1) I have been sitting in a bus station for three hours. For about the first hour, I have been scrolling mindlessly through social media, even posting about doing so. By the second hour, I decide to take out my Kindle to read a book I have been working on. It's a good read, and I become fully immersed in it. Before I know it, I'm two-thirds of the way through, and the main character finds out that his mentor just committed suicide. "Excuse me," I hear a male voice say. Real life and what has been happening in the book have blurred, so it takes me a few seconds to adjust to the surrounding environment. The voice came from a man who looked to be just over fifty-years-old, sitting across from me. "You shouldn't look so serious. I bet you're really pretty when you smile." So I half-smile to appease him, then go back to my book.
2) I'm at a conference and am manning a booth for an organization I volunteer for. I do many things - pass out flyers, get passerby to sign up for emails, talk to people about the organization, etc. Along comes an older man, then he does a double-take when he sees me. After oogling at me for a few seconds, he tells me, "Wow! No wonder why you're getting so many sign-ups. Only if the other conferences I go to had beauties like you. All the women at those - their old age is showing." Thinking this is a good opportunity for another sign-up - or maybe even a donation - I tell him what the organization does, and if he would want to receive emails. "Oh, no thanks. Sounds like a good organization. I love groups that are aimed at younger people, but I get too many emails." And as if we weren't even speaking, he walks off.
3) Taking a break from my work as a waitress in a strip club, I sit at the bar and eat my lunch. When I'm halfway through, a man comes to sit down next to me, and quickly orders a drink. He looks to be in his thirties, and not someone who comes super-regularly - maybe about once or twice a month. Probably a traveling businessman. "How's it been today?" he asks. I respond with, "Alright. It's been slower than it usually is. Hoping it picks up in the next hour." He and I get to talking, then the subject turns to politics. It's always something I tread carefully because I know some people get easily offended by my having different views from them. It seems safe enough, so I eventually tell him about my libertarian views, and he asks a few questions, never having heard of libertarianism before. After talking for a few minutes more, he finishes up the conversation with, "Well, it's been nice talking to you, especially with someone who actually know what they're talking about. I swear, most women are so goddamn stupid about everything. It's nice to finally hear something intelligent." After he finishes his drink, he gets up to leave.
4) About a year later, I'm again doing my waitressing job. Instead of sitting at the bar, I'm in the VIP room sitting with a man who offered to buy me lunch. He wants to know what I do outside of this line of work, so I tell him that I go to college out-of-state, and somehow I get around to my experiences with being a custodian for a residence hall the last summer. The man make this weird face, looks me up-and-down, and exclaims, "You're too beautiful to do that! I mean, you're even too beautiful for this place!" I thank him, but also explain that I need to make money somehow. (Plus, to an extent, I liked working both jobs.) Sadly, he doesn't offer to pay for my tuition, and makes no talk of connecting me with his network. *sigh*
Okay, so what was with these stories? I wrote them out so that if you had not seen a certain illustration by Kasia Babis before, your perceptions of the scenarios would not be influenced by her work. I decided to write this after posting this illustration to my Facebook. Seeing as how many men misunderstood the contexts of the situations presented, I couldn't stand explaining comment-by-comment why women are put off by these "compliments". (And like I say in the Facebook post, they're back-handed compliments at best.)
If you read my scenarios, and thought, "Those weren't too bad," just imagine having these interactions on a weekly, or even daily, basis, depending on the work you do and how much you go out. If each of the scenarios had happened only once, I would think, "Oh, that was weird," and dismiss it. Maybe I would completely forget it over time, or it would a funny story to tell people later. But when these are constant occurrences, it can change how we present ourselves and what we do. Sometimes we may even forgo plans we made weeks earlier because we don't want to be bombarded with, "You should smile more."
In order of frequency, I have #1 happen to me the most, then #3 (bottom left), #2, and finally #4. (As a writer and social media strategist, I get to limit my contact with people in real life.)
There are two things I have found that each of the panels have in common. These interactions don't come off as ones between people who know each other. Why do strangers feels the need to say these kinds of things? I don't care if you find me more attractive if I do [this]. My world does not revolve around you. (I probably won't even be seeing you again.) I also most likely don't want to sleep with you. When we receive "compliments" about our looks in this fashion, it reinforces the notion that we are most valued for how we look. (I recently wrote something similar.)
Now let me explain how I interpreted each panel, and why being "complimented" in this way is really annoying:
1) It seems from my Facebook post, men just read the first sentence and ignored the second one. If a random man compliments our looks in passing, we usually pass it off as whatever. (Unless we're afraid that they'll then follow us and start hitting on us.) Those who aren't usually complimented much may be more glad than most women when they have a stranger compliment their looks. What annoys women is when men tell women "to smile", especially in combination with it having to do with our looks. Do you really expect us to smile all of the time? Is this really about exuding positivity? What if we have a legitimate reason not to smile? (Like a pet just died?) It is not up to any other person to tell you how to feel or look in everyday life. Why, especially, should we care about looking good for any one random stranger?
2) To be honest, I don't have a problem with the second panel, calling people "lovely". I've seen many people call a group "lovelies" or "lovely people". However, I think the point the illustrator was trying to make is that even in professional spaces, men will often bring up how women look, even making inappropriate comments. Sure, you can appreciate how people look, but specifically in work spaces, people will probably better appreciate compliments related to their profession. Don't make anyone feel like you value their looks more than their personality or work ethic.
3) I think this panel is the one open to the most interpretation, which also makes it harder to explain to men. In my experiences, men will compliment my intelligence at the detriment to women in general. From what I've heard from other women, if there is an exaggerated amount of impressiveness with the work they accomplished, they are probably getting hit on, which can create very awkward situations. A lot of women don't want to be hit on when they work, especially by strangers. If they work in a profession where female-to-male ratio is really low, they're already aware of it, and don't need to be talked at about how special they are. Give them compliments like you would give anyone else who accomplished something neat.
4) Like I said, this is the panel I have the least amount of experience with. If you say this to a person, why are you taking a hit at the occupation they currently hold? Why not, "You're very pretty!"? Maybe they enjoy working there. Maybe they are saving up enough money to do what they really want to do in life. Maybe they have to work there because they're in a really bad situation. If you really think you can help them get another occupation, and they actually want a job change, then offer it instead of making disparaging comments about their work. If you are not actually qualified in offering professional help, don't be like this guy. Unless you know for sure that they're looking for a sugar daddy, sex should play no factor in offering help. (Also, a sugar daddy relationship should never be a tit-for-tat kind of exchange.) If you actually want to professionally help someone, you won't learn what they want or need just in passing. So, avoid "You can do so much better than this!" kind of remarks if all that is to the encounter is the cashier ringing up your items. If you strike up a conversation with someone at a conference and they tell you that they don't like their job or are looking for a new one, that could be an appropriate time to comment upon their career.
I hope this offers some insight. If there are other interpretations of these panels that you would like to share, please post them in the comments.
Tips for interacting with people:
- Don't be condescending
- Value people for more than their looks, and be aware of when your comments can come off as objectifying (that is, your sexual interest in or disdain for them distracts from the fact that they're human beings)
- Just because you say things to your friends (people you already have established relationships with) doesn't mean they're appropriate to say to strangers
- Read speech and bodily cues - if they seem very uncomfortable, you may want to tone down any assertiveness, stop flirting, or leave the person be
- Understand the environmental context you are in, and judge from that and the person you are interacting with whether or not it is appropriate to flirt, talk about your political opinions, etc.
- Especially in professional contexts, think it over whether or not to flirt with someone - it could be unwanted or inappropriate, depending on who you are talking to and what you're saying
- If you only or mostly give people compliments when you're flirting with them, it doesn't come off as very genuine
As it seems I keep having to explain, genuine compliments are good. But if you only dole them out while flirting, give them a back-handed one (say something good while inferring something bad about them), or disparage their gender, etc., then you detract from the positive experience. If you want people to give you nice compliments, it's up to you to set help set up a precedent in your circles on "compliment etiquette".