On the Compliment Guys, Street Harassment, and Arguable Compliments

by Shaker Nina

The "compliment guys" are a pair of young men at Purdue University who have been hanging out in a prominent place on campus with a sign saying "free compliments," shouting compliments at everyone who walks by. They've been in the news here in West Lafayette a couple times, but they recently made it to the national stage. Most of the compliments seem to be fairly innocuous – a sampling reported in the local paper included "Love your jacket!", "Nice coat!", and "Have a great day!"– and there is no indication that any group of people is getting more compliments than any other. So what's the problem?

I think Kate Harding (and the friend she quotes) nailed it pretty well in her column on Salon from March 13th:
There's something very appealing about making compliments a straightforward, non-manipulative thing -- so many people (especially women, of course) are trained to deflect or deny compliments that I think it could be a good thing to get a straight-up compliment every day in a situation where you are sort of forced to accept it…OTOH, my humorless feminist side has to wonder if this plays out differently for the women on campus than it does for men. Do these dudes have any idea how closely this resembles routine street harassment of women?
While I can't speak for the men on campus, I can relate one example of how it played out for a woman on campus: I had an early run-in with the "compliment guys" when they were first getting started. It was months ago, so my memory of the event is a bit hazy (I don't remember seeing a sign, for example, though they may have added that later), but I do remember feeling conflicted about the whole thing.

As I recall, all they said to me was something like "That must be a great book!" as I sped by with my nose in a book. Not really that bad as shouted compliments from strangers go – and shockingly, not a comment on my clothes, hair, body, etc. as I would expect from men shouting at me in public. On the other hand, the reason I was speeding by with a book in my face (besides that it was a good book and I was in a hurry) was that I had heard them shouting at other passers-by and it made me uncomfortable. I sort of hoped to avoid notice, I guess, by looking far too busy to be harassed.

When they actually called out to me, it took me a few minutes to parse what they had said and realize that it wasn't uncomplimentary, it wasn't about my body, sexuality, or style, and it wasn't lewd. At the time, I actually smiled and felt better when I realized what they had said, but in retrospect, that's problematic too. I was not necessarily primarily feeling complimented – I was primarily feeling relieved not to have been sexually harassed, not to have to worry what they would say if I ignored them, not to have to worry that if I wasn't careful they might follow me (it was broad daylight, but a quiet time on campus, so there weren't many people around), etc.

In her article on Salon, Kate invited thoughts from readers, but a glance over the first page was all I needed to know that I don’t have the sanity points to spend wading through the rest of them. Just from that small smattering of comments, however, it was clear that most people were very dismissive of the idea that a compliment might not be complimentary when shouted at a woman by strangers in a public place. I think most people can be educated on the concept that street harassment – which is often lewd and followed up by insults if a positive reaction is not received – is not complimentary. But focusing on exactly what was said – was it really complimentary? – misses the point that being shouted at in public, regardless of content or intention, is a scary and triggering experience for many, dare I say most, women (and, I'm sure, some men).

Like Kate, I'm sure the "compliment guys" really are just trying to be nice. I believe them when they say that they are only trying to do something nice, brighten up people's days, etc. But the whole incident provides a neat lesson in privilege. I'm sure these men have not considered the similarity between their free compliments and street harassment, because they don't have to. As two apparently able-bodied, young, white men, they've probably never been harassed on the street, nor have they had to worry about it. Even if they have friends who have suffered street harassment, they may not recognize the parallels. This illustrates, I think, one of the most pernicious aspects of privilege: invisibility.

The parallels between their free compliments and street harassment – plenty obvious to most of the women and some men on the receiving end of their compliments – are almost certainly invisible to them because they are shielded from street harassment by male privilege (as well as other privileges – white, able-bodied, thin, etc.). They are not only less likely to think about it in the first place, but they are able to selectively ignore it, even if someone else makes an effort to make it visible to them.

Like Kate, I am interested in other people's perspectives on the issue – compliments or street harassment? can it be both? – so I will close with the same invitation she offered: Shakers, what do you think?

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