How to Compliment a Guy

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Why can’t men take compliments? Photo: Philip Gendreau/Bettmann/Corbis

These are things I have said to women I don’t know:

“That bag is incroyable!” (Instead of incredible.)

“Your eyebrows look so amazing today. I feel like dying!”

“Wait, you put avocado on your face? Is it hard to be a genius?” 

In order to be equal in all my doings, I recently set out to compliment men more. Do men even like compliments? On one hand, everyone always seems to appreciate the books, movies, and skyscrapers men make. But does anyone ever tell them nice things about their clothes and hair? It was time for someone (me) to go up to some men and try it. Without objectifying them, because that would be bad for their self-esteem.

The first guy I complimented was in my grocery store. I was buying coffee, and he had on some cool Elvis Costello–style glasses. “Nice glasses!” I said. He smiled and nudged the girl next to him, who was talking to some other people. She turned around, and I could see that she was wearing awesome glasses, even better than his. Then the girl said to me, “He’s happy because everyone always compliments my glasses.” I felt bad about not complimenting her, so I left.

I kept looking for men to compliment. I saw one dude wearing cool sneakers and another guy carrying a really cute yellow-and-white-striped beach bag (?!), but it’s difficult to just yell compliments at a man while he’s walking down the street. That could make him feel unsafe!

The next time I complimented a man, I was in a pharmacy and I did actually yell at him, but it was mostly because of circumstances. This man had a gigantic watch on that literally was covering his entire wrist. He was also wearing a tremendously tight blue cashmere V-neck sweater over a plaid shirt, legginglike jeans, and little brown slippers like a Viennese dancer. To my mind, he was really asking for the attention.

“Nice watch!” I screamed, because he was walking away from me. He turned toward me with a look of disgust.

This, however, was my only negative reaction. Most men seem extremely pleased when you compliment them on anything that has to do with their clothing or hair. It’s uncanny: When you say anything even slightly nice to a man, his face will melt into a grateful sunburst of a grin, as if he had never been complimented before. I complimented a guy at my gym on his sneakers, and he looked as if he was going to weep.

But, of course, these are not the only kind of compliments there are. You can also compliment a man on his ability to do activities. I must say, this other type of compliment didn’t even occur to me at first because, in general, girls don’t really compliment one another about how well they are doing tasks. They’re just like, “What an amazing pair of boots. Are you French?”

When I started to compliment men on their abilities, it engendered a slightly different reaction. Instead of weeping with gratitude, they started to act all proud and almost annoyed. For example, I rented a Zipcar to go see the demolished Great Gatsby mansion on Sands Point, and the guy working in the parking garage had to maneuver the car out of a very confined space. I was impressed. “You are an incredible driver!” I said, not even thinking about my man-complimenting project. The guy walked away as if he didn’t hear me. Later, a different man expertly mounted my TV. “That’s the most beautiful TV I’ve ever seen,” I told him. “It looks like a picture on a wall.” He simply nodded.

Finally, I went to a bookstore. I asked the male sales associate to find me a great mystery novel. I was prepared to compliment his ability in accomplishing this task. He pointed me toward a book with lurid green writing that looked very scary. I had already read it, but whatever. It was good, and I had forgotten who the murderer was anyway. I would read it again.

“My girlfriend really likes these,” he said in a nervous sort of way. Then he bent down and started looking for something on the floor even though there were no books there. From the ground, he started mumbling about his girlfriend in a stream-of-consciousness manner, eyes averted. I felt so bad. Did he think I was hitting on him? I wasn’t! I really was not.

I acquiesced to the eight books he recommended and then told him, “You have amazing taste in mystery novels!” He smiled a little, then gave my books to a woman to ring up.

Perhaps this style of complimenting — a steady, normal show of interest in concrete tasks — is what makes men feel most objectified. I had no idea, and I feel so bad! I am sorry, men. Your watches are cool! You look cute in your pants! You are all so handsome.

*This article appears in the November 2, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.