“I like your shirt, Jeannette!” a young woman in town calls whenever she sees me walking the dog. In winter, it was, “I like your coat, Jeannette!” If we are standing close enough to chat, she says, “I like your earrings, Jeannette!” Our exchanges feel like badminton, me leaping up to whack a compliment back over the net to her, because compliments beg for reciprocity. But the game is happy and benign, and it causes me to look more closely at her, notice the bright lavenders and hot pinks she prefers, see how pretty her wavy hair is. The strategy she was probably taught as a way of smoothing social interactions is helping me, too, keeping me alert, attentive, appreciative.
That part I like, but the compliments themselves make me cringe. They are so frequent and automatic that they can carry only good intentions, no real content. Why does that disappoint me? I worry, too, that my return compliments sound fake, having been so hastily crafted. But my words seem to wash right over her—she is just glad for the exchange—which is far healthier than my conflicted self-scrutiny.
Another woman, this one a brilliant writer, gives compliments just as lavishly. A mutual friend and I cracked up when she could find nothing to remark upon and, wild-eyed, landed on “What a great belt buckle!” Her compliments send me into even more of a tizzy, because I hate myself for wanting to believe words so obviously mustered up. The brass does have a nice polish….
Compliments are an art, an instrument, and, these days, a sticky wicket. Gushing “What a beautiful little girl!” is discouraged, because society’s hyperfocus on appearance threw so many girls into anorexia or suicidal insecurity. The swaggering “Nice ass” and all its polished C-suite equivalents have been banished. Piercing wolf whistles no longer cut through traffic below a construction site. And we are growing a little savvier about empty flattery, more wary of being conned or manipulated.
I do wish we could redefine beauty instead. I would like to feel free to tell any child—girl or boy—that they are beautiful, meaning a joy to look at. I can say that with sincerity to any child who is not pulling wings off flies. It would be nice to be able to tell young men or women that they look fine, fresh and strong and clear-eyed, without reducing them to objects. I miss the warm exchanges that were once possible in the workplace—“Nice suit,” “Great haircut”—because venturing into the personal does just that, makes us persons to one another, not just brains on feet. How did we ruin all this?
A good compliment can seduce, manipulate, reciprocate, train, reward, ingratiate, support, start a conversation. In one study, forty-eight people were taught finger-tapping exercises. Some were praised for their performance; some had to listen while others were praised for their performance; some heard no praise at all. Those who were praised for their own performance were better able to consolidate what they had learned, remember, and improve. Why? Because praise activates the striatum, a buzzy little reward center in the front of the brain, and thus boosts learning. No wonder we crave it.
Why, then, are there so few lists of classic compliments? I have taken to collecting witty insults, and Dorothy Parker dealt out some doozies, even to herself: “As a source of entertainment, conviviality, and good fun, she ranks somewhere between a sprig of parsley and a single ice-skate.” Shakespeare specialized in slurs: “you starvelling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish!” “I am reading Henry James,” Virginia Woolf wrote, “and feel myself as one entombed in a block of smooth amber.” Teddy Roosevelt called poor Henry “a little emasculated mass of inanity.” Oscar Wilde drawled of some chap (I hope not Henry), “He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends.”
Compliments tend to be less clever. We praise famous men. We praise God routinely. Erasmus praised folly. Women praise one another’s appearance twice as often as men do. We praise dogs to train them, and it works far better than a rolled-up newspaper. Yet studies are consistent: About seventy-five percent of all compliments are about appearance, with only five or six percent falling into categories of performance, ability, taste, or possessions. Our praise is formulaic, and about two-thirds of compliments containing adjectives use the words nice, good, pretty, great, or beautiful.
I remind myself to come up with more creative compliments. My real problem, though, is responding to compliments, which I often bat away as if they are furred demons that will roost in my hair. We have four basic choices: Agree and explain, “I love it too—my best friend brought it back from India for me!” Doubt and thank: “You think so? Oh, good.” Thank and return: “Oh, thanks, I love yours too!” Or thank and downgrade: “Glad you like it. I still can’t quite seem to get it right, but….”
I live in that last category. Maybe because my sweet mother gave out compliments like she was throwing candy from a parade float, and I grew to distrust their accuracy. Maybe because, watching people relax and grow expansive in the glow of her compliments, I realized how desperate we all are for praise, and this made me shudder. Only now do I see how rude it is to take a kind and generous compliment and beat it up, prove it false, smear it with suspicion, mock it with some wry deflection. One day, instead of babbling about a fantastic sale or my broad hips, I will be brave enough to say, “Oh, I’m so glad you like it—I splurged, because I thought it suited me.”
I am not alone, though: In one study, sixty-eight percent of participants associated recognition with embarrassment. We recoil from praise because it raises expectations that we will do, be, or appear even better the next time; because we are taught that we should not seek or enjoy praise; because we are not sure how to respond; because the praise does not match our own appraisal, so we do not believe it; because the compliment is a nervous-making reminder that we are being observed and assessed.
I have been guilty of all of that, and so self-absorbed that I forget a compliment says more about the giver than the receiver. Better to encourage such generosity than to discount it. When something is complimentary, that means it is free.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.