Physical compliments from men: return them, or no?
July 9, 2008 10:13 PM   Subscribe

I have a question about paying physical compliments to men, especially in the early stages of a relationship. Men compliment women about their appearance often. Do they want these compliments returned, or is there a separate protocol for woman-to-man commentary?

I'd be interested in hearing from women, what do you do, and from men, what do you expect/want? If a man tells you you have beautiful eyes/nice legs/whatever, aside from saying 'thank you,' is it appropriate to return by saying something you find physically attractive about him? I've felt a little dorky doing the latter, and a little bit off just saying 'thanks' and letting it be, too. I'm wondering whether there's some standard of gender etiquette here that I just never learned.
posted by toomuchkatherine to Human Relations (42 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
man or woman, i think if someone compliments you and you always give them a compliment straight away, it doesn't always seem sincere—it's like you felt obligated to say something, and really, a compliment should be given and accepted freely. you have to learn to accept a compliment graciously for what it is, and just say thank you. compliment the person later on if you want to, but only if you really mean it.
posted by lia at 10:24 PM on July 9, 2008

Ooh, interesting. Responses are sure to vary greatly.

If someone compliments you, you are never obliged to give one back. In fact, sometimes doing that just seems phony. Accepting compliments gracefully is about the ability to enjoy the sentiment without any awkwardness or fear. This isn't a matter of gender or dating but just a general principle.

I can't even speak about relationships because it's been a very long time since I've been in one, but I often compliment guys I like. And I have no idea how it's received other than that I'm very unsuccessful in love. Which may be my answer.
posted by loiseau at 10:25 PM on July 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah, the immediate response would be hella dorky.

You should make clear to him that you find him physically attractive. Just be honest about what does it for you. It's probably going to make more sense being more sexual than not about it. I doubt men care too much about appearing handsome, but would like to hear that they turn you on.
posted by phrontist at 10:28 PM on July 9, 2008

I feel odd simply accepting compliments too, but I think it feels weirder to respond with another compliment, as if you owe them one in return. Take it for what it is; it's freely given.

As a guy, I don't think there's a big difference in compliment etiquette— maybe there is and I'm not seeing it, though (or, quite likely, there's a big difference in some subsubcultures/countries/areas and a smaller one in others).
posted by hattifattener at 10:29 PM on July 9, 2008

If you intend to give a clear signal that you find him sexually attractive (as in the early stages of a relationship), for sure, do that. :) Otherwise, a simple "thank you" and smile is enough.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 10:31 PM on July 9, 2008

I'd say, as a man, rather than specific compliments to certain body features, more general compliments work better on me. For example, if a girl said that she really liked my abs or I don't know, how wide my shoulders are it'd would be a little awkward. I'd be more flattered if I heard how charismatic or funny I am, I think.

Now there's an exception with regards to facial features, especially eyes. I do not know any person who'd not appreciate a sincere compliment to the their eyes.

I'm really curious as to what others think though as I feel like I might not be a good example since I tend to care about my looks and physique less than the average guy -although I'm more fit than the average guy too, I have to admit-.
posted by the_dude at 10:34 PM on July 9, 2008

(FWIW— in contrast to phrontist's response— even if it's not a particularly sexual compliment, I'd still be pleased to hear that my date thinks my shirt looks good on me or whatever. Among other things, it's a little sign that they're interested in me enough to be noticing things like that.)
posted by hattifattener at 10:34 PM on July 9, 2008

I compliment my fiancee when it feels right. She does the same. If we started responding to compliments with compliments, it would get really fake in a hurry.

If you're just being honest, don't worry about anything else. Don't force your feedback, or it's just that--forced.
posted by Phyltre at 10:36 PM on July 9, 2008

I'm a man. I like it a lot when a woman compliments me. Its really nice to hear, probably in part because I don't expect it. It has to be genuine, though. ("You're so big and strong! Would you move this couch?" or "Hi, handsome - buy me a drink?" don't really work for that reason.) I wouldn't worry about returning any compliment he gives; it's not required or expected, and tit-for-tat can come across as not genuine. (And men are socialized to pay a LOT of compliments to a girl we're dating, try to return every one and you might not ever get to have a real conversation.) But when you have a nice compliment to pay him, go for it. If you are a little flustered saying it and your eyelids flutter or you blush a bit, don't worry - things like that are sort of unbearably cute.

However, this is important, please don't ever call his shirt/watch/hair/hands/eyes/whatever "pretty".
posted by Cranialtorque at 10:40 PM on July 9, 2008

Ah, as said already I think responses will vary greatly, but i think it is a sad fact that women will generally receive a lot of regular compliments in relationships wheras guys will not. Having said that, we seem to be a lot more temperamental and very sensitive to fake compliments.

Seconding the pretty answer though. Don't call anything about a guy, or the guy pretty. It always feels awkward. I guess the reason why complementing a guy is such a big deal is because we are not used to it except in times of achivement - so, matter of course compliments are a lot easier for us to handle!

So, perhaps a few rules of thumb. Don't complement in return, don't compliment out of a feeling of obligation, be as sincere as possible but if you do compliment try to do it about things that you genuinely appreciate about the person in general, or specifics when you are particularly impressed.
posted by Dillonlikescookies at 10:54 PM on July 9, 2008

I agree that a pleasant 'thank you' is a fine response, then change the subject. Tit-for-tat complimenting sounds forced & almost cringeworthy.

Speaking as a guy, I don't think we have the same kind of complimenting culture as many women - I'm kinda guessing that your question comes from an etiquette when female friends meet & exchange a few flattering comments as a bonding exercise or something.

I'm also thinking that we're less used to receiving compliments than women, so it can be a bit awkward knowing how to deal with them. For that reason, maybe keep it general ("you're looking good today") rather than specific ("wow - hot buns!"). On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with a "hey, that jacket really suits you" or "I like your hair like that" so in the end I'm not sure how best to compliment us.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:06 PM on July 9, 2008

Personally, I'd say first that you shouldn't respond immediately with a return compliment, because it'll sound insincere -- but that within 24 hours I'm sure you can find something to compliment him on sincerely, and so please do.

Forget "men" and "women" -- all people love being complimented, even those that have no idea how to handle it and get embarrassed by it, as long as it's genuine.
posted by davejay at 11:15 PM on July 9, 2008

"wow - hot buns!"

I'd like to take a moment to point out that I would be perfectly happy receiving this compliment as presented, or in any number of alternative ways, and I do check my mefimail once and a while
posted by davejay at 11:16 PM on July 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

As a girl (actually, as a person), I feel it's awkward to return a compliment immediately after receiving one. Like many others have said, it feels phony... because it is. If a guy tells you he likes your eyes, your natural response is probably going to be "aww...!" not "I like your hair!"

When someone compliments me, I normally respond with a huge smile and a change of the subject. (Unless I don't like the "compliment" or it rings false in my ears.) Alternately, if the complimenter is someone I am actively dating, I might respond with a kiss.

In regards to complimenting men: I make a point to simply vocalize what would normally be my silent appreciation of a guy's positive points as I notice them, whether or not the moment seems particularly romantic. (For example, while standing in line at the movies the other night, I re-noticed how muscular my bf's arms were, so I said, "Hey, you're strong.")

Compliments are supposed to be genuine, and they almost always make the receiver happy; give them whenever possible!
posted by samthemander at 11:24 PM on July 9, 2008

Generally, I say thank you and give a big smile. There's no need to parrot a compliment with one of your own. If it's a man I'm attracted to, I'll probably lightly touch him when I say thanks. It's not a conscious choice, but I'm drawn to touch men who attract men. (This is of course, back in the days before Mr. 26.2)
posted by 26.2 at 11:28 PM on July 9, 2008

However, this is important, please don't ever call his shirt/watch/hair/hands/eyes/whatever "pretty".

Ladies, handsome is the word you're looking for here...
posted by Exchequer at 11:32 PM on July 9, 2008


I'm drawn to touch men who attract men
. That should be attract ME, not men. What an amusing typo.
posted by 26.2 at 11:32 PM on July 9, 2008

No need to offer a matching compliment, and if plain old "Thank you" doesn't seem enough, try something along the lines of "Thank you, that's so sweet of you to notice!" or "Thanks, that's the nicest thing I've heard all day!" Essentially, complimenting the compliment!
posted by platinum at 11:37 PM on July 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Why are men paying women these physical compliments? And why do men not tend to receive very many of them?

Here's one theory: sometimes when a man pays a woman a compliment it is his clumsy way of coming on to her. Even women who are not at the extreme of beauty will receive such a come-on at least once a week. So they don't tend to pay men many compliments because, deep down, they know the compliment is a fairly valueless currency in terms of attraction.

For this very reason, using a compliment has enormous shock-and-awe factor to a man. To many men it is so rare to receive a compliment that they will probably be genuinely grateful... and they may also interpret it as a come-on. A few more cynical guys may be suspicious that the woman is trying to get something, like having her couch moved or a drink bought for her. So it's important to pre-empt that mindset in the compliment.

But in terms of returning the compliment I'm sure the response is the same my mother taught me: say "thank you very much", accept the compliment with a smile, and move on.
posted by skylar at 11:40 PM on July 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

As a man, I particularly appreciate it when someone notices and compliments a change I've made to my appearance. "You got a haircut!" just gets "Indeed," as my response, but "Hey, nice haircut!" makes my day. Similarly, "You're looking sharp today" is good to hear on the rare occasions when I put on a tie, or a suit. My vanity was, in fact, a little pained when nobody noticed my new glasses.

It seems like it takes a lot of compliments with some women just to make up for negative body image before you tip the scales towards the positive. Men don't have as much societal pressure to look younger, lose weight, get plastic surgery, etc., so a little compliment can go a long way, but there's still a need there.
posted by rossmik at 11:42 PM on July 9, 2008

I think "you ain't so bad yourself" would be the hottest thing ever...
posted by paultopia at 12:14 AM on July 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

Why are men paying women these physical compliments? And why do men not tend to receive very many of them?

That was a good analysis by skylar, and I'll agree with the shock & awe value.

One thing I might add: unlike women, the vast majority of guys don't compliment each others' looks, ever, presumably for fear of appearing even slightly gay. And women learn very early that an innocent compliment to a guy can easily be twisted into a come-on in the guy's head, so it's rare for men to receive compliments from platonic females. This leaves only two main compliment-givers in a guy's life: his mother and his significant other.

Everybody knows the saying "a face only a mother could love", so mum's words are discounted as obligatory & fundamentally biased, leaving only the SO to unleash the shock & awe, which is why it's so nice to hear, like rainfall in the desert.
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:20 AM on July 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

Usually, when someone you're infatuated with say something pleasing to you about yourself, you're consumed with "aw shucks" and can't effectively come up with a specific compliment. Just let him know how you feel. Usually the way it makes me feel is like throwing my arms around him and giving him a big thank-you smooch. Often this is accompanied by a general praise compliment, like "You're so adorable," or "You make me feel so great!"
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:31 AM on July 10, 2008

Compliments about looks are very nice, especially in start of relationship when you are not sure what did you do to get this girl to like you. ("just being handsome me? wow") And I think you can return a compliment, as long as you at least seem to be genuinely reflecting about what was said to you and what you like in another person (genuinely reflecting = long silent pause).
posted by Free word order! at 12:44 AM on July 10, 2008

I tend to go with "Aww thanks, you look pretty great yourself," or something along those lines. I feel like choosing a specific thing to compliment (shoes, eyes, etc) seems a little less sincere.
posted by arianell at 1:14 AM on July 10, 2008

I've been married now for nine years and I usually follow up a compliment with the "Hey, you're not looking too bad yourself," style of comment. It seems to work fine for us thus far.
posted by tracicle at 1:44 AM on July 10, 2008

All guys are different, but in the context of the early stages of a relationship, I'd say complimenting you is a (not necessarily insincere) signal on his part. He want you to know he's into you (or that he wants you to think he is). Either way, he's probably looking for an affirmation of some kind, so your response might depend on how you feel about him at that point. Insufferable lameass? "Thanks," then take a sip of your drink and change the subject. Awesome guy you really like? "Thanks," or maybe, "Thanks, that's sweet," with a big smile and a squeeze of his hand.

...please don't ever call his shirt/watch/hair/hands/eyes/whatever "pretty".

Seeing as women tend to like stuff that is pretty, I wouldn't mind that at all. I'll take whatever compliments I can get.
'Course, I'm secure enough not to mistake being called "pretty" for being called "pretty boy," *ahem*...
posted by Rykey at 3:23 AM on July 10, 2008

Speaking as a guy, just smile and say thank you if you appreciate the compliment. Most of are hardwired for the visual, so a pretty woman smiling and genuinely saying "thank you" makes our day. If the situation is right, feel free to flirt ("Thanks, sexy" or "Mmm, you're looking pretty good yourself")

Tit for tat compliments sounds false though.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:33 AM on July 10, 2008

As a guy, a compliment along the same lines of those usually given to women would be almost meaningless. I mean, I guess it's nice that she's paying attention and putting for effort, but there's just a big difference in what men like in women and how the women can best show it (obviously, this is generalization). Men, like women, want their partner to be kind...but they expect kindness to manifest not in silly compliments but in being generally pleasant and not nagging all the time. Men, like women, enjoy having their self-esteem boosted...but they prefer it to come in observations about specific acts and how awesome the guy is at them. Men, like women, prefer someone who is interesting to listen to...they just don't consider flattery of the man's appearance to be interesting conversation.

The quaint compliments on physical appearance don't hurt. They're just far less important than everything else.
posted by aswego at 5:07 AM on July 10, 2008

I've been thinking about this question a lot myself lately because I'm in a newish relationship with a great guy who is very verbally affectionate and complimentary in a way I'm totally not used to. So on the one hand I have to get used to receiving compliments -- a gracious thank you, an "aww that's so sweet," a "wow you know just what to say to make me feel terrific" -- and on the other I'm in a position of thinking about giving them to someone I'm involved with and I have to balance not saying every gibbering thing that comes into my head (which is pretty much a non-stop gibbering OMG backchannel when we're together) with making sure he knows how great I think he is, often. Add to that trying to not make compliments too girly-seeming (beautiful eyes, soft skin, a pretty mouth) and I sometimes come up short.

So, what I do more often is

- focus on things that are more him+me oriented -- "I love spending time with you" "being with you makes me so happy" "I'm really glad we got to spend this time together"
- physical compliments that are more in a "you're attractive TO ME" vein than just "you're pretty"
- anything sexy is usually great "doing that feels awesome" "you know just how to give me goosebumps"
- "you're good at that" compliments generally, whatever that is

And lastly, a thing that we both do which I really think is great and may be a little far afield for this topic, is we talk/email about things we remember about the other person. So like we'll talk about how we first met and what we were feeling or how we felt when we learned this or that thing about the other person. This may be one of those ymmv sorts of things, but I really like hearing about being in his thoughts when we're not even together. At some level I know he thinks I'm pretty and cool and whatnot, but it's neat to hear about the ways he keeps me in his heart when I'm not right there in front of him and that's a flattering sort of complimentary thing that's not really based in any one attribute or behavior.
posted by jessamyn at 5:55 AM on July 10, 2008 [7 favorites]

I think some people make compliments more than others, and everyone responds differently, so it's hard to make a general rule that holds true in many cases.

But I do think it's safe to say that complimenting in the early stages of a relationship can be a signal of "I am paying attention to you in that way and am liking what I see," and that signal can be used by either party. Just because men may do it more does not mean that a woman should not use it.

In my experience, the best response ever goes something like: "Aw, thanks, this is one of my favorite dresses, thanks for noticing. But I knew you'd be looking really good, so I wanted to make the effort." Thanks and return compliment, all bundled smoothly together, really makes my day.

(As an aside, I'd add that compliments, in my experience, take on more importance in a long term relationship where it is easy to lose sight of the other person's hotness and the efforts they make. Five years in, giving compliments makes it clear that indeed, you do notice, and you do care; you are not just taking that person for granted.)
posted by Forktine at 5:59 AM on July 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

I feel weird responding to compliments with a compliment, like I'm trading them or something. Usually I just smile and say thank you.

When I compliment my boyfriend it's usually about how he makes me feel or something personality-related rather than body-related, but I do compliment his body too. It's just, well, I don't seem to notice his body much: arms, legs, shoulders and that's it, chick bodies are so much more complicated. ^^
posted by Xianny at 6:14 AM on July 10, 2008

Why are men paying women these physical compliments? Why do men not tend to receive very many of them?

Because my boyfriend hates them! And whenever I am struck with the need to compliment his he cringes and shakes his head and turns bright red in the funniest way.
I've mostly given up on them, and now I end up giving more of what jessamyn talked about.

To answer the OPs question though, go with a "Thank you," or even just a big smile and a kiss. They're (hopefully) not complimenting you for want of anything else.

posted by shadowfelldown at 6:37 AM on July 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

I have a rule about compliments that I think will be good for you to follow. If I'm looking to compliment someone, I add up what I like about them and just flat out say it. I don't answer compliment for compliment, but just wait until I think about how I like the person. Then I just blurt it out.

As a guy, I will take all compliments given. They are great!
posted by Ironmouth at 6:42 AM on July 10, 2008

I think everyone's got it pretty much right that "returning" a compliment makes it seem false, even if it's a sincere sentiment. The timing's just wrong.

As for the sexes issue, I don't think there's any difference: men enjoy compliments just as much as women. They might even be more powerful, since they're probably heard less often.

It's the same semantic minefield, though. Calling a man's eyes "pretty" is no more or less a risk than calling a woman "cute" at the wrong moment.

Cute? Baby ducks are cute, I HATE cute! I want to be exotic, and mysterious! (Annie Savoy (Ron Shelton), Bull Durham.)
posted by rokusan at 8:22 AM on July 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Calling a man's eyes "pretty" is no more or less a risk than calling a woman "cute" at the wrong moment.

I'm not a guy, but all my guy friends claim to hate being called cute under any circumstances. When I'm tempted to call a guy cute, it's usually because he's just done something utterly delightful that has made him incredibly attractive to me. But guys seem to think "cute" means you're putting them into a friend/child category, not the sexy category. So wrong, but oh well... I don't say it anymore, since they never understand it the way I mean it.
posted by vytae at 8:43 AM on July 10, 2008

I'm a female in a long term relationship and I can barely remember the early stages of it, but if I recall correctly, my compliments to him were accompanied by light touching. In other words, I'd say "ooh, you have strong arms" while feeling his bicep, or "your hair is so thick" while I'm running my fingers through it. Don't touch his eyeballs though.

I'd echo jessamyn's sentiments that focusing on how he makes you feel is better received than how he looks. Most men live to make their partner happy and since some women I know tend to be rather moody *cough cough* letting him know he makes me happy just makes his day.
posted by desjardins at 8:44 AM on July 10, 2008

I say thanks and give him a kiss. A damn sexy kiss, if I may say so myself.

I compliment partners whenever I feel sincerely complimentary. If I notice their shoulders, I say so. If they're being thoughtful, I say so.

I think it's silly to tailor your compliments to some stereotype of "what men really want".

Different men like different things. Take a clue from how he reacts. If you say "your eyes are really sexy" and he loves it, don't feel the need to say "you make me feel special" instead, just because he has a penis.

Men are individuals. Treat them as such, please.
posted by sondrialiac at 9:44 AM on July 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

my head (which is pretty much a non-stop gibbering OMG backchannel when we're together)

If it gets to be too much, fake-swoon into his arms. It's A+ if you can pull it off.
posted by sondrialiac at 9:52 AM on July 10, 2008

I agree that an automatic compliment back sounds phony. If you already had a compliment on your lips, save it until a bit later so it comes across better. I hate getting that obligatory-sounding return compliment so I try to avoid doing it to others.
posted by kenzi23 at 3:10 PM on July 10, 2008

Men are individuals. Treat them as such, please.

true. i've never objected to being told that something about me was pretty, and i can't even fathom what could be wrong with 'cute'.

(i mean, i can, but it's not used that way. like "gee, isn't brad pitt cute in that movie" doesn't mean he's some kind of fluffy puppy. it means he's hot & buff & immensely fuckable)
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:23 PM on July 10, 2008

Lots of good advice already given. I'll say things like, "That shirt looks hot on you," which is kind of a compliment to the shirt (his good taste) and to him (nice body). I also tend to have a weakness for men with nice arms, so I will compliment that and it generally seems well received. Like if I happen to touch his upper arm or see him lifting something I'll just say, "Oh wow, you've got great arms."

But as a response to his compliment, definitely not. It's important not just to sound sincere, but to actually be sincere.
posted by Ruby Doomsday at 3:35 PM on July 10, 2008

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