For a North American woman travelling in Continental Europe, there are few encounters more alluring or alarming than those with the gentlemen strangers murmuring a foreign variation of "Hello, beautiful," as they walk by. Both alluring and alarming because such unabashed flattery is seldom heard back home. Equally as shocking is European women's indifference to the daily onslaught of compliments -- they often electing to respond with a dismissive, "I know," before sauntering off toward the next vocal admirer.
Admittedly, when living abroad, I never minded the casual compliment and, upon my return to the States, found myself missing the constitutional "Ciao bella" en route to the metro. But alas, having returned to the land of entrenched puritan tradition and restrained self-expression, I reluctantly accepted that the male majority would again consist of leering mutes in bars and train cars. So, you can imagine my surprise two weeks ago when -- after living exclusively stateside for over a year -- a male passerby announced, "I find you beautiful."
I responded with an awkward, "Oh. Um," and looked down at my shoes. The man smiled and continued on his way, probably never to think of me or the encounter again. I, on the other hand, was astounded. Had I just been teleported back to Rome?
The seemingly inconsequential exchange left me thinking: What is it about our Anglo-Saxon culture that dissuades men from politely complimenting the ladies at whom they can't help but gawk? Similarly, what is keeping us ladies from graciously accepting the compliments we so clearly enjoy?
Being a woman, I can't speak entirely for men's reluctance. Perhaps it is an unfortunate remnant of the 1960s feminist philosophy that praising a woman's physical appearance is some sort of objectification and thus shameful. Or perhaps men on this side of the pond are stuck in the adolescent mindset that girls have cooties. Or, maybe they're just crippled by the all too legitimate fear of being charged with sexual harassment and thrown in jail.
In the United States, there is a high likelihood that a harmless compliment from a man to a woman will result in a lawsuit. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a whopping 100,000 employment discrimination charges were filed in 2010, the highest number on record in the Commission's 45 year history. Being a young professional woman, I'm obviously all for gender equality in the workplace, but it is certainly true that the line between "compliment" and "come-on" are a bit fuzzy, if not entirely blurred. For the record, ladies, "You look nice today," does not mean, "I want to sleep with you."
Needless to say, modern man's inability to give a compliment likely has less to do with him and more to do with the modern woman's inability to actually take a compliment.
The New York apartment scene in Fitzgerald's timeless novel, The Great Gatsby, perfectly illustrates women's tendency to deflect any and all forms of flattery:
"I like your dress," remarked Mrs. McKee, "I think it's adorable."
Mrs. Wilson rejected the compliment by raising her eyebrow in disdain.
"It's just a crazy old thing," she said. "I just slip it on sometimes when I don't care what I look like."
Almost a century later, the same inability to give a woman a compliment this side of the Atlantic persists. Tell a woman she's beautiful and she'll likely snap back with a, "No, I'm not," or threaten to call the police.
Some might mistake this deflection for an admirable humility in the face of those European, hip-wagging dames. But it is neither admirable nor humble. After all, if you really were hoping to draw less attention to yourself, wouldn't it just be easier to reply with a simple, gracious "Thank you" and move on?
I'm a young professional, existing among the first generation of women that has achieved true sexual equality. Women have outnumbered men on the nation's payrolls and "for every two men who get a college degree this year, three women will do the same," as Hanna Rosin evidenced in her now-famous article, "The End of Men."
And yet, for all our successes, modern members of the fairer sex continue failing to embrace that which makes us women: femininity. Men find us attractive. We like to hear it when they find us attractive. This doesn't mean that we are vapid, nor does it mean we are desperate for a man's validation. It means we are women for whom the "preoccupation with love and looks is part of the eternal female condition," affirms post-feminist author Danielle Crittenden.
To all those lovely ladies insisting that today's men are too busy "[hanging out] in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence," I can't say I entirely disagree with you. But we ought to bear some of the responsibility for our discontent with the status quo. Why not try taking a lesson from our stereotypically sexy European counterparts and, when a man tells you you're beautiful, say "thank you," not only because you appreciate the compliment, but because it's true.