"The Five Phrases That Win Him Over"

By Martin Kihn
1 June 1999
Cosmopolitan

The way to a man's heart is through his ego. Here's why flattery will get you everywhere--if you know how to suck up with style.

You want to know what really makes me squirm? What takes the words out of my mouth and makes me wish you'd never opened yours? A compliment.

I'm serious. Ask any guy and he'll agree that a single well-aimed compliment makes him more uncomfortable than a barrage of insults.

First, men just don't get a lot of compliments. We inhabit a world where most bosses studied management with Attila the Hun. Most parents stop about 15 miles south of "Your mother and I love you unconditionally, son." And our buddies ... insults are our Esperanto. My friend John, 32, is a demographer, and he once tried to tally an insult-to-compliment ratio at our weekly guys' night out. After an hour, he threw in the towel. Compliments: zero.

It's a cliche, but it's true--we men are out of touch with our feelings, says Steve Wilson, a Columbus, Ohio, psychologist. We have 50,000 years of training and biology telling us not to flinch when we're imperiled. We're so geared up for defense that when confronted with outright acts of kindness, we don't know how to deal.

Bottom line: Men don't like compliments. But we need them. We're every bit as insecure as you--more so if the constant barrage of Rogaine ads is any indication. And we're even more starved for feedback after years when a punch on the shoulder meant "Good game" or even "I love you, son." We want the strokes. We just can't deal with them. So here are five areas where you can make him feel good--without making him feel awkward.

Clothes

"I was dating this woman who said things like `That outfit really goes together' or `You're really well-coordinated today,'" says Danny, 28. "I sort of assumed she was being sarcastic, so she ended up offending me. After we broke up, I heard through the grapevine that she meant it--she really did think my outfits hung together."

Men are born with a sarcasm detector so sensitive, it reads positive pretty much all the time (part of the biology Wilson mentioned). Here's a general rule we live by' the bigger the compliment, the bigger the sarcasm. Say "nice suit" and we hear "nice suit ... you wish."

So think small. Even if you like the whole package, pick one area to compliment. And don't make it too big: "I kind of like that tie" has less chance of setting off the sarcasm detector than "I love your style."

There's one area where the less-is-more rule doesn't apply. I'll always have a place in my heart for the coworker who took a peek at my new $500 Hugo Boss jacket and said, "That looks expensive." Why do you think I bought it?

Looks

So your guy's a hottie, and you want to let him know. You can't exactly gaze dreamily into his eyes and say, "Your orbs are like two limpid pools of water." The direct approach--e.g., "You're hot"--will probably make him (a) spit out his soup in surprise or (b) wonder if you want to borrow money. Even in the '90s, most guys are scared by that kind of directness.

Carlos, 32, is chiseled and has the taut dancer's body women respond to. "I don't think about my looks a lot," he says. "Still, it really bothers me when a woman says `You're handsome' straight out. It's not only embarrassing, it makes me think, Is that the only thing she cares about?"

Another caveat: Never tell a guy he looks like somebody famous. A girl once told me I look like Eric Stoltz--a problem, given how I feel about Mr. Stoltz's looks.

Solution: Again, less is more. Says Carlos, "I went out with a girl once who said, 'I like your eyebrows.' Something about that was really endearing." If you don't feel like picking out a detail and blowing it up, try an even more indirect approach: Ask a friend to tell the guy "She always brags about how handsome you are.' He'll believe that.

Manners

Actions speak louder than words, and if you like the way a guy treats you, you're a long way toward liking the inner guy. But unless he's (a) from a wealthy family or (b) English, odds are, he's self-conscious about his manners.

"One time, I was at a fancy pasta restaurant with a date," recalls Donald, 30. "We both ordered the garlic spaghetti, and apparently, she was impressed with how I used the pasta fork and how I made a point of offering her a breath mint after dinner. She said, `Your mother must've taught you well.' I felt like she was calling me a mama's boy."

Solution: Make judicious use of comparisons. I personally love it when a woman I'm with points to some drunken loud-ass in a bar and whispers, "You would never do anything like that." I held the door open for a girl once, and she complimented me by saying her ex never used to hold the door for her. Not only did I like the compliment, but she never had to open a door around me again.

Achievements

"A lot of my self-esteem is tied up in my job," admits Scott, 28, a computer animator. "So I get really touchy when I think someone passes judgment--good or bad--on aspects of what I do. There was one woman I'd been dating for two weeks who said, `You're lucky you have such a great job.' It backfired, because what I heard her saying was it was all luck and not hard work."

Whether it's a high-powered job or a home shrine stacked with Olympic gold, certain achievements call for compliments. Ironically, you'll have better luck complimenting a guy's little achievements (a noble effort) than the big ones (a Nobel Prize). I have a friend, Todd, 29, who is a recurring character on an ABC sitcom. "It sounds gross, but I get so many compliments about my acting on the show, I don't know whom to believe," he says. "So for the sake of my sanity, I discount them all."

Don't forget, you don't need words to pay a compliment. Just listening can be the biggest compliment of all. If you're impressed with a guy's job, ask him about it. "Tell me more about what you do." After a while, he can't help but feel flattered.

Sex

Talking in bed is like walking on the moon--it seems like fun at first, but it's a long way back to Earth. The only words a guy really wants to hear in the sack are Oh, my God! or his name at full throttle like a siren. Besides, we more or less expect you to say things like "That was great" or even "Wow!" It's supposed to feel great; that's why we're doing it.

But what if you have a special groove going--you've just had the kind of mind-blowing sex you haven't seen outside your VCR and you want to let him know? Says Carlos, "I had the greatest sex with this girl once--and afterward, she just turned to me and gave me a thumbs-up. That was a lot more genuine than all the girls who say `That was so incredible,' and you never hear from them again."

Four-alarm compliments sound phony in bed. A genuine smile means a lot more than a bunch of fake baying at the moon. That said, the bedroom is one place where you can pay a guy the ultimate compliment, the kind that can't be misconstrued. You can say "Let's do that again?

He'll hear that compliment.

ILLUSTRATION: portrait CAPTION: 5 Magic Words