Gay men and straight women compliment each other loads, but straight men need compliments too
Positive affirmations encourage self-acceptance and make us feel good, could they be part of the way we combat toxic masculinity?
words Louis Staples
If you’ve ever hung out in a group of girls and gays, you’ll know that greetings can often be accompanied by three things: hugs, screeching and compliments. It’s always “you look gorgeous!” this and “you smell amazing!” that. It can be a circle-jerk of loud praise and theatrical air-kissing.
But what about straight men? Four years ago, which is roughly 100 years in Twitter Time, Caitlin Moran asked a question: “Men. Men of Twitter. What are the down-sides of being a man? We discuss the downsides of being a woman very frequently – but what's going on with you lovely guys?” The responses varied, from getting your dick caught in a zip to the pressure to make the first move when dating women.
Another common response was men saying that they feel a lack of positive affirmations and compliments. It seems like we, as a society, might assume that straight men in particular don’t want or need compliments. But it turns out they do – a lot.
Straight men might feel compliment-deficient because being sincere isn’t always the norm in male friendship groups. I know I’m generalising here, but it’s more common for men to show affection towards each other via jokes and insults. This is what journalist Archie Bland discovered in 2017, when he spent time with different groups of men researching “banter” – a very British phenomenon. “We just take the piss out of each other, and that’s how we show our love,” said Ellis, one of his subjects.
Writer Hussein Kesvani, former editor at men’s platform Mel Magazine, tells Woo that when men do compliment each other, it can be different to how women and gay men are socialised to do so. “Straight dudes don't really compliment each other so earnestly or theatrically. In fact, we've largely been conditioned to do the exact opposite,” he says. “If one of my mates likes my sweater, they'll say something like ‘that's a sick hoodie’ or ‘where can I get that from?’, rather than saying that I, as a person, look good in it or look good today.”
And why might that be? “Perhaps it's because straight men don't really notice those kinds of aesthetic changes,” Kesvani says. “But perhaps it's also because they're not used to receiving those compliments, let alone giving them."
Indeed, one very small Australian study found that, after observing the friendships of seven heterosexual men, “discursive strategies including insults, silences, and direct interrogation were used to signify closeness, gratefulness, concern, and masculinity and dominance”.
However, compliments can be important for everyone, regardless of identity. Scientists have found that being paid a compliment actually lights up the same parts of your brain that are activated when you get paid a monetary award. Other research suggests compliments and praise may help us when it comes to learning new skills and behaviours - positive re-enforcement means we tend to do more of the things that we feel rewarded for.
Feeling valued and appreciated are “basic human needs”, psychotherapist Marcia Naomi Berger explained to NBC. And it’s not just the receiver who walks away better off, either, because she understands compliments benefit the giver too. Being in the habit of giving compliments helps us notice and appreciate what’s good and what we like in those around us: “Being complimentary helps us create an optimistic, happier outlook,” Berger says.
And men I speak to feel the same way: “I think in straight relationships, the norm is that the man is supposed to shower his partner with compliments, whether it’s her looks or anything else,” says Sean, 32, from Edinburgh,. “But actually, sometimes when you’re feeling low, it’d be nice if it was more known that men like being gassed up too!” Sean tells me that, in his male friendship group, compliments happen most often after a lot of drinking, or else they’re almost always followed by a jokey put-down “to make up” for it. “There’s probably something about masculinity there, about not wanting to seem soft,” he says.
Still, just because straight men don’t always compliment others in the same way other demographics do, that doesn’t mean theirs is a worse way. Ian, 28, from London, is a gay man who has a different outlook on all this. “When a straight man compliments me, I feel like I listen to it more because they’re more sparing,” he tells me. “So it’s like they’ve really thought about it, or really mean it. It feels more genuine.” It may also be true that, in groups of women and/or gay men, there can be more of a Regina George-style “I love your skirt!” passive-aggressive fake complimenting going on, maybe even just out of habit. But that’s another story for another day).
Of course, a lot of this is anecdotal, and depends on the specific people involved. But without sounding all “won’t somebody please think of the straight men!”, if we’ve learned one thing, it’s that straight men may very well need compliments just as much as the rest of us. So if a compliment crosses your mind, be sure to say it out loud. Or maybe just send the occasional flame emoji Insta-story reply their way – there’s no bigger dopamine boost than that, after all.