other people’s bodies. Rather than asking the recipient “why did you dress like that? Didn’t you guess that would happen?” We should examine our culture of entitlement, starting with ourselves. “What made you feel you had the right to act like that without the consent of someone else?”
Many people I have asked to consider this instantly spring to defensiveness. Shouldn’t they have appreciated the attention or the compliment or the contact from such a great human being?
An AFAB friend of mine recently experienced such an issue. A work colleague she’d previously refused kept persisting in their advances. They kissed her after they both had a drink. They later told her they couldn’t keep seeing her as a friend because she’s beautiful, she’s attractive, she’s got a great body.
Of course, this lead to internal conflict. She’d just been sexualised without her consent by someone who claimed to respect her. She’d had a negative interaction on the grounds of her physical characteristics.
Most animals learn in part through what’s known as operant learning, or reinforcement behaviour. Something positive happens as a result of your behaviour? Do it more. Something negative happens? Provided you’re still breathing, don’t do that again.
So what if you face negative consequences based not on what you do, but what you are? Shame. Bad things happen because someone finds you attractive? Then you are wrong for being attractive.
To take this to an extreme, psychologist Vincent Felitti realised that a lot of people coming through their office who were obese had a history of being sexually abused. With the help of the Center for Disease Control, Felitti led a study of 50,000 adults. 26,000 of them were put on extreme weight loss programmes, and 86% of those participants put all the weight back on soon after the programme ended.
They felt that being obese made them unnotable, unattractive, rendered them invisible. People aren’t attracted to — no, don’t feel entitled to bodies they don’t desire. So for these people, fat was armour against further abuse.
When presented with this research, the wider psychological community essentially responded with “we’ve seen this for years, but these people are lying to cover for their failed lives”.
Let’s unpack that, but with the scientific method. 86% of a very large sample size, and you deny that one major feature tying all these patients together, the most obvious answer that essentially writes itself, is not the case? You feel entitled to tell these people what their truth and history are and are not, based on mental gymnastics involving blatant personal prejudice?
We can start to compliment without entitlement when we assess why we’re complimenting. Are you just saying nice things because you think it’ll get you sex? Then that will be picked up on, and if they’re undecided or do not feel a sexual connection, it’ll seem pushy, maybe even creepy.
Whatever your situation, give a complement for the sake of the compliment. Displaying honest opinions that make others feel more positive about themselves while expecting nothing in return comes with its own, less tangible rewards, including but not limited to greater respect for yourself and others.
What is being complemented is also something to consider. If you tell someone they’re attractive or sexy, if you tell a stranger (or even a friend) that they have a nice butt or a great body shape, that ‘compliment’ is too vague to be personal, or you’re complimenting something that someone may have been born with, it’s something mostly out of their control. It’ll just cause them to internally question themself and feel uncomfortable.
Focus on where they put aspects of effort and identity, validating that their effort has paid off. Pick a more definite feature. “[Aspect of their hairstyle] accentuates your eyes and makes you look really expressive” or “the colours that you’ve chosen complement each other really well. I love how [aspect] contrasts with [aspect]”.
Going back to an earlier example, that woman at the station could have made herself and a stranger feel good by saying “I like your outfit”, but again, timing and context are worth considering too.
Finally, we need to try our best to remove ego from the equation. I have seen this in my past self, as well as some of the poor attempts at flirting I and my friends witness and experience.
Rejection hurts. This is a fact and a certainty of life. The important consideration being how we process our feelings. It hurts much less when we work on detaching our ego from the situation. Not everyone will like you at every point in your personal development. It’s not necessarily a personal slight.
If someone responds to a message, I’m honoured that they want to talk to me. If someone wants to have sex with me, I’m flattered. If they do not, it is their choice, and I respect that. If the conversation is interesting and going well, it’s still worth having. It may end up an interesting friendship, or it may be a pleasant moment where two strangers’ lives intersect then diverge.
We should never approach a situation thinking somebody should feel lucky or honoured to be interacting with us; in that moment, the other person is already unlucky to be interacting with us. We see this play out again and again, predominantly with straight men, where a rejection challenges this view of themselves.
“No, but thank you” is reciprocated with “fine, bitch. I didn’t want to fuck you anyway”. Online, this childishness is pathetic and obnoxious, though sometimes frightening because it can be accompanied by doxxing and stalking. In person, it’s coercive; it makes people fear for their lives and into sexual scenarios to avoid violence.
I want to conclude by suggesting that you question yourself. Is it worth continuing to pursue someone who is either indifferent or actively declining your advances? Are you making your intentions clear without being coercive, manipulative, or aggressive? And finally, when you compliment people, why do you do it? Is it to make them feel better about themselves, or is it so they’ll give you things? The former is an interpersonal booster. The latter is a manipulative tool. Choose wisely, but don’t be surprised if people respond poorly to being manipulated.