Complimentary compliments can be confusing

Two college dudes offering "free compliments" just want to cheer up their community, but is watered-down street harassment the best way to go about it?

Published March 13, 2009 6:15PM (EDT)

"We are here for no other reason than we like to give compliments," says Purdue University sophomore Cameron Brown. Brown, along with his friend Brett Westcott, spends two hours every Wednesday standing in a highly trafficked area of campus, calling out kind words to passersby. The "Compliment Guys," as they've become known, hang out there with a "free compliments" sign, rain or shine, and endeavor to cheer up the Purdue students and faculty in these tough times. Whether anyone needs cheering up or not.

The friend who sent me that link articulated my mixed feelings about the whole concept beautifully. "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. It's good training, you know? And I imagine it could be very uplifting. 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? Sure, the sign that says 'free compliments' changes the context, but it reminds me of men ordering women to smile on command. I don't know."

I'm glad she did the feminist analysis for me, because my most coherent thought was, "Heh, sounds like the old Tom Hanks and Jon Lovitz 'Hello... and goooodbye' sketch from SNL. Hey, I wonder if that's on Hulu?"

My friend is right, of course, about both parts: The Compliment Guys' shtick is indeed both potentially uplifting and potentially disturbing. Some of the things they've reportedly said -- "I like your school spirit," "Thanks for your hard work" (to a groundskeeper), "Stay nutritious!" (to someone eating an apple) -- are pretty unobjectionable, especially with the sign there to explain. But others, such as "I like your hustle" to a woman running past, and "I like your curly hair. Great smile" sound exactly like the kind of "compliments" from strange men that can feel a lot more unsettling than flattering. Which might explain why people's responses to it include both "waves, thumbs-ups, high-fives, thank-yous" and "the finger and nasty looks."

I don't doubt that Brown and Westcott's intentions are pure -- they sound like friendly young men trying to do a nice thing. And several people interviewed, male and female, said they enjoy the Compliment Guys. But still, if their reasoning for doing this is that "not enough people do nice things anymore," I can think of a zillion ways for them to give back to their community that don't involve mimicking street harassment, with only a sign to distinguish them from the jerks who will turn around and call you a fat fucking skank if you don't act sufficiently flattered. Thus, my feelings remain mixed. Readers, what do you think?


By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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