1) Compliments reveal our values. A successful compliment must be about something that’s recognized by both the complimenter and the complimentee as having value. (That’s not to say that both parties have to personally value the thing being complimented—I’ve been complimented on haircuts I hated—rather that both parties have to recognize that it has value. Otherwise, the compliment isn’t complete.) The consequence here is that compliments can tell us a good deal about what we as a culture actually value. Studies have repeatedly found that the number-one topic of compliments given to American women (from both sexes) is appearance, so—surprise!—it seems we value women for their appearance. (Correspondingly, we value men for their skill.) But here’s the thing: Part of the way we assign value is observing where and how others assign value, which means that sometimes we generalize our values in order to make sure they’re recognized. Compliments are verbal gifts, and who wants to give a gift you’re not sure the recipient will value? So complimenting women on appearance is the spoken equivalent of giving them a nice lotion, a bar of chocolate, a bottle of wine: a gift that is valuable not only for what it actually gives its recipient (soft hands, a satisfied sweet tooth, a hangover), but because we all understand its function as a generic placeholder for sentiment.
2) Compliments based on positive stereotypes don’t feel so great to hear. When people give compliments to a member of a group based on positive stereotypes of that group, the recipient, understandably, is likely to be displeased. As in, if you’re white and start telling a black person how great black people are at sports, you’re not exactly doing anyone any favors. Now, appearance-based compliments aren’t usually directed toward a group; they’re directed toward an individual. Yet I still wonder about the implications of group stereotypes here. If you tell me you like my lipstick, we’re both acknowledging certain assumptions about women as a class: that women should wear lipstick, and that wearing lipstick is something to be rewarded. It’s also assuming that there’s a right way (and therefore a wrong way) to wear it, meaning that it might be possible for me to fail at femininity at a later date.
3) Compliments can make us feel bad. Or...good. Women who lean toward self-objectification do so because they’ve internalized the idea that, as a woman, they are there to be looked at. Is there anything that more clearly ascertains that you’re being looked at than a compliment about how you look? In this study, women who scored high on a test measuring their tendency to self-objectify reported feeling more body shame after receiving an appearance-based compliment. But! In another study, women who had that same personality trait of self-objectification reported an elevated mood after hearing an appearance-based compliment. (In both studies, the compliments were controlled and took place within the bounds of the study; subjects weren’t reporting back on real-life experiences.) With my entirely inadequate scientific background—I fulfilled all my college science requirements with astronomy—I’m going to take a leap and say that these experiences aren’t as contradictory as they seem. While I’m unlikely to brighten my mood when I’m feeling bad about my body, the body shame brought on by self-objectification isn’t quite the same thing, at least not for me. I’m guessing it’s more about the kind of body shame brought on by a hyperawareness of one’s appearance—the same sort of hyperawareness that John Berger was writing of when he wrote in Ways of Seeing: “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. … And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. … Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” Truth is, sometimes my mood is elevated when I notice that I’m being looked at. That doesn’t mean I don’t simultaneously experience the detrimental effects of that self-consciousness.
4) When we don’t say “thank you,” it may be because we care. As sociolinguist Robert Herbert points out, we all know what the “correct” response is to a compliment. Think of the prompt parents give to their children after someone has given them an unexpected treat: “What do you say to the nice lady?” You say thank you, of course. Yet when asked how they felt upon hearing compliments, many participants in one of Herbert’s studies said they they didn’t know what to say. With the exception of women accepting compliments from men, responses along the line of “thank you” only accounted for anywhere from 10 to 29 percent of compliment responses in the study. Why, when saying “thank you” is the known proper response, do we suddenly feel like we don’t know what to say? The answer lies in the true meaning of embarrassment: We feel embarrassed because we care about the relationship we have with the person we feel embarrassed in front of. We may feel embarrassed that we didn’t say something complimentary to them first, or that we’ve done something (or worn something) that separates us from the other person status-wise, or that we’re suddenly acutely aware that the person holds us in some sort of esteem. We know full well that “thank you” would suffice, but it can also feel like “thank you” leaves something out.
In fact, sometimes a simple “thank you” does leave something out. When I first shared my experience of floundering in conversation when I tried to start a conversation with a woman by complimenting her shoes and was met with a simple thank you, I was putting the blame for the flatlined conversation on myself. And to be sure, I should work on my opening gambit. But the more I learn about compliments from a sociological standpoint, the more I see that she may have been a little tone-deaf as well. If “comment history”—i.e. conversation—is the most common response in woman-to-woman compliments, it’s clear that most of us understand the offering a compliment symbolizes. We may not be comfortable with it; we may refuse it, or turn it around, or question its sincerity, or permit it to alter how we see ourselves. But we understand its small humility, its request, its vulnerability, its expressed wish to grow closer. Sometimes we might even let the wish come true.