How to not compliment a stranger.

You can take the boy out of upstate, but you can’t take the upstate out of the boy.  Or more specifically you can’t take away his upstate habits of holding doors, making eye contact, or acknowledging panhandlers praising Jesus for change in the subway.

The average NYC native meets these habits with equal parts pleasant surprise, confusion, and simple recognition that I am not from these here parts.  It is not that New York City is less friendly; it’s simply that the number of strangers you are in close contact with everyday is overwhelming.  Resolve to hold the door for everybody and you end up an unpaid doorman, putting me out of work.

Entertained by people’s varying reactions and wanting to maintain myself as a paragon of politesse, a bastion of upstate, an island of Albany, I made up a little exercise for myself: give out two random compliments a day, one to a man, one to a woman.  It makes me actively engage people, pay attention to them as individuals.

Easier said than done, and I quickly learned what compliment would be taken well, what compliment would be taken as justification for pepper spray.

The compliment must be on something relatively impersonal.  Any comment about a person’s body is out. No compliments for hairline, cheekbones, or muscle tone.

Clothes are safer.  Shoes and ties and purses are the most neutral.  Keep it simple, don’t elaborate: “Nice shoes/tie/purse”, not “that’s a beautiful tie. Faintly retro in a nostalgic way like ghosting whiffs of my grandfather’s aftershave”.

For men, a good way to go is complimenting their equipment (not that equipment), preferably manly equipment (still not that equipment).  Instead of the upstate symbols of manliness—taxidermy, snowmobiles and boats—we are left with the bourgeois accoutrements that anchor urbanite masculinity: cameras, dog leashes, rollerblades, overpriced sunglasses.

Women are far and away the harder ones to compliment, mainly because women daily deal with being ogled and are thus more sensitive to any perceived form of explicit or implicit harassment.

Accessories are best: hipster bicycles, purses. Anything quirky: rainboots, sunglasses, funky hat.  Unlike men, shoe compliments are on the weird side. The more outer of a layer an item is, the easier it is to compliment: “nice thong I can see through your pants” is out, “nice raincoat” is in.

Really, it’s all about tone.  With men, it’s a tone of authority, the schm-expert tone of “I know a quality camera/dog leash/shoe when I see one”.  With women it’s really whatever tone or bit of body language is necessary for it not to come across as flirtatious.  The compliment must be spontaneous, said in passing.

For those who seem especially afraid of strangers, I somewhat vindictively compliment the most unfashionable item they are wearing, or something overly specific: their aura, knuckles, or adam’s apple.

This exercise makes me the worst kind of non-menace, a harmless weirdo running around with a thing for shoes and a falsely discerning eye for dog leashes, ties, cameras, and purses.

Nice cuticles, by the way.


About Big Adam

A NYC doorman, a community organizer, wannabe ape, sometimes blogger, sometimes writer, always crossword puzzle incompleter, I will ride bicycles with your papa, dance Bhangra with your mama, take you on dates that cost nada.
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5 Responses to How to not compliment a stranger.

  1. Nice post. By the way, I have thrown two 64s since we played. Things are looking down, which is up in the other world. For joys.

  2. vegetarilin says:

    It’s a sad world we live in where we have to be so careful about a simple nicety. However, I agree with you, a well intended statement can get you in a lot of trouble. I work in customer service and I compliment people as much as I can. For the most part it’s a positive experience.

    • big Adam says:

      for the most part, yes, you’re right, it is positive. it just seemed interesting as I was thinking about it how different people in a place as big as this see compliments and day to day engagements. That being said, I’m from a city (albeit smaller) where the same rules apply…as long as its sincere, people are pretty ok, most of the time! thanks for commenting!

  3. jantelagom says:

    Very nicely written article. (And no, I didn’t say that because your article told me to.) I come from a semi-rural suburb in Oklahoma, born to parents both raised on wheat farms in rural Oklahoma. So I relate to what you say about making eye contact and simple small talk. However, I’m in college now, and I’m amazed at how awkward apartment complexes are. I’m still in Oklahoma, but it’s obvious that the other college-aged residents around me do not come from my same background and have different customs when it comes to strangers. If I’m walking to my apartment door or mailbox and I come within about 5-10 feet of anyone, I instinctively make eye contact and say, “Hi. How are you?” I don’t stop and expect an actual answer; it’s just a courtesy. But I kind of expect a similar, “Good, thanks,” or something along those lines. I’m always amazed when I’m met with a look of surprise on their face, doubtlessly accompanied by a quick aversion of any further eye contact and, maybe, a mutter–on a good day. I can’t imagine what people in New York City or another big city would make of me if I ever visited! You, a bastion of upstate. Me, a bastion of flyover country.

    • big Adam says:

      Thank you! Yeah, I just graduated from college, and its pretty much the same thing…one of my good friends is from Nebraska, and its really amazing to me how easily he strikes up a conversation with everyone, whereas for me its something I have to consciously work at. Anyway, the big apple ain’t so bad. I’d recommend giving it a shot one of these days.
      keep writing, and take care!

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