Whenever I am in a new place where I don’t know anyone I sometimes find it hard to start a conversation. Shocking to those who know me and my loud personality, but I never quite know what to say to a complete stranger if I need to make conversation but we have nothing in common (such as the event we are at or knowing a common person). So what do I always do?
“Oh my god, I love your skirt. My name is Katie.”
“Those are such cute shoes. Where did you get them?”
“That halter top dress looks so cute on you! I wish I could wear something like that.”
More often than not to make small talk I resort to talking about that woman’s appearance. It is even worse when there is a little girl. Whether it’s at the grocery store or in the airport and there is a little girl near me, I’d often say something like “You have a cute outfit! I like your barrettes.” Yet, when reflecting on it I can’t recall really saying anything like that to little boys, or grown men. Why is it that we can’t find ways to compliment women beyond their physical appearance when making a first impression?
The fact that the first impression conversation often includes physical compliments reinforces the notion that appearance is crucial in another’s construction of their opinion of you when first meeting. Why aren’t we valuing other aspect of the female identity though, like her intelligence or wit?
Slate Magazine writer Katy Waldman has felt similar feelings toward complimenting young girls (and in turn women)
“I don’t mean that I won’t also ask little girls what they’re reading or learning in school; or the names of their friends; or whether they like Mom or Dad better. (That is always a fun one.) But usually, upon meeting a cute female child, my first reflex is to compliment her on some aspect of her appearance.”
Girls are taught that the way to receive compliments is through perfecting a physical performance of beauty that aligns with hegemonic beauty standards. However, it is women that help reinforce this expectation. We end up placing it on ourselves. Then, it becomes a vicious cycle because we are then trained to not accept these compliments and believe we aren’t “good enough” for them.
When I started thinking about how I compliment women, I tried to remember the last time I was complimented for something beyond my appearance. The only times I was complimented beyond that was for instances such as projects I’m currently working on by the amazing womentors I have in college (shout out to all the influential female professors in my life!) but rarely do I hear these comments from any other outlet. I remember my Communication and Gender professor would always tell the story about how one student felt like her professors were always complimenting her outfits and not her academic work, so I appreciate the womentors in my life that make that a priority. But it isn’t just their job- we all need to help reverse a culture of “cute shoes” and shallow physical compliments. I admire my peers for their smart blog posts, funny anecdotes, and insightful thoughts, so why not compliment them? So I am going to make the effort to start complimenting my peers and other women in my life in other ways as well.
To get you started on opening up to complimenting other women, Waldman offers some great suggestions:
Here are a few suggestions for how to break the ice with preschool girls in a way that doesn’t spotlight their physical cuteness:
—Where are you going today?
— How old are you?
— What do you want to be when you grow up?
— What’s your favorite book/toy/sport/animal/food/song?
In that spirit, here are some lines for when you’ve just met an adult woman and are flailing in a riptide of conversation-block:
— What have you been up to this week/weekend? or What are you doing this week/weekend?
— How young are you?
— What do you do for work? (AND/OR: What do you do for fun?)
— What’s your favorite book/magazine/piece of wearable technology/Netflix guilty pleasure/fad restaurant trend/craft beer/karaoke go-to/political cause/alibi?
Or you could try observations:
— This canapé is delicious/gross!
— The man on our left appears to be a kleptomaniac.
— I think that ottoman cushion is on fire.
By extending the way we appreciate other women, we can create a culture that values other aspects of the female identity beyond just appearance. But hey, if she has great shoes on- compliment them! Just remember to ask next about who she is and not just what she is wearing.