What I’m Learning About Compliments

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Google calls this stock image of a compliment “Businessman and businesswoman shaking hands at conference table.” Nice work, Google image namers!

I started a project last week called Monday Compliment. I’d grown weary of the rancor on social media, and thought that giving people compliments on Facebook might be a way to alleviate some of the negativity. I decided to focus my compliments on one day, Monday, traditionally the least looked-forward-to day of the week. I launched a site, Monday Compliment, with a stock photo and a blurb. I posted a few compliments to Facebook friends and got some friendly responses.

I have to give credit for this idea to my mother, the great Nina Boudinot. She worked as a school counselor for many years and became adept at de-escalating conflicts between grade school kids. The most intense conflicts, as one can easily imagine, were those between girls. One of my mom’s strategies with two girls who were at each others’ throats was to sit them down and have them each give each other a compliment. This technique worked wonders.

It makes you feel vulnerable to give somebody a compliment, I realized. Really, truly, complimenting somebody is a small but powerful act of love, and it’s harder to be sincere than flippant. Complimenting somebody requires more of you than putting someone down. It means that you have to recognize something good in someone else and acknowledge it. Why does this sometimes seem so hard to do? Maybe it has something to do with how invested we become in our own grievances, our own sense of deserving more adulation than we get. Maybe we feel that we’re owed more recognition than we get from the people in our lives, and as an aggressive counter measure to this perceived imbalance, we withhold our own recognition of other people.

I complimented my girlfriend, my mom, my brother and sister. These compliments were easy to give. I love them and my relationships with them already involve telling them what I feel about them. Then there were long-time friends who I complimented. I thought about what qualities I admired about them. This forced me to reflect on my friends by focusing on their most redeeming qualities. This made me feel really good. I liked imagining the good feelings they got when they read my compliment.

Then there are the friends I don’t know as well. It felt riskier giving them compliments. I imagined them encountering my compliment on their Facebook feed and thinking that I was being a weirdo.

I also started to realize there are different levels of compliments. On the most superficial level, compliments are about external things–what people wear, how handsome they are. Who doesn’t like to get one of these kinds of compliments? We love to hear positive things about how we look. These kinds of compliments give us short bursts of energy.

The next level of compliments are those related to what we do. A “great job!” from one’s boss always makes us feel better. Compliments related to our achievements go a long way. Here’s one of the best compliments I have ever gotten, from one of my heroes, Tom Robbins. “Ryan, you’ve got more ideas in your new novel than most writers have in their entire careers!” That compliment made me explode with happiness, and it still does. I can still think about that compliment that Tom gave me three years ago and it still makes me feel good. A well-phrased compliment from someone you admire can feed you for years, or even over a lifetime. I’m still comforted by compliments I got from friends, my parents, and teachers when I was a child.

There are compliments about how we look and compliments about what we achieve, but the greatest compliments are those that are about who we are. Our character. These are the compliments that touch us most deeply. They reinforce the aspects of our personalities that we admire most about ourselves. It’s easier to give this kind of compliment to somebody we’re closer to. It seems kind of creepy to give this kind of compliment to somebody we don’t know so well.

The journey of getting to know another person proceeds from noticing what they look like to learning about what they do to understanding who they are. Compliments are a way of recognizing the best qualities of the people in our lives, and they form little bridges to our own best qualities. The most interesting part of this little project for me has been discovering how much better it makes me feel to compliment other people. And after establishing a somewhat arbitrary day on which I plan to make it a habit to compliment people, Monday, I found that I spent the other six days of the week thinking ahead to the compliments I planned to give. This made me think about all the good qualities of the people I know. It made me shift my perspective and filter my relationships through a frame of what I appreciate most about them. And in this way, I think I’ve come up with a little, simple way to become a better person myself.