Have you told somebody they're awesome today? You should, because it's National Compliment Day — which also means it's a good time to learn about the science of compliments. And while we're learning, we might want to pay special attention to those compliments that, for various reasons, don't often end up being directed at dudes — because how we give props to one another reveals many aspects of human interaction, from what we hope to gain to the threats perceived by compliment-recipients. And this isn't just guessing or conjecture — a number of studies have found that female and male compliment interactions differ radically because of expectations of gendered behavior.
You'd think that a compliment would be considered a universally good thing: after all, in 2012, research identified the specific part of the brain that provides us with a reward when complimented — and found that people perform better on tasks after receiving one. But compliments can sometimes be more ambiguous than helpful: while some are just for boosting us up, others can be perceived as what's called "face-threatening acts". The concept of "face" comes from politeness theory, and refers to peoples' general desire to be liked, respected, have their needs fulfilled, be free to act, and be validated. The idea of "losing face" with somebody is an expression of this — so a "face-threatening act" is something that the recipient feels is intended to create embarrassment or humiliation.
And it seems that men, for various reasons, often reject compliments because they perceive them as threatening their "face," rather than taking them as boosts. Why does this happen — and what kinds of compliments can we pay to dudes on the regular to help them push back against this toxic masculinity bullsh*t? Here's the lowdown.
"You Look Nice Today"
ME: I don't need anyone's validation! I'm gonna do whatever I want.— Joseph J. Sanchez (@JJS_III) January 13, 2017
::straight male friend compliments my beard::
ALSO ME: pic.twitter.com/WkBDriu3Tv
Appearance-based compliments are often perceived by men as threatening ones; as Casley Quinlan wrote in The Atlantic in 2013, research has shown that women are often primarily complimented on beauty or appearance, while men are usually complimented about other things, like skills or performance.
What's behind this? Beyond the obvious answer (that our sexist society values women's looks more than their skills), there are some interesting additional theories. According to research, some of it is that women don't want to give men physical compliments, in case they're perceived by the men to be flirting; but the rest of it is about face-threatening.
Men, research seems to indicate, often look for the sting in the tail of an appearance-based compliment, as if it's saying their work is less important or worthy than their appearance, or making fun of them.
If there's any proof that patriarchy hurts everybody, it's an entire gender going around feeling vaguely uncomfortable with people upping their appearance because that's not what men are "supposed to be about." F*ck it. Let men know they're beautiful. The divide of woman as ornament and man as worker is artificial, harmful nonsense, and men can be as ornamental as they darn like.
"Hey, That's Really Cool!"
Further discoveries about the attitudes and responses to compliment-giving among men and women have found some syntactical differences, too. According to groundbreaking work by the researcher Janet Holmes, women are much more likely to give and receive unequivocal compliments, ones with exclamation marks and intensifying words (like "so" or "very"), while men are more likely to hedge their bets and make things a bit more ambiguous.
This likely goes back to the idea of face-threatening acts: men who are complimenting other men, in particular, may see what they're doing as potentially offensive or off-putting to the recipient, so they water it down. I propose an experiment: give males unadulterated compliments when they deserve them, and see if they get used to it, accept the boost, and give unadulterated compliments back.
Compliments From People Of Different Ages & Statuses
This is a fascinating one: compliments are often related to status. High-status women are more likely to receive compliments than high-status men (possibly because we don't think the woman is going to bite our heads off or think we're being presumptuous if we compliment her). We're also all less likely to compliment people of different ages or those who occupy a different status (higher or lower) in the socioeconomic hierarchy. Simply, this is because compliments are about power.
This isn't just about dudes, but it's certainly something to think about: why not give some unexpected cheer to an old gentleman on a bus, or a high school boy who's helping out at a volunteer event? It expresses an equality of status and a movement over generational divides.
"You're A Really Good Father"
Seems simple, right? But compliments regarding male parenting are rooted in our cultural beliefs about the roles of mothers and fathers in their children's lives, and the pervasive notion that men still often function as absent breadwinners who "babysit" when the mother isn't capable. In that context, complimenting dudes for, you know, being good dads instead of just "looking after the kids" goes a long way to breaking down gender stereotypes.
However, there's a qualification to this one. As New Statesman pointed out in 2016, there can be a tendency to simply compliment men for parenting behavior that, in women, is given more rigorous scrutiny, because they're judged less harshly. Praising dudes for doing the bare minimum (changing diapers, going to the playground or parent-teacher night) that women are simply expected to do as standard isn't helping the gender double standard either.
So instead, give praise to dads who are genuinely doing a good, engaged job, helping their kids grow up into awesome little beings with sustained effort. A bit of praise, well-targeted, can change the world.