Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Our Compliments

I received a marvellous email asking about compliments, but I wasn't given permission to print it, so I'll just harangue you all on the subject.

Perhaps because I am 39, I don't receive as many compliments as I used to, and when some rough-looking type on the boardwalk along the sea smiled flirtatiously and said "Hello" to me that other day, I felt quite disproportionately pleased.

Anyway, one hundred years ago--nay, fifty--mothers and aunties warned young women not to allow their heads to be turned by compliments. Recent generations of mothers and aunties hate sounding so crabby and dour, so they may have left off such warnings. However, young women still need this warning because--read carefully, my little Singles--some men will say anything. Anything!

I shall now make a gross generalisation, as you know I like to do. In general, nice young women take love and everything love-related way more seriously than young men do. This is a good thing. The post-1960 feminist attitude of "If you can't beat their immoral sexual behaviour, join them in it" was a freaking disaster.

But even today a nice young woman would never march up to a young man and say "Looking good!" or "Never change!" or "Ah, you're a heartbreaker you are!" unless she meant business. Young men say stuff like that all the time without meaning anything at all. And if challenged, they hunch their heads down into their shoulders like turtles escaping into their shells and say, "I was just trying to be nice." Yarg!

So the first thing I have to say about compliments from men you know socially is not to take them seriously. If your boss or your professor pays you a compliment, take that seriously. If your father or brother pays you a compliment, take that seriously. If a guy you know from school points both index fingers at your torso and shouts, "Oh you! Never change!", don't take it seriously. It may have more to do with his self-image as cool dude who is slick with the chicks than it does with you.

That said, compliments can be an invitation to embark on light flirtation and witty dialogue worthy of Nora Ephron. They give you a chance to show how funny and confident you are or can fake. I still quite enjoy flirtation although, of course, I have to watch it with the easily-scandalised because I am, you know, married and stuff. The reaction I'm looking for is "Ha ha ha, B.A.'s missus is so charming," not "What a brazen hussy" or, worse, "I'll go get a ladder."

Many nice women have no idea how to receive a compliment. The easiest thing to do, if you can't think of some witty reply, is to say "Thank you." Never say "Oh no. Gosh. No." or "What, this old thing? I've had it for years." That is utterly depressing and sad. I won my college crush object of two years by saying, when he said, "What a lovely dress!", "Thanks! I wore it for you."

We were both rather stunned by this, but he took my hand during the film our gang had gone to see, and it was the most romantic evening of my life at the time, until I came home and had to (long story) take my sister's contact lenses out of her eyes for her.

The thing to do, if you can manage it, is to turn a man's expectations on their heads. For me, the only possible reply to the frankly stupid "Never change" is "Why not?" The best reply to "Looking good!" is to smile smugly and say "Yes." It's a bit like telling a joke. He gives you the set-up, and you supply the punch line.

Him: Why are you single?

You: Because I was born that way.

(Incidentally, the old one-two also works with mild reproofs. For example, I get a lot of comic mileage out of my slightly rakish divorced-annulled-remarried status, e.g.

Severe Catholic Gentleman: I hope you remember you promised death-till-you part.

Divorced-Annulled-Remarried Me: Of course I do. I seem to remember promising it twice.

Severe Catholic Gentleman: [quick, horrified intake of breath] Oh, stop it. Ha ha ha! That's TERRIBLE. Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha!)

Anyway, the whole point is not to take it all so seriously. If a man is serious about you, he asks you out for dinner. If he remains serious, he eventually goes down to the jewellery shop and buys you an engagement ring. It's really that simple. As I've typed hundreds of times, I don't believe in men's pretty words, I believe in diamonds.

And meanwhile, yes, I know there are young women who talk a lot of irresponsible rot, too, because from ages 19 to 25, I was one of them, and I apologize.

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