04/04/2012 02:34 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2012

When Compliments Backfire

Hey, men of the world, newsflash: It's not (always) your fault.

When it comes to the opposite sex, men often find women's reactions to be more than just puzzling -- they can seem downright bizarre. It can also be legitimately confusing for a man who wants to pay positive attention to women. He doesn't want to come across as an asshole, but he also doesn't want to get Let's Just Be Friend-ed. Lines and boundaries are not as clear-cut as they used to be, and the results can sometimes be messy.

Case in point: I recently engaged in the following email exchange (names and other identifying information have been changed):

"Hi there. My name is Karl, I'm from Chicago and I stumbled upon your blog and thought you might be a good person to turn to for advice, so here goes. I met a very intelligent and attractive woman at a lecture a few weeks ago. She was a nurse in her early 30′s (I'm 28, so a little older than me). We had been talking for about a half hour and really developed a great rapport. We had even made tentative plans to meet for coffee sometime.

Then things suddenly went downhill. There was a pause in the conversation and since she had classic curves (large bust, narrow waist, etc.), I commented that she had a "really nice hourglass figure." My intent was to be complimentary and a little flirtatious but instead she became deeply offended. I went into damage control mode and tried to clarify my comments but the more I talked, the more I exacerbated things as she rolled her eyes and shook her head. She told me I was being "inappropriate" and that she was "very disappointed" and then WHAP!, she slapped my face and departed.

As I stood there alone rubbing my cheek, I was trying to figure out why she was so upset. Do you have any thoughts? Do you think I should email her an apology note?"

My reply:

"She slapped you!? No, I don't think you should email her an apology note. I think she should email YOU one!"

Look, here's the truth: neither men nor women are clairvoyants. You never know what's going on in someone else's head. However, in this case her reaction is too extreme to likely be about you. This woman could be a recovering anorexic, she could be a survivor of sexual abuse who hasn't dealt with her emotional issues yet or she could just be very sensitive about her weight. I don't have a perfect figure, but if someone complimented me like that, it would make me happy, not defensive. There are women who are insecure about the way they look and their sexuality, and there are women who are secure. The insecure ones may lash out the way this one did. The secure ones may flirt with you right back. The question is: who do you want to be with?

What I want you to get out of this is that if things really went down the way you describe (which is a big, important "if," but one we'll go with for the purpose of this exercise), you did nothing wrong. All women are different. The chances are high that this particular woman has baggage around her appearance and you're a hapless bystander who "offended" her by going there. There is nothing wrong with flirting and nothing wrong with giving a woman a compliment. How she receives it gives you a lot of information, but please don't be discouraged from flirting or complimenting in the future because of one woman's insecurity that became inappropriate violence (yes, I think SHE was the one being inappropriate)."

This interaction is emblematic of a few common issues when it comes to dealing with the fairer sex. Here are a few guidelines for men that may smooth the way:

1. Don't put women on a pedestal

Many men idolize or idealize women -- not just one woman, but all women. These men tend to assume that if something is going badly, it's because they themselves did something wrong -- the woman herself had nothing to do with it.

There are two problems with this: 1) It gives women more power over your emotional state than they should legitimately wield. 2) It's narcissistic. You are not the only one responsible for her feelings. There is a lot more going on over there on her side of the equation, and to think that you are the only one controlling or affecting things is both inaccurate and self-absorbed. Trust me: your experience of your love life will improve when you truly internalize that women are not better and do not know better than you: they are human beings just like you, with their own host of insecurities and issues with which to contend.

2. Don't put up with bullsh*t

Not to put too fine a point on it, but do you really need outside confirmation that a woman slapping you in the face is not OK? Just because someone is of the female persuasion does not give her the right to slap, punch or bite. As we learned in kindergarten, hitting is never OK. Verbal abuse is also not OK. Statistically, far more women than men are abused, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen. If you are a man and you're being abused, walk away. You do not have to take crap just because it's a woman dishing it out. You have the right to respect, love, and safety, just the same as women.

3. How women react often has nothing to do with you

One out of every four girls (and one in six boys) are sexually abused before the age of 18. In the U.S., ten million girls and women suffer from anorexia and/or bulimia (along with one million boys/men). Women are all in different stages of learning to love themselves and their bodies, and that is often reflected in how they react to others. Some know how to say what they want and don't want; others are still learning how to communicate their boundaries. Some women are comfortable with themselves physically and emotionally; some aren't there yet. It's not up to you to fix or change anyone, but know that how she reacts is just as much (if not more) about her as it is about you. The key is to spend equally as much time evaluating her as evaluating whether you said or did the right thing.

I would also like to point out, acknowledge and celebrate the host of women who have actually used their issues to become more evolved, more aware and more mature versions of themselves. Many men have done the same. The point is not that "all women" are one way, or that women on the whole are emotionally unstable -- they're not, and that's not a stereotype I'm interested in perpetuating. The point is to take responsibility for your own actions, and let other people take responsibility for theirs.

4. Sometimes you're gonna get slammed

I'm sorry to say it, but chances are high that if you're a man and you're putting yourself out there (which I both recommend and respect), sometimes you're going to get shut down. Whether it's commenting on a woman's appearance, as this guy did, or making what you thought was a "harmless" comment to your girlfriend, it is practically inevitable that when it comes to dealing with women, you will step on emotional landmines. And when you inadvertently run up against a trigger point, that place that reminds a woman of where she's still raw and tender, she will often defend herself with everything she's got. Men do the same. But that doesn't give that person the right to be violent, and it doesn't give you the right to give up or shut down forever just because you happened to run into someone who's still on the crazy train (which hopefully, at some point, they will disembark). At some point you're probably going to get hurt. Sometimes we all get hurt. It's not always fair and it's not always right, but it also doesn't mean you should stop trying. Sometimes you get slammed, but other times you have that sweet moment of connection that makes it all worth it.

5. "Respecting" a woman does not equal ignoring her

Some men are so terrified of objectifying women that they're afraid to even notice them. I, for example, attended a top school with driven men from liberal households, where they'd clearly been taught not to objectify women. The problem was, they ended up equating "respecting" a woman with ignoring her. And trust me -- if there's one thing women don't want, it's to be ignored. I didn't have sex a single time in college (don't worry -- summers made up for some of that), and I have a feeling the guys busy "respecting" women at my school wondered why they weren't getting laid, too.

Unfortunately, this belief is sometimes reinforced by some women themselves. Many either consciously or unconsciously associate male attention with men not respecting them. However, there is a way to both respect and desire women. Truly sexy men are those who can simultaneously see a woman as both a sexual being and a human being, and truly sexy women are those who can receive such attention in an open and empowered way. This leads directly to the next point:

6. Don't be ashamed of your sexuality -- it is a valuable (and hot) part of you

As much as women have issues around their sexuality, so do men -- and a lot of that has to do with women shaming men for their sex. Is a man a pervert if he checks a woman out, or tells her he noticed her body? Do we call him "sketchy" if he admits to getting busy in the law school bathroom (hey, when the mood strikes... )? And how many mothers walk in on their little boy masturbating and, instead of screaming, calmly say, "Excellent job, Johnny! I'm glad you're exploring your sexuality."

No. We have a tendency in this culture to judge and shame men for their sex, much as we don't want to admit it. And after a number of incidents like these (particularly during formative years), some men start to shut down their sexuality completely -- they cut it off because they feel they will either be punished or put down for it. I believe we'd be better off as women and as human beings if men felt equally as safe as women when it came to their sexuality.


To summarize: guys, if a woman is disapproving of you in some way, bear in mind that it may literally have nothing to do with you. Consider that her reaction exists within a universe of her own experiences, some of which are likely to have been traumatic. And don't let it stop you from being you -- all of you, including your sex. If you feel like respectfully giving a woman a compliment, do so. If she wigs out, move on. If she plays along, stick around.
And ladies, let's give men a break when it comes to complimenting us (or trying to). They are often unsure of how to do so without offending or turning us off, but most of the time they genuinely want to connect.

Ultimately, that's what most of us want, whether we realize it or not. We want connection. We constantly seek to not just know, but feel that we are not alone. As I was once taught, man or woman, we all want the same things: to see and be seen, to understand and be understood, to love and be loved.

In the meantime, it's nice to get compliments. Just make sure you don't give them -- or take them -- too seriously.