Men and compliments: Traversing masculinity in the modern age

Men and compliments: Traversing masculinity in the modern age

Photo Credits: Tessa Koga / Aggie.

Understanding men to men compliments

Five or six years ago, early in my high school career, while briskly exiting my Intro to Rabbinical Studies class, I vividly remember one of the first times a girl complimented me. She stopped me on my way to study hall, between the courtyard and the commons, and said softly, “Hey, you look, like, really good in those jeans.” I was stunned — genuinely at a loss for words. To this day, I can’t remember what I said exactly, though I’m sure it was a mix of syllables, resembling no pattern heard before in the history of human language.

If you are shocked that I would remember this, let me contextualize the story by confessing that I do not receive many genuine compliments — ones where the receiver can immediately identify the heartfelt intention of the giver. Before you utter an audible “yikes” to yourself or even stop reading, let me inform you that, in general, not many men receive compliments.

The traditional pillars of masculinity — the machismo, perpetual acts of service, exaggerated confidence and bombast — have slowly begun to be phased out. Especially on college campuses, there seems to be a shift of traditional masculine values. Through a discussion with peers and colleagues, and later, some of the male-identifying students at large, I began to explore the relationship between men and compliments. I was curious to gain a female perspective on this as well, and the insights I gleaned from our student body were fascinating. 

Before attempting to understand a female perspective, I was curious about compliments from men to men. There is a long-standing stigma on complimenting male friends if you’re a guy.  This may be from ill-conceived notions of heteronormativity. Although a bit dated, there was a time when the term “no-homo” was the nom de jour of male interactions, both on the internet and in-person. But there was a more serious consequence to this line of thinking: Men were afraid to genuinely express their emotions, due to a fear of being labelled a homosexual. A confusing take, but one that was believable for the internet in the 2010s.

Jared Husing, a second-year cognitive science major, commented on this cultural norm.

“There’s a cultural expectation that men are independent, to a point where they don’t expect others to reach out, or to reach out themselves, leading society to have appropriated ideas of traditional masculinity,” Husing said. 

Indeed, Husing explains how, historically, men giving and receiving compliments can be a sign of some sort of weakness, no matter how unfounded. This fear of weakness plays into the problematic nature of machismo that often permeates the male experience. 

If you listen closely, however, you may be able to hear rumbles of change. 

“The masculinity complex is bogged down by showing your appreciation for another man,” said one anonymous design major.

The student added that the act of being complimented by a male friend made them feel warm and fuzzy inside, but they did not expect that to happen all the time, saying, “When it does, it’s a delineation telling you that that machismo you always hear about is fading.” 

There seems to be a clear shift toward more natural, accepted compliments from men to men, without the baggage of traditionally masculine values. This sentiment has been adopted by many in the modern age, abandoning past notions for a contemporary embrace of kindness.

The viewpoint concerning how men receive and take compliments from those who identify as female, however, is a little different. 

One female political science major, who wished to remain anonymous, spoke to me on the Quad on a particularly sunny day. As we talked, she unwrapped a bagel from the CoHo. 

“I think that when you’re talking about men and specifically, compliments from men, as a woman, you sort of have to be on your toes,” she said.

She put down the bagel after taking a bite and continued, “A lot of the time, compliments from men just don’t mean a lot. Like, they’re not genuine.” 

When pressed on the specific nature of these compliments, she explained “that a lot of them just feel frivolous,” and “like an attempt to get in my pants.” 

Her friend sitting next to her nodded her head in agreement. 

The lack of honesty and the appearance of malintent seem to be hallmarks of compliments from men to women. Yet, as I thanked the political science major, and began to leave, she stopped me. 

“But that isn’t to say that I don’t love getting compliments!” she said. “Especially from my male friends, who actually know me, those feel really nice.” 

There is a fine line, it seems, between unsolicited positive remarks, bordering on cat-calling, and a friendly gesture from a friend who happens to be a guy. 

I began to walk to class, realized my professor had relocated class for the day, and walked back across campus. That day, I made the decision to wear my jumpsuit, a garment from Dickies I bought for a past job at a leather tannery. My mother helped me sew an old Mercedes-Benz patch on the right pocket after I left that job, and I now joke that I was a race car driver in a past life. As I began walking in the right direction, a woman talking frantically on the phone put down her cellular device as she passed me, pointed up and down at me and exclaimed, “So freaking cute!” I smiled sheepishly, thanked her and genuinely expressed that I hoped she had a good rest of her day. 

It seems that much has changed since that encounter in high school, years ago, which is just as much a commentary on me as it is our culture. The volume and frequency of compliments men receive, whether from a man or woman, are steadily building, and this is in many ways a good thing. Compliments build self-esteem, nurture our mental health and remind us that we are, in fact, loved and appreciated by those around us. 

I can only speak from my perspective, which is one of deep privilege as a white, cisgender man on a college campus. The takeaways here were quite comforting, as well as informative. There is a lot of work to be done in the eradication of toxic masculinity, but men learning how to take and receive compliments, from anybody, is a nice step. 

Written by: Ilya Shrayber — arts@theaggie.org