Etiquette: The Art of the Compliment

I, like many other people, have some social anxiety. Here’s the thing: I know I’m awesome. But I’m worried that other people won’t see how awesome I am, and also that I’ll say something dumb/offensive/super-nerdy before everyone has had too much to drink. (I have actually had someone say, “Oh, I forgot how smart you are! It’s adorable.” I felt about six inches tall, though the person meant well.) During my perilous forays into social situations, though, I have found some coping mechanisms. The best one is the compliment.

Complimenting someone shows that you are interested in them, whether that interest lies in their job or their shoes. It also breaks the ice. It can help establish that you have something in common with a stranger, thus building community where there wasn’t one. Most importantly, it sets the other person at ease, which will in turn make them more comfortable talking to you. This is a win-win situation all around.

There are, however, always pitfalls when it comes to compliments. Let me help you out of them right now:

“You look like you’ve lost weight!” Just stop. Stop yourself right there. Beyond the fact that commenting on someone’s weight can be hugely offensive and triggering, it’s pretty intrusive. Someone else’s scale numbers are none of your beeswax, honey, and you should leave them alone. It’s also kind of a boring trait to comment on, and says nothing about the person him or her self. If you comment on someone’s physical appearance, try something like, “Wow! You look great!” I like this better, even though it’s more vague. It says, “Everything about you is fantastic right now!” rather than, “You appear to be skinnier!”

Don’t talk about money. Money is a gauche topic, guys. (I don’t make the rules.) Sure, if you’re in close company, talk about that great deal you got on those fantastic boots. (Please, tell me. I want some boots.) But if you’re with people you don’t know, or at a more formal social event, money talk makes people uncomfortable. Because discussing how or what we paid for something is a middle class taboo. (Again, I don’t make the rules.) So asking, “Wow, great sweater! How much was it?” will make everyone uncomfortable. On the other hand, “I have been looking for a cardigan just like that, but I can’t find one anywhere! Would you mind telling me where you got it?” makes the complimented feel special and like her fashion sense is fantastic. And it avoids the money taboo.

Do be specific if you can. I know I said above, “Wow you look great!” is sufficient, and it is, but try to be specific. “I love how you did your eye shadow! Is there a trick to it?” or “I love your skirt, but how can you keep from twirling in it all night long?” not only is a great compliment, but it keeps the conversation flowing. Which is your main objective.

Don’t be a creeper. Remember how I said to be specific? Keep the specificity to the realm of normal. Commenting on someone’s eye shadow is one thing. Telling them they have beautiful haunting eyes in the first five minutes of acquaintance is quite another thing. It’s weird. Unless you’ve had too much to drink. And then it’s still weird, but everyone will forget by morning. Also, don’t tell anyone how smooth their skin looks. Or they’ll be afraid you’re thinking about making them into a human suit. Remember this rule: Specific, but surface, and you’ll be fine. I promise.

So go forth and spread compliments like flowers. And please. Tell me where you got those boots. I covet them.

By amandamarieg

Amandamarieg is a lawyer who does not work as a lawyer. She once wrote up a plan to take over the world and turned it in as a paper for a college course. She only received an A-, because she forgot that she would need tech geeks to pull off her scheme.

3 replies on “Etiquette: The Art of the Compliment”

It’s so easy, but somehow still easier to keep mum and run. Can I add “Don’t touch while complimenting”?

For example: my curly hair can be braided without using bands to keep the braid in. My boss marvels over this. And every time she says “I just love how it stays put like that!” she lifts my braids. It’s annoying and definitely into creeper-hood. Complimenting can be done without any touching, really.

Freckle – I get you. SO much. My hair is curly like that, and I get hands in my hair all the time. I don’t know why people feel like they can put their hands in my face or hair, but they do.

And for years, as a kid, I had no idea that other kids had to have barrettes at the ends of their braids to keep them in…I had barrettes but lost them from time to time and it was no big deal. Thank God for curls! :)

My rule of thumb for compliments is the same as my rule of thumb for insults – always make it about something they chose, never about how they naturally are. That way it’s about the person, not about something over which they had no control. I’d much rather be told I have excellent taste in boots than that my genetics have given me pretty eyes, just as I’d rather be picked on for my love of bluegrass than because I have ginger hair.

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