Magazine

Is it OK to compliment a stranger?

  • 12 April 2011
  • From the section Magazine
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Magazine feature

It's human nature to sometimes find a passing stranger attractive, but is it ever OK to act on it? A recent Magazine feature about the harassment of women in the street sparked a huge response. So where is the line on acceptable behaviour?

Women's groups are campaigning to stamp out what they perceive to be a widespread and unsettling habit - men making comments to them in the street.

The founder of one of these groups, Hollaback!, has said remarks like "hi, gorgeous" and "come over here, love" made women feel uncomfortable, and should be challenged.

In response to the Magazine article on the subject, many female and male readers echoed this sentiment, although some women said they enjoyed some forms of attention and it was good for their self-confidence.

Other men said they did not believe the practice was as common as these groups suggested it was, that women were just as guilty of it, and that it was just a bit of harmless fun.

Different people have different opinions about what is acceptable. So what is acceptable for men and women to say to each other in the street?

Chivalry beats a wolf-whistle

Colin Gentry, freelance journalist who writes for men's magazines

From workmen hanging off building sites to City boys leering out of bars, an attractive woman can experience everything from a nudge and a wink to a more boorish request. That can make anyone feel uncomfortable, regardless of gender, if all you're trying to do is navigate public transport and get on with your day.

When is a compliment not a compliment? Or doth the lady protest too much?

For men, it's all rather "Me Tarzan, you Jane". A 2009 study found that men have a far greater tendency to agree on what makes a woman attractive and, therefore, have more competition in staking their claim on the object of their affections. Another study from the same year also found that men temporarily lose their minds, so to speak, around attractive women because they are "reproductively focused".

To put it simply, men aren't always thinking with their brains. In the wrong situation, misplaced attention may come across as offensive.

We're not animals and those who overstep the mark can't fall back on the excuse that "boys will be boys". Grown men know right from wrong. That said, what's wrong with paying a woman who has made an effort on her appearance a compliment? It doesn't always mean we're looking to procreate right there on the spot.

If we are interested in getting to know a lady, the modern man has evolved to know chivalry beats a wolf-whistle down the street any day.

Be friendly, but not crude

Jeff Waters, a 36-year-old reader from Lancashire who responded to the article, imagines a scenario

He walked over to the shop window she was gazing into, nervous but excited, not knowing what to say. He wanted to sound confident, but not cocky; interesting, but not too serious; lighthearted, but not superficial. In the end, he opted for what he thought was a safe, tried and tested approach.

"Hi. Do you come here often?" he asked, smiling sheepishly, as if to acknowledge his lack of originality. "Not any longer," she said, walking off in disdain.

Was the man at fault? No. He was trying to be friendly, and acted with good intentions. Had he acted aggressively or with reckless disregard for the woman's feelings - for example, by making a crude sexual remark - then his behaviour would have been inappropriate.

And while he took a risk, doing nothing would also have carried a risk - that of a wasted opportunity for both parties. On another occasion, with a different woman, the outcome could have been an enjoyable conversation which blossomed into something more. So while the man was unoriginal, he wasn't unreasonable.

When you talk with a stranger, there are risks. You don't know the other person's sensibilities, and you have little time in which to weigh up the unfolding situation. But calculated risk-taking is the lifeblood of making things happen. Without it, you have stagnation. With it, opportunities are created.

So people should be given encouragement and guidance to express themselves confidently and effectively, rather than condemned for their mistakes.

Being approached by a stranger is an imposition

Marcelle D'Argy Smith, ex-editor of Cosmopolitan magazine

We don't want to be talked to and we want to go around unimpeded and that's the truth.

The rules are so stringent that I don't think men do it any more. They know they can't do these things like they know they can't smoke in pubs. If they do it any more, they are usually older men, over 50.

I used to get it. I used to dread walking past five or six men, but they are seriously reformed these days. The rules have changed.

You just don't want it from a stranger. What on Earth makes a man say "you look lovely"?

It's nice to be told, but I don't know where it goes from there. What do they say? "Great hat"? "Fab arse"? It's an imposition on your person. There's a vulnerability about being out there.

Women on their own or with a friend would never do it to a man, although there's no accounting for the group dynamic.

I find men in the street on the whole to be more or less respectful. But not when you're going for their parking space.

Men who are aggressive to women are insecure

Drew Lubega, UK editor of AskMen

Let's get this straight from the start - there's no such thing as a woman (single or not) who doesn't actually like receiving a compliment based on the way she looks - provided it's delivered in a genuine, respectful and unimposing manner. Any woman who tells you otherwise isn't being honest. The reality is that women need the occasional bit of ego rubbing - it's nourishment for their self-esteem.

Unfortunately for men though, for the majority of us, approaching a pretty woman is one of the most stressful situations that we can find ourselves in - the fear of rejection can become so overwhelming that it can translate into strange verbal outbursts or downright weird behaviour.

That's not an excuse for rudeness though - and the truth is that there are men who still consider it's acceptable to make derogatory remarks, or to approach aggressively - but you'll never see these guys alone, they'll be doing it to show off to a friend, because deep down they lack the self-assurance to hold an engaging conversation with a good-looking member of the opposite sex - which nine times out of 10 is what will really get her interest levels up.

It's pretty clear where the line is when it comes to approaching a woman whom you find attractive - if you do or say anything that you'd take offence at if it were your mother on the receiving end then you've definitely gone too far. Maybe the solution to evolving the "street interaction" between the sexes is for women to be a bit braver when they see someone they like. As men, we wouldn't take offence.

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