‘You’re Pretty When You Smile’: 5 Reasons Compliments Are More Complicated Than You Think

Two people sitting on the ground, catcalling someone walking by

Source: Cosmopolitan

There’s a fine line between catcalls and compliments.

I have overheard and engaged in many conversations with men interested in women about the ways they can most respectfully approach her. And I appreciate these conversations because they show me that these men care.

They don’t want to hurt, harass, and objectify women in their approach. They want to be our allies – and potentially go out on a date or two.

However, there is one unfortunately consistent component to these conversations: The focus is still on how men can most respectfully go about getting what they want from women.

I want to get right to the point and address this dynamic.

More than a compliment or a date, most women want the space and agency to live their lives without the threat or risk of street harassment. Period.  

This article is to help those who have the best intentions, but are struggling with understanding the difference between a complimentary approach and street harassment.

Hopefully, it will support you to become comfortable and confident that you will not unintentionally harm or violate the people with whom you might be romantically interested.

Let’s start with a real-life, contextual example!

I had a Facebook friend post on their wall: “Do you think it is ever acceptable to approach a girl on the street to ask her out?”

He prefaced this statement by saying that, regardless of public opinion, he probably would still approach women on the street every now and then.

The conversation that followed asked the same old question in various forms: “Is the way you approach her respectful?”

What he and his Facebook followers failed to recognize is that respect is not synonymous with complimentary.

Respect involves a mutual compassion, concern, and appreciation of what is unique in another person. The key word is mutual. This means that your immediate needs do not come before another person’s needs.

Regardless of whether you believe a statement on the street or in public is complimentary or not, it is unprovoked and oftentimes unwelcomed.

The Brooklyn-based anti-street harassment group No Disrespect defines street harassment as “a range of unwelcome, uninvited behavior targeted at women, queer, trans, and/or gender non-conforming people in public spaces.”

Many of us (regardless of gender identity) have had experiences where we have felt violated by comments in a public sphere.

Commenting on strangers’ bodies, even if you think you’re complimenting them, is actually lacking compassion or respect for that person’s emotional well-being and safety.

Without the knowledge of how your comment will be received, it is impossible to know how the other person will react. Therefore, their well-being is not your primary concern; your desire to share your opinions about their body outweighs the potential impact of that compliment.

The act itself is disrespectful because it is prioritizing your own needs and desires over the other person’s.

Barry Deutsch and Tom Fonder explored some of these tensions in their webcomics.

Below, I provide more detail about how all street harassment (even compliments) can promote a negative environment and contribute to everyday sexism.

1. You are reinforcing the idea that a woman’s body in public is on display for others.  

When you approach someone in public, it’s often based solely on their physical appearance. Whether or not you make an explicit statement about their appearance, there is an implication that their body is on display for your approval or disapproval.

Women’s bodies are not available for critique 24/7, regardless if it is positive or negative.

Women’s bodies are often critiqued in their everyday lives. People feel entitled to make comments on their bodies, weight, hair, and clothing.

Oftentimes, these “compliments” reflect social norms.

When women violate those norms, they are penalized.

The same system that compliments women in the public space also condemns them. They may gain approval for dressing a certain way – and condemnation for dressing in another.

They may receive compliments on a well-groomed appearance – and disparaging remarks for yoga pants and messy hair.

Additionally, the same outfit can illicit different responses based on the setting, situation, or body type. The constant scrutiny and evaluation of their appearance means that women cannot dress for their own comfort or pleasure.

They must be vigilant in knowing how others might perceive and engage with them in relation to their appearance.

For example, a woman may feel good and comfortable in tight, form-fitting clothing. In some spaces, this may go unnoticed. In other spaces, her clothing choice may be used to justify harassment and violence towards her.

Your “compliment” about her clothing may reinforce the idea that her body is not her own; her body is up for critique and her choices around how to dress and move her body are only made in relation to others.

Your benign statement may contribute to her discomfort, whether or not she outwardly tells you.

People should have the right to enter a public sphere and not have their bodies and appearance critiqued by every individual that passes by.

2. You are making an assumption regarding someone’s relationship status and/or sexual identity.  

One of the other comments I often hear is “How else are you supposed to meet someone you’re interested in?”

Approaching a stranger in public implies that you have reason to believe that they 1) are interested in dating, and 2) are interested in dating you. Neither of those may be true for the person you are approaching.

So how will you know if they are interested in you? Easy. You won’t.

For the most part, people aren’t walking to work, going to the grocery store, getting food, or moving through their day-to-day life waiting for a stranger to ask them out on a date.

There are some spaces that are more conducive to meeting people than others. Spaces designed for socializing and meeting others might be more appropriate to approach a stranger and strike up a conversation.

Even then, making assumptions about their relationship status or sexual identity may reinforce heteronormative ideas regarding sexuality and dating.

3. You are creating a culture of acceptance for bystanders that watch, reinforcing a variety of street harassment.

I also notice people issuing comments that argue, “It’s just a compliment. What’s the harm?”

The above examples aside, any time a statement about someone’s appearance is made in public, it reinforces the idea that street harassment is okay.

Imagine that you are standing in line and you tell someone, “You have a beautiful smile” or “You have remarkable eyes.” That statement seems harmless enough. And say, for example, that the person responds positively. They say thank you and the interaction ends there.

Even though that interaction ended positively, the message you sent to those around you was that it’s okay to “compliment” any stranger you see fit.

You chose to compliment someone’s smile. The person behind you could comment on someone’s legs, butt, breasts, or other body parts.

They could comment on whatever they would like to do with that person – from a date to a sexual encounter.

You have reinforced to others around you that it is socially acceptable to make comments on someone’s appearance.

Oftentimes people respond, “But a smile is not the same as comment about someone’s butt.”

Which leads me to point #4.

4. You do not determine what is a “compliment” or “harassment” to another person.

Compliments are subjective. Harassment, to some degree, is also subjective.

So who gets to decide when a statement made on the street is complimentary or harassing?

The person that receives the statement is the one who determines if it is offensive to them or not.

You do not get to decide that a statement about a smile is any more or less offensive than a statement about any other part of the human body. You do not get to decide if asking someone to a bar is any more or less offensive than asking someone to your bedroom.

The idea of street harassment as a form of a “compliment” means that you are attempting to say something to benefit another person. And yet, since you do not know how that person will receive that compliment, you are risking the exact opposite.

Which begs the question, who gets more out of that said compliment, you or the person who might receive it? Because the person in front of you in line or waiting at the bus stop is not asking for a compliment.

You have decided to impose that on them, unconcerned with how it will be received.

I believe that not everyone who approaches someone attractive on the street is intending to engage in harassment. I believe that you may be trying to genuinely engage with someone in a meaningful, respectful way.

But prioritizing your own needs at the risk of someone else’s own agency is the opposite of respect.

There are ways that you can get to know someone that do not involve commenting on their appearance or body.

As long as you are reducing your encounter with another person to a body part, you are objectifying them.

And that leads to the final point.

5. Regardless of intention, you are putting someone in a situation where they must respond to you, whether or not they want to.

Regardless of your intention, when you approach someone, you are forcing them to respond to you. They have to make a choice of engaging or not engaging with you.

Then, if they decide to engage, they must make choices of how they should respond.

In a society where so many individuals experience threats to their safety, many individuals may not feel comfortable responding honestly to statements made in public.

That is one reason why so many fake numbers are given out.

Saying “No thanks” or “I really don’t want to talk right now” or “I’d prefer not to have someone compliment my body” doesn’t always feel like a safe option because individuals don’t know how the person approaching them will respond.

Also, ignoring someone does not always feel safe. Many individuals feel as if the situation will escalate if they ignore someone.

The threat of physical violence looms over women, even in the most benign of interactions. Women have been killed for saying “no,” and the effects of that violence reverberates throughout our communities.

Many people – including LGBTQIA+ folks – have felt unsafe or experienced violence as a result of street harassment.

As transgender activist Amelia Gapin writes, “How do I know which comments are harmless and which are a really a warning sign? I don’t.”

The impact of catcalling and violence permeates her life and inhibits her freedom to run in her community without fear.

Kat Callahan wrote, “Being harassed on the street by strange men is something most women are used to dealing with on a near constant basis. Trans women are no exception. It seems just as bad when we ‘pass,’ and can be even worse, and definitely different, when we ‘fail’ to ‘pass.’”

What exists in both of these women’s narratives is the expectation of harassment as commonplace. It’s not a question of if someone will harass them. It’s a matter of when and to what extent.

In the article, “Queer Women and Street Harassment: A Complicated Issue,” author Laura Logan confirms this normative experience when she says that many queer women of color “expect” to be harassed, and along with that harassment fear physical danger. The often racialized nature of catcalling can create a hostile environment for women of color.

If you want the person that you see on the street to feel appreciated, respected, and safe, it is not through catcalling or objectifying comments.

Your “compliment” has the potential to create a situation where someone feels inhibited and restricted in their every day life. Which is at the heart of everyday sexism.  

Does That Mean That You Can Never Approach Someone in Public?

Of course not.

What it means is that, when approaching someone in public, you should be aware of how your statements can impact another person, regardless of intent.

You should ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this a space meant for socializing and engaging?
  • Does my statement objectify a specific part of someone’s body or focus on physical appearance?
  • Does this statement force someone to engage in a way that they might not want to engage with me?
  • Could the situation be seen as intrusive by someone outside the interaction?

If you are in doubt about any of the above questions, the best option is to say nothing at all.

If your goal is to show another human respect, then giving them the freedom to navigate their space with agency is one of the best ways to do that.

Want to respond to street harassment? You can visit Hollaback to learn more about activism in response to street harassment. You can also read these Everyday Feminism articles to learn more:

Aliya Khan is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and identifies as a feminist, activist, and life-long learner. She provided crisis support to survivors of abuse at the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh and is currently living, studying, and writing in the Pacific Northwest.