29 September 2012

Cultural Clash: To Compliment vs. To Desire

It was three years ago when I arrived to Moscow.  It did not take long to realize that relationship between men and women were radically different here than back home.  It took me a while to get used to the differences.  But, I became so used to them that I forgot about where I had come from.

In the US, there is a heightened sensitivity to a man's compliments of a woman.  Compliments often are taken as coded desire signals.  "You look beautiful today" can be construed as "I like you.  Can we go to bed?"  The same compliment in Russia is seen just as that:  a nice statement intended to be appreciated by the recipient.

A few weeks ago I was in the US and meeting with a good friend.  It has been a while, so there was much to catch up on.  At one point, and apropos to the conversation, I remarked to my friend that she was "beautiful."  She then asked:  "Are you hitting on me?"  I stated that I was not, and reiterated my negation for her reassurance.  Then I realized that I was back in the US and had to remind myself of the gender relation rules.

Back in Moscow, I was having lunch with a male colleague.  A female colleague walked up to us to discuss a business matter.  Once the conversation was over, I looked over to my male colleague and indicated that I wanted to conduct an experiment.  After that point, I turned to our female colleague and said:  "You are a very nice, beautiful woman."  She, flattered, said thank you and smiled.  I then explained how the same interaction would be interpreted in the US.

More recently, I was attending a multi-national wedding in Asia where I struck up a delightful conversation with an Israeli woman about various topics.  When it came to say goodbye, I decided to test the can-be-interpreted-as-a-come-on-in-America statement to the lady.  After saying goodbye, I told her that she as a "nice, beautiful woman."  Flattered, the lady appreciated the comment and left the party.

There it is:  There is just something strange about how men's compliments to women are interpreted in the US.  There is a difference between complimenting and desiring, but that difference seems to be lost in the milieu of the American culture.  This is somewhat sad.


  1. In my experience, about the most forward thing a US man can say to a woman without misinterpretation is along the lines of "nice outfit". I once flustered a pretty (and shapely) friend with "that's a fetching dress" because it looked very nice but sort of "farmgirl". I have not said that to anyone since.
    There is an exception: truly elderly women. I think many of them hear compliments so rarely that they are covertly desperate for attention. Anything that's not overtly crude will do. I have entered this comment three times but it disappeared upon "Preview" so I am submitting it raw.

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