“It is a great mistake for men to give up paying compliments, for when they give up saying what is charming, they give up thinking what is charming.” Oscar Wilde
It comes as no secret that genuine compliments benefit both the giver and receiver. The recipient feels the warm glow of appreciation and endorsement; the complimenter feels the positive benefits of noticing, and appreciating, a good thing – be it behaviour or appearance. Compliments encourage a feeling or reciprocity, of one good turn deserves another. They can be effective at work, where they encourage productivity, and they will oil the wheels of social intercourse, gratifying hosts and guests alike.
Compliments on personal appearance in the workplace are highly contentious, however. In particular, workplace ‘compliments’ from more senior men to women are inappropriate and discomfiting – implying that a woman's success is primarily defined by her appearance. This perception is what continues to hold women back in the workplace, and women would be highly unlikely to reply in kind to men who hold positions of power in the office hierarchy. Of course, amongst colleagues who are also friends, an exchange of compliments is perfectly acceptable.
That said, compliments are freighted with layers of social anxiety and self-consciousness, and some people find them very hard to give or receive. There is a fine line between a genuine compliment and flattery. The latter is a self-serving compliment, designed to gratify the recipient to such an extent that they feel in some way beholden to the flatterer. The fear that words of praise or approval could be mistaken for fawning or flattery is enough, for some people, to deter them from ever uttering an innocent compliment.
So how do you get it right?
• Compliments are much better when they are sincere. We have all been guilty of complimenting something that we actually do not really like, or over-complimenting, but there is a real risk that the recipient will detect the insincerity and recoil from it.
• Be observant and focus your compliment on something specific you have actually noticed. It is much better to say something like “I love that dress – the colour really brings out the blue of your eyes” than “You look nice”.
• Never damn with faint praise (“I’m really surprised by what you’ve managed to throw together”), or give a compliment with one hand and take away with the other.
• Be cautious about very personal remarks, which could refer to weight or health issues, and are best avoided. A remark like “You look so slim – have you lost weight?” could easily be heard not as a compliment, but as a comment on earlier weight issues.
• Don’t be stingy about compliments – the more you give the more naturally they will flow. You will get into the habit of noticing people and making positive comments without any awkwardness.
• Utter the compliment at the moment when you are feeling positive and spontaneous, not as an afterthought, and it will feel more genuine – don’t wait until you are leaving a dinner party to praise the food, for example.
• Recognise and accept that certain compliments, while they may not be utterly heartfelt, are important tools in your social armoury. If you go to someone’s house, eat their food and spend an evening in conversation without uttering a single positive remark (on the décor, the food, the hosts’ appearance, the wine, etc) your hosts will naturally feel they have been found wanting and will interpret your silence as disappointment. You are an unfortunate guest indeed if you can find absolutely nothing worthy of a genuine compliment.
• Use compliments to get the ball rolling. They are an excellent tool in small talk, and an effective way of getting a conversation started. A compliment will ease you over any awkward bumps in the conversation and, if you’re hesitant about offering praise to a person you don’t know, you can always revert to complimenting a third party, eg the host (“These canapés are delicious – Julia always gives such brilliant parties”).
• If you are the recipient of a compliment, smile and say thank you, and do not demur. Try to avoid self-deprecation (“oh this old thing”), which is typically British and can make the person paying you the compliment feel they have done the wrong thing and dent their confidence.
• Don’t receive a compliment as a pretext for boasting (“Oh, do you like it? It’s unique – I got it for next to nothing from this wonderful silversmith I discovered in Rajasthan” etc etc).
• Avoid a kneejerk tendency to downplay the praise you are given. People do this because they are taught to value modesty and don’t want to come across as conceited. But the result can be an undignified dispute with the person who offered the compliment in the first place, who feels obliged to re-affirm the original praise.
• Never interrupt someone who is in the middle of giving you a compliment, as if to indicate that it is no big deal and should be brushed under the carpet. All compliments, no matter how small, are significant and you owe the person who is handing out praise the courtesy of listening graciously.
• Never respond to a compliment by giving a knee-jerk compliment back. The recipient will – rightly – regard it with suspicion.
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