The Quick and Dirty Guide to Not Sexually Harassing Someone with your Words

Written by Simone le Roux

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In light of the #metoo movement, there has been a lot of discourse around sexual harassment; what it is, and how you shouldn’t do it. You can boil the reactions from men down to two distinct catagories. The first is for men to simply nod and agree that making someone feel uncomfortable or unsafe is generally wrong, then take a hard look at their own actions. And the second is for men to get in a huff and proclaim, “What, so I can’t even compliment a woman anymore without being called a pig? This is a WITCH HUNT.”

This article is for the latter.

While the line may seem confusing, harassment and compliments are two different things. In my experience as a Woman Walking this Earth, I’ve had my share of both. Or at least, enough to know what will make me roll my eyes and what will actually flatter me.

For the sake of this article, let’s assume that you, the reader, genuinely want to be able to compliment a stranger and make that person understand that you like some aspect of them, without coming off as a creep.

Step 1: Intention

Why do you want to comment on this person’s appearance? Do you like a specific aspect of their outfit/hair/look? Do you want to be kind? Are you hoping to brighten their day? These are all really good reasons to compliment someone. You’re seeing them as a whole person with feelings that you would like to improve.

If, instead, you’re complimenting them because you’re with your mates and it’ll be a laugh, or you want everyone to know that you think this person is attractive, or you want to get a reaction out of them, those are shitty reasons. Rather don’t say anything and call your mom to ask how she is instead.

Step 2: Getting their Attention

Here’s the thing: no one owes you the time of day. No matter how badly you want to talk to someone, they’re not obligated to let you into their personal space or give you attention. This is why we say “excuse me” when we need to ask a stranger a question or we accidentally bump into someone. It’s an unspoken rule that you don’t claim someone’s attention or touch them without permission.

If you want to compliment someone in a way that makes them feel good, yelling out of your car or commenting as they walk by isn’t going to do it. It shows that you don’t care about their comfort or privacy in this interaction, which makes the compliment sound insincere straight away.

Similarly, if you say “excuse me” and the person doesn’t stop to talk to you, that’s fine. You can’t force your sentiments on someone who doesn’t have the time or inclination to talk to a stranger at that point. You certainly shouldn’t get mad at someone who is denying your request for attention, because that also shows that you don’t care about the person’s right to privacy in a public space.

Before complimenting a stranger, it’s always best practice to politely ask for their attention, then wait to see if they give it. If they don’t give you attention, move along.  

Step 3: The Compliment

Complimenting an aspect of someone that they can’t change isn’t particularly meaningful. If they’re pretty or have a nice body, the odds are that it’s due to a heavy dose of genetics, and that the person already knows that.

Putting even a little more thought into a compliment makes it so much more meaningful. If you say, “That colour looks good on you”, you’re complimenting both how they look, and their style. If you say “You look lovely today,” you’re not just complimenting their looks, but also how they’ve chosen to dress, do their hair and carry themselves that particular day. It means a lot more than, “Nice ass,” because hey, I didn’t choose my ass and I can’t do much about how it looks at this moment either way.

Step 4: Finishing Up

Compliments are a gift: you give them without expecting anything in return. So, the person you compliment doesn’t owe you a smile, a thank you or a conversation afterwards. Not everyone likes talking to strangers and, despite your best efforts, not everyone will appreciate your masterfully executed compliment. That’s fine, you tried.

The important thing, though, is that you respect the person enough to be around for the reaction. Driving past someone and yelling a “compliment” out your window shows you don’t care enough to see how the person reacts – you just wanted to get your feelings out there. This puts you on par with a kindergartener, which isn’t the best place to be socially.

So, after you’ve complimented someone, stick around for a beat. If they say thank you, then great. If they tell you to fuck off then hey, that’s the risk you ran. Either way, you’re respecting that person enough to handle the consequences of your well-intentioned action.

What it boils down to

Complimenting someone and getting it right is nuanced. This shouldn’t be surprising because people, too, are nuanced. And – I’m just going to say it – women are people too. If you just keep that in mind and try not to be a dick, you’re well on your way to not sexually harassing anyone. Congrats!