I have a co-worker who’s brilliant at giving compliments. She has a way of packing extra helpings of nice into every positive comment she makes. She once said to me, “Your hair looks especially great today!” Especially great. Not only is it a compliment for the hair on that particular day, but the implication is that, in order for hair to be especially great, it has to be great to start with, so it’s really a compliment for the hair every day! Wow. I’m continually impressed by the kind and thoughtful things this woman says. And she says these types of things regularly.
Given how impressed I am with someone who so adeptly compliments, you might assume that I myself am out there showering friends and colleagues with praise, but I’m not, and it’s a shame.
Who doesn’t love a well-placed compliment? On the kind of banner crap day where I just want to walk around with a reusable nylon grocery bag over my head, I actually count compliments (I’m not wildly insecure, but on a banner crap day you might not know it). A kind remark can really affect the direction of a day, and theoretically, life.
So why is it so hard to compliment well?
I think nice thoughts about people all the time, but I far too infrequently remember to say them out loud, or if I do say them, I fear they come out vague or nonspecific.
So I’ve been studying compliments lately. I’ve been paying attention to compliments that make me feel really great, I’ve been giving more compliments, and I’ve considered why some compliments don’t feel as great as others. What I’ve come up with from this brief, informal, and wholly anecdotal research are a few tips for meaningfully complimenting others and making them feel better about themselves; a worthy resolution for the new year “¦ even if it is the end of March.
Start somewhere. As I mentioned, I have plenty of nice things to say about others. I’m not some parsimonious snoot who begrudges people their good looks, outfits, talents, and traits. It’s just getting the words from my brain to my mouth that’s the problem. So to remedy this, I’ve taken a little advice from Jessica Stein’s mother, who reminds us that waiting to do something the “best ever” can result in missing out on some pretty terrific moments. Instead of waiting for the opportunity to give the perfect compliment (the kind of compliment my co-worker gives, the kind I aspire to), I’ve instead just started pouncing on any semi-appropriate compliment moment and going for it. And I’ve given some awkward compliments. “You smell good, what is that?” (Uh, more context would have been helpful.) As well as some solid compliments. “You look great! That skirt is fantastic on you!” (Nailed it!) Having made a new habit out of turning nice thoughts into words, however imperfectly, I’ve found that, most of the time, even in my awkward compliments my meaning is eventually understood and appreciated, and in my solid compliments the recipients immediately light up (so worth it). So, simple as it is, if you’re aiming to be more complimentary to others, consider just making a rule of saying aloud all of the nice (and non-offensive, because, please let’s avoid “Nice boobs” in polite conversation) things that cross your mind.
Be specific. Having tackled the “just spit it out” aspect of complimenting, I turned to which of my compliments came out awkwardly and which came out well. The common thread among my bad compliments (in as much as compliments can actually be bad) was that they were not very specific, which made them seem insincere or incoherent. Take my “You smell good” compliment. What smells good? The recipient’s pheromones (probably too intimate for a networking lunch)? Hair (probably too intimate, and maybe just a compliment on the hair products)? Or, what I was actually getting at, the recipient’s perfume. If I had been more specific, my compliment might have landed better. I wish I had said something along the lines of, “Your perfume is really lovely, is that a new fragrance for you?” This latter compliment would have come across as more sincere and less creepy, generally desirable traits in a compliment. It also points out that a particular effort that the recipient made was taken in and appreciated. Which is exactly what made my more successful compliment (“That skirt is fantastic on you!”) a good choice. The recipient obviously chose the skirt, thought it accentuated her figure, coloring, style, etc. and was probably very glad to know it did! By going beyond just “You look great,” (which, don’t get me wrong, is nice to hear) to identifying what exactly made her look so especially great that day, the recipient hopefully felt noticed . My co-worker is a wiz at this technique. E.g., in the same day I got two compliments about my make-up, one was very nice, and I don’t mean to suggest that I didn’t appreciate it, but it was sort of odd, “Something’s different. Are you wearing make-up? It looks good.” There’s nothing wrong with this. I was wearing make-up, and it did (presumably) look good. But the comment drew attention to the many times I don’t wear make-up. Whereas my compliment superstar co-worker said, “I love what you’ve been doing with your eye make-up. This look really brings out the green in your eyes.” This compliment made me feel as though my efforts (using eye liner for pretty much the first time) were working out, and it made me feel good about my green eyes. A perfect example of the apex of compliments, the double compliment, or doubliment.
Don’t limit your praise to people you know well. Knowing you can give a compliment, and give it well, consider who you’ll lavish these compliments upon. It’s important to build-up your friends and family, but also taking time to boost acquaintances and co-workers can be a great way to reveal something about yourself, which can in turn help you develop the relationship from acquaintance or co-worker to friend. Presuming you’re not someone who says things like, “What do I need new friends for? I already have eight friends,” and that you enjoy developing relationships with people, this can be a helpful way to interact. In addition, to get a little crunchy for a minute, you can put some good stuff out into the world by complimenting complete strangers. How great does it feel when someone you’ve never met and who doesn’t appear to be trying to pick you up (do people still say that, “pick up”?) says something nice as she or he passes you on the street? To be honest, this doesn’t happen to me very often, but it has happened, and it feels so great! Like you’ve connected with that person, which makes you feel like we’re all connected “¦ am I reading too much into this? In any case, knowing how uplifting it is to get a compliment from a stranger, why withhold compliments from strangers? Just as I have nice thoughts about people I know, I have nice thoughts about people I don’t know: I want that girl’s boots; that guy’s eyewear is enviably retro; that family looks really fun; that presenter’s message spoke to me; etc. So I now aim to just say, “I love your boots,” to the stranger in front of me at the market, and to approach the speaker at a conference to say, “Thanks for your presentation, the topic was well-chosen and your information was interesting and easy to understand.”
Observe and repeat. I basically picked up all of my information on complimenting well by emulating people who compliment well. And I recommend the same tutorial to you: pay attention to the compliments others give, select what you like, and do the same thing. It’s really simple, but that doesn’t mean most of us will do it.
Learn to take a compliment. Once you’ve mastered giving compliments, learn how to take one. This is tough for many of us. I personally feel compelled to reveal waaaay too much information in response to a simple compliment like, “That dress is cute.” “Oh, thanks! I found it in a clearance bin for $13. $13! Dresses are so easy to wear, and of course I hate myself in pants, so this is a good item for me “¦ this is only my second time wearing it and I wasn’t sure about it, so I’m glad you said something “¦” See where I’m going? About halfway through that mess the complimenter is wishing she’d never said anything. I especially have a hard time accepting a compliment for something I don’t myself like. If someone says to me, “You’re growing your hair out, I love it long!” Since my hair is only long when I don’t know what else to do with it, left to my own devices, I’m likely to say, “Seriously? I hate long hair.”
My mother used to advise that when receiving a compliment one should just say, “Thank you,” and leave it at that. But that’s never felt quite natural to me. I agree that exploding into a verbal paroxysm, like I’m naturally inclined to do, is not the way to go, and I know that getting a compliment shouldn’t create a feeling of obligation to give one (especially if that compliment will go against the policies of specific complimenting and observe and repeat), but “Thank you” seems insufficient sometimes. So what I like doing instead is expressing (BRIEFLY) why I’m thankful for the compliment. For a really great compliment a simple, “Thanks, that made my day!” can go a long way. For complimenters like my exceptional co-worker, saying, “You give such amazing compliments, thank you!” is appropriate. Even just, “That’s really kind of you to say, thank you,” is more meaningful to me than just “Thanks”. Whichever route you choose, try to avoid saying what I said when I first received a compliment for my make-up experiment. It went something like, “Really? Thank you! I’ve never really known how to put on make-up, I mean, I’ve worn make-up before, since 7th grade or something, but I’ve never really mastered it, you know? Anyway, I got this free subscription to Glamour Magazine and they have really good make-up tips. I’ve been reading the ‘Paint by Numbers’ column where, for example, each step of the smoky eye is demonstrated. I think I’m getting the hang of it, but my eyes are really itchy right now. I love buying make-up, it’s almost a compulsion, but then it just sits in a drawer and I’m thinking, how many tubes of mascara can one person own?! Especially when I don’t even really wear mascara that much “¦ uh, what was the question?” AAHHHHCK. Somebody stop me. “Thank you” would be better than that.
Others might observe you, so set a good example. As I frequently say, be the change you want to see in the world, wear cuter pants. (By the way, telling you to wear cuter pants is not a compliment, but we’ll talk about when and how to properly insult another time.)
For now, go forth, compliment and be complimented.
Image Source: Flimsy the Kitten