How to Compliment a Woman (or anyone, really)

“Why can’t I just give a woman a compliment?” This is the common response I hear from men who don’t understand why unwarranted feedback on our appearance tends to be ill-received. Aside from an eye-roll, I really have nothing to offer these knuckle-draggers. However, I do have a bit of advice for those well-meaning folks who just don’t understand the mechanics of a good compliment.

Let’s begin by defining what a good compliment is, and what it is not:

What makes a good compliment?

A good compliment is not vague. “You’re pretty,” Is too vague. Sure, it’s a compliment. For some, that’s nice to hear. But 11 years of “You’re pretty” is going to get old. If you plan on a relationship holding up to the test of time, you’re going to have to get a little more creative (and specific) about what’s so freakin’ pretty.

A good compliment is true. Don’t ever lie to compliment someone. Either they know you’re lying, or they’re going to wear that one heinously ugly sweater you hate twice as often because of your lie.

Here’s the crux of it: A good compliment has to do with a choice person’s choice, rather than their appearance. Why is it sometimes nicer to hear that someone likes your shirt, rather than your eyes? Well, you had some agency over the shirt. You picked it out, you put it on your body, then you walked out of the house. For some, the clothing they choose is an expression of their personality. For others, it’s about utility or convenience. No matter what you wear, It’s nice to believe that the decisions you make actually affect the way people perceive you. Acknowledging that effort often means a lot more than you think it would to your S.O.

When should I give a compliment?

In addition to the nature of a compliment, it’s also important to think about the timing. Believe it or not, sometimes it’s a bad time to compliment someone. No one wants to hear about having beautiful eyes if their cat just died. Sometimes it’s better to just listen to someone than to try and make them feel better by showering them with compliments. If you think a compliment might be the right thing to say, ask yourself if its relevant to the situation. “You were a wonderful cat mom” might be a better response in the previous scenario. Again, though, this one has to do more with her choices than her appearance. That rule still applies here.

Good times to give a compliment are often after a success, like “You’ve worked hard for that promotion. I’m proud of you.” Or, “You’ve gotten really good at tennis in the last few months.” These are fantastic, specific, relevant, and timely compliments that have to do with a person’s personhood, not their appearance.

They can also come out of the blue sometimes when a situation is neutral. It’s okay to find the little things your S.O does as endearing. Sometimes the way they twirl a pencil or hold a fork can spark affinity. Complimenting someone’s mannerisms can show that you’re attentive and caring, and give the opportunity to turn a boring moment into a tender one.

A note on complimenting body parts –

This is a sticky territory. I’m not saying never do it, but you should know someone very well before you ever make comments on their physical appearance. Part of the reason we should focus on complimenting the personality and actions of a person is that many people have fragile relationships with their outward appearance. Before you run away complimenting someone’s looks, you should spend some time getting to know how they tend to receive compliments and how they feel about themselves. It’s never your job to build up someone’s self-esteem, and physical compliments rarely do the trick anyway. If you think you’re comfortable enough with someone to share those types of compliments, try and focus on characteristics that are unique to the person, like their smile dimples, changing eye colors, freckles, and so on.

So, can I just not tell women they’re beautiful anymore?

I don’t know. Do you know her? Is it relevant? If you’re asking that, probably not. Is it just about her body? Definitely not. Did this woman spend some time getting ready for a special occasion? Then, probably.

Like most things we say, compliments should have actual meaning and be relevant to the situation. If your compliment doesn’t meet these requirements, don’t say it. It’s not actually a compliment. It’s meant more for you to feel good about saying it than for the other person to hear it. They’re also not a point-earning system or honey-do. No true compliment is made to pull a string or earn a favor. People can see through those types of compliments and you’ll only come out looking manipulative.

The secret to a good compliment is being honest with yourself and the other person about how their actions positively affect how you feel. Make sense? I sure hope so.