DEAR AMY: I am a young woman whose physical appearance is occasionally the subject of comment or "compliment" by men (strangers). Random men sometimes stop me and directly "compliment" me on my appearance while I am walking to work, driving, or in an elevator. It is unwanted attention and it feels creepy to be observed and commented upon by (often older) men whom I do not know. How should I respond to these so-called compliments? If I reply with a curt "Thank you" or "That's nice of you" it will only affirm the male gaze and encourage these people to continue commenting on the physical appearance of random women. If I say something like "Um ... OK?" or "Leave me alone" this will (and has) incited a verbal altercation (or more awkward, unwanted attention). When I've ignored the comments altogether, I've been shouted at: "You're supposed to say, 'Thank you' when you get a compliment!" I feel like any response that's not "thank you" will likely be received with misplaced indignation or even verbal threats. How should I respond to these unwanted interactions in a way that will discourage men (because it's always men) from continuing to comment on my physical appearance and not bring me further unwanted attention?
No Good Options
DEAR NO GOOD: I don't know any woman who genuinely wants to receive a "compliment" from a stranger when she is on her way to work, carrying her groceries, out for a run, or minding her own business on an elevator.
Sometimes, these unwelcome remarks and veiled "compliments" can lead to threats (or worse), and women who receive them have nanoseconds to somehow decode the moment and figure out which response will garner them less unwanted attention.
Remember that when you are on an elevator, you are basically trapped in a locked box until you arrive at your destination. In that case, I think you should say a noncommittal, "Thanks," and immediately reach over and press the button to the nearest floor to exit from the encounter. This polite response and abrupt exit may send the message that you don't wish to engage further — and that you refuse to reward the remark with your ongoing presence.
Otherwise, I vote for ignoring. If a man responds by aggressively calling you out by yelling, "You're supposed to say, 'Thank you!'" you could try responding, "I know I'm attractive. Thank you ... for leaving me alone."
I'll welcome reader response.
DEAR AMY: A few years ago, my husband and I traveled out of the country with some friends. They had invited other couples who joined us during the journey — some we knew, some we met. It was a very pleasant experience. The original friends have now asked us to travel with them again. However, they have informed us that they have also invited a couple that we've only met once or twice, and to be honest, we can't see spending a lengthy vacation with them. How do we politely tell our friends that we do not want to travel with this other couple? If it causes a problem, we will gladly bow out.
Traveling With Friends
DEAR TRAVELING: You are not welcome to tell these friends that you don't want to travel with the other couple. You are being invited to join the group, as is. You are not invited to weigh in on the structure of the group, or to express your personal preferences regarding other invitees.
It sounds as if you don't want to accept this invitation. You can respond: "Wow, it is so nice of you to invite us this year. We really appreciate it. Unfortunately, we won't be able to go, but we hope you have a wonderful time."
DEAR AMY: "Need Closure" is a woman who described falling in love with another woman during an overseas mission trip. Obviously, this all happened outside the bounds of her (heterosexual) marriage. Amy, I don't get why you affirm this sort of infidelity. Not to mention the fact that this apparently gay woman has been lying to her husband about her sexuality. You are way too easy on people.
DEAR UPSET: "Need Closure" did not describe being unfaithful, only having a very strong attraction and "falling in love" with this other woman. She did not act on it and the other woman was not aware of it.
Sometimes, affirming the validity of another person's experience is the best way to inspire them to dig deep and explore their own behavior and motivations.