How to Give Good Compliments

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All compliments are good. OK, the backhanded ones suck, but I trust you’re not running around dishing those out.  My impression is that the majority of compliments given and received in this world are earnest and well-intentioned, and I think of them as tiny, self-generated miracles. Never underestimate the transformative power of a compliment, my friends. Just about every time you tell another human being, “Hey! I like you, and I like what you’re doing,” you’re changing that person’s life for the better, even if they don’t yet realize it. Every time you muster up the courage to praise another person, you’re doing the world a service by bolstering that person’s confidence and self-esteem.

The style blogging world is a giant sea of compliments, as you can imagine. I estimate that I’ve issued about 50,000 compliments to my fellow bloggers over the years – no lie – and I imagine I’ve racked up similarly impressive compliment stats for myself right here. Yet it was only recently that I began to consider tweaking how I issued my compliments. I realized that what I wanted to compliment was the PERSON, not the object, and that subtle turns of phrase could help me achieve that goal.

If a friend says, “You look lovely today,” I assume she is being extremely sweet and going out of her way to praise me. But I know that compliments in that vein can sometimes be construed as comparative, leaving the recipient wondering, “As opposed to other days, when I look a mess?” I’ve never felt that way myself, but know it’s one interpretation. Saying, “You look particularly lovely today,” or “You look even lovelier than usual today,” sweeps away any doubts.

“I love your new haircut,” will bolster anyone’s confidence, but “Your new haircut is so chic/flattering/perfect on you” relates the compliment more directly to its recipient. It’s not just the haircut you’re digging, it’s how that ‘do looks on its new owner.

The model I struggle with is the simple garment-focused compliment. “That blouse looks amazing on you,” seems like a fantastic thing to say to someone, but the focus is mainly on the blouse, not the wearer. “You look amazing in that blouse,” shifts the focus to wearer, but could imply that the blouse is doing some much-needed heavy lifting. Either model is likely to prompt a positive response, so I’m probably just over-thinking this one.

Again, any compliment offered in good faith will boost your karma, guaranteed. None of these examples is anything but beneficial, and all genuine compliments constitute acts of praise-worthy kindness. But if your goal is to make sure the recipient feels your praise as directly as possible, it can help to phrase your compliment to focus on the person instead of trappings, actions, or peripheral issues.

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  • This is interesting. I can’t think of a situation where i’ve worried about a complimetn, but I do worry that maybe sometimes people misunderstand the compliments I give when I go off on a random tangent in a comment.

    Actually, I do remember one time when I was given a strange compliment byt one of boyfriendpartnerfiancee Dave’s mates. He was saying ‘you look really healthly’ and I was like ‘what, fat?’ and he went, ‘no, you know, glowing’ and I was like ‘what, pregnant?’. It was all in good humour though, I knew he was being genuine, justs didn’t know the secret phrasing rules of compliments.

  • Great post — we could all use a few more friendly words. For a garment-based compliment, I find it really nice when someone says something like, “I like your shoes. You always wear such cute shoes!” or “That’s a great dress, and it’s so ‘Laura.'” Then the compliment recognizes the garment, but also recognizes my role in choosing and styling it!

  • winding ways

    How about “that color looks amazing on you” or “you really rock that blouse.” Either emphasizes that you and the fashion item are a team.

  • I love this subject! For some reason, I often get compliments from strangers on my stuff (usually my glasses or my yellow Fluevog boots :)), so I don’t parse the wording too much. If I genuinely am in love with a stranger’s coat/shoes/bag/glasses/scarf, I’ll also tell them – but, again, I think in this case wording is a little less prone to analysis because of the unexpected quality of the compliment. With friends? Now that I read this, I’m definitely going to see what kind of impact my words may have when closely looked into…

    • Those random comments from a stranger can be so cool. When I give them, I usually say, “I love your earrings/boots/bag. What a great choice!” Which seems to imply less that I want to roll the gal for her fashion accessory, and more that I applaud her style.

  • I wonder about this one constantly. It’s so easy to complicate matters and over analyze but I believe that an earnest compliment will come across exactly as the complimenter intended even if she/he went about giving one in a clumsy manner.
    My problem lies mostly in the fact that society has come to expect compliments for most occasions. They’ve become a sort of opening gambit to every social interaction and faced with nothing good to say we resort to some meh compliments that don’t fool anyone.
    I’ve recently done a post on the topic of negative comments in the blogosphere, a place that has, in my opinion, become just way too insincere and all too eager to produce agreeable catchphrases without any depth:
    http://catspajamas-dogstuxedos.blogspot.com/2011/07/blogger-culture-dealing-with-negative.html

  • eek

    You know, since I’ve stopped lurking and started leaving comments on people’s blogs I have found that even complimenting someone in real life is easier. I try my best to focus on how the person looks in the clothes rather than the clothes itself, like you suggested. But my favorite thing to do these days is to tell a complete stranger that I love her dress/hair/shoes. 🙂

  • “Any compliment offered in good faith will boost your karma, guaranteed” This is the heart of the matter, and so well said.

  • Bubu

    Great topic! I had a recent insight on compliments, which I will try to pass on. I’ve worked for years to accept them graciously, and just say “thank you” becuase nothing irks me more than when I compliment someone and they argue and be-labor or denegrate it or themselves (“this old thing” “ugh, i look horrid”) – I feel it insults the compliment giver and kind of drags out the process, which is also not good. I recently also realized I have a tendency to degrade myself in giving a compliment, e.g. “you look great! i could never wear/ get away with that”. Here again, it takes the focus away from the compliment receiver, who now feels obligated to boost the giver’s confidence rather than bask in the nice words. So i’ve been trying to reform both how I give and receive compliments to make sure the spirit stays positive and the focus on the right person. Hope that makes sense. Thanks for raising the topic, we can all use a little more giving and receiving of kind, complimentary words!

  • My mom on my wedding day (bad marriage, great party): “Wow, you look so pretty WHEN YOU WEAR MAKEUP”….a bridesmaid nearly decked her. Of course, my grandma once spoke to my mom, referencing me, and said “Her cheeks aren’t nearly as fat as they used to be.”

    Semi-related flip side…I’ve told the current BF (much better than the ex from the big white dress day) that he SHOULD tell me if we are shopping and I try on something that isn’t working. But I suggested a phrase like “That just doesn’t flatter you” or the like. Honesty, but in context.

  • Michelle

    On the always touchy subject of weight, I’m getting stressed out by compliments, lately.

    I had a baby 2 months ago (It didn’t go anywhere. I still have it. ‘Had a baby is an odd phrase, isn’t it?) and am hearing things like, “You have your figure back already!” which feels good somewhat, but also crappy, because I was just pregnant! I lost 40 pounds in water weight, I didn’t DO anything. Except breastfeed. And it makes me feel like I need to pay attention to my body’s shape, rather than the important things I need it to do right now.

  • adelfa

    My boss tells me repeatedly how much I’ve grown. The first time or two I think it was okay. At this point I wish she’d stop it and come into the present and just say how I’m doing now without referring to a less desirable past. This has caused me to run my compliments through an editor to make sure I’m not doing the same thing. Sometimes it’s harder than you might think.

    Also, I’d just as soon not hear comments when I lose weight!

    My favorite recent compliment: “You always look put together.” I loved this because I think of myself as ungirly, unstylish, and unaccessorized, and always struggling to be different!

  • I can’t help but feel like this is over analyzing complement giving. I know that in the fashion blogosphere there are a lot of insincere complements. But I also think that women can frequently be very mean, intentionally or unintentionally, to each other. Especially when it comes to fashion, weight, and style. We feel like we are in competition with each other all of the time. I think the most important thing about a complement is that it doesn’t expect anything in return.
    I’ve had plenty of strangers and co-workers complement my clothing and style. The other day a group of girls in the bathroom at a bar stopped to tell me ‘Shorty, you are looking FIERCE.’ Which is nice to hear from someone who doesn’t know me, and doesn’t have anything to ‘gain’ from telling me I look good.

  • I lost 20 lbs last year and I got a lot of “oh, you’ve lost *so* much weight.’ Which was always meant, as far as I could tell, as a well-intentioned compliment but often made me think, “Uh, so how fat did you think I was before?”

    My favorite backfiring compliment, however, as evidenced by the fact that I remember it almost 30 years later, was this. When I was 19 or 20, my workplace had an employee appreciation event in the bar of a nice hotel. The 20-something daughter of one of the women I worked with joined us there. The next day my co-worker could not wait to tell me how her daughter had gushed about how absolutely stunning I would be if I were dressed and made up right and could not understand why I was not flattered. “So my dress was hideous and I don’t know how to do my makeup?” [Note: ealy 80s, probably both true ;)] “No, no, she just thought you’re so pretty…”

  • Katie

    If I feel truly compelled to compliment someone’s looks or clothing, I try to focus on complimenting their taste — “That skirt is super-flattering on you,” and sometimes with a side of where-can-I-get-some-of-that, “Wherever did you find such amazing shoes?”. But really, I’ve been trying to focus compliments to girls and women these days on how they think, not how they look. This article made my day a while ago: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-bloom/how-to-talk-to-little-gir_b_882510.html

    • Heh, I linked to the same article below. I should have read through the comments here first. 🙂

  • Diana

    I actually had to teach myself to accept compliments gracefully (rather than in an embarrassed or apologetic way), I think because I am quite shy and a compliment showed a degree of attention that I was not necessarily always comfortable with. I have mostly gotten over it by now and even like it, , and I think I also give compliments more freely now. I dress in a noticeable way and so I get compliments/comments on my clothes a lot. I don’t really parse people’s comments very much, although I *definitely* replay my own comments over and over in my head, hoping that they conveyed what I think they conveyed.

  • Anne

    Wow, this is an interesting post. I guess my first thought on the subject would be give compliments from a sincere place. If you don’t really like Betty’s dress, focus on Betty herself. I always prefer a compliment about me, rather than about how I look or what I’m wearing.

    Here’s an interesting angle: while doing my teacher training a hundred years ago, I was told never to compliment girls on their appearance (I taught secondary) but rather on their efforts or performance. The idea being to cultivate the mind and not put emphasis on the superficial. It was hard advice to follow, especially because some girls just really needed to know and feel that yes, they were pretty. Sometimes pretty is the armor that gets one through the day.

  • I have a problem with ACCEPTING compliments. When people say “That’s such a great [insert accessory or article of clothing] I don’t say ‘thank you,’ because they’re not complimenting me. They’re complimenting an inanimate object. I usually respond with, “I know! Isn’t it great?” But then I don’t get any more compliments from that person based on my air of superiority..”

    And my poor sister-in-law has an adopted baby. People are always coming up and saying how cute the baby is. She can’t say “Thank you.” She has to say, “I know.” It has nothing to do with her that her baby is cute, but people don’t know that.

    • When I posted last month on how to pay compliments, I received lots of replies from women saying how hard they found it to receive compliments graciously! I have a hard time with this myself, so it shouldn’t have been so surprising.

      That’s really interesting about the baby; I’ve never thought about it that way. Though I would definitely say you don’t have to contribute the genes to accept the compliment. The baby can’t say thank you for herself, so it’s almost like she’s accepting the compliment on the baby’s behalf? Maybe? Does that work?

      • “Though I would definitely say you don’t have to contribute the genes to accept the compliment.”

        Anne, I do agree with you here. That is a lovely way to think of it. We have adopted and I used to stumble on this one myself but now I simply reply with a thank you and “He is, isn’t he?” in a friendly tone.

        • I have a baby boy who is biologically mine, but I still think it’s weird to say “thanks!” when people compliment him. I can’t exactly take responsibility for his unique genetic make-up – it was entirely outside my control! So I usually say, “He is adorable, huh? I’m sure he’d say thanks … if his verbal skills were better.” Because really, you can’t accept a compliment for another person, even if they are related to you, right?

          When someone tells me that a “blouse looks great on me” I always assume this is somehow a reference to my boobs. Maybe I’ve had one too many skeevy guy make that comment while staring at my chest. 🙂 So I would be more likely to say, “what a great blouse, the color is fantastic on you” or something.

  • I love this post. It’s definitely something to think about. The notion of taking the focus on the wearing rather than the item is beautiful. I work at a public library, and I frequently find myself complimenting both coworker and patrons (strangers) on their attire and other things. I like compliment karma 🙂

    However, sometimes strangers seem kinda freaked out by my compliments — especially when I put the focus on them.”That perfume smells amazing on you,” is something I’ve said genuinely but seems to have creeped out the wearer. Has anyone else experienced this? Either by feeling kinda weird about a compliment or saying something genuine the “complimentee” seems taken back by?

    I think the creep factor, on some levels, with stranger compliments is (sadly) related to gender. Like, if a female stranger compliments my shoes I feel as if she legitimately likes them. If a male stranger makes a comment about my attire, its sometimes feels skeezy or like a come-on line. I guess it just depends on the context. Any thoughts?

    • The creep factor? Yes, exactly! If I receive a compliment from a woman I don’t know, I feel like we’re part of the common Sisterhood.

      But from a man….my thoughts are much likely to go in the direction of “ew.” Especially if it’s one of those “Wow, you’re really beautiful” compliments from a male stranger. My first impulse with those is to flee the scene, stat!

  • JG

    Heart this! You are a wonderful woman.

  • I try not to overthink compliments because that way lies madness. Oh did they secretly mean something catty? Big smile, thanks! And if not, that’s the right response, too. I had a lot of learned self-deprecation to get over. You know that Eastern Europe via Upper Midwest habit of denying that something’s awesome or valuable so the Evil Eye doesn’t notice it? Yeah that.

    I’m not a big complimenter in random regular life, except to people that I know will appreciate it and know I mean well. I’ll always tell my sister when she’s looking good, and I’ll sometimes say something nice to my graduate students or my few colleagues who actually seem to make an effort at style and will value the compliment.

  • This is something I struggle with, receiving compliments. I’m always negating it right after, like if someone says I look nice, then I’ll say but I need to lose some weight or my thighs are too big. My honey, just likes to look at me and I’m always like what, he’s like I’m just looking at how beautiful you are, I always end up feeling self conscious. I think a part of it is society with their standards of beauty, that I haven’t fit my entire life and have tried to aspire to. I just need to be happy in the skin I’m in.

  • I always receive compliments with a “Thank You,” but I prefer those compliments or comments that make it sound like the person truly sees me. “That’s a cute dress,” or “I love your hair,” are ok, but they don’t generate the same warm feelings as my BFF telling her fiance about me, “She’s a punk at heart.” Or the Hubs saying, “I don’t think of you as nice and sweet. Nice and tart, maybe.”

    • Eleanorjane

      My husband recently referred to me at the vicious but cute little dog Fizzgigin the ‘Dark Crystal’ movie. 🙂

  • I really agree: tailoring your compliments to the person and, more, to the person’s character or specific qualities, is really important. As you say, any compliment is good, but there’s something so much richer and valuable about one that moves from generic- “You look nice today!” to personal- “You look great in that dress. I love how it flatters your waist!” I think the effort to create genuine connections (as opposed to just tossing something out there) is what people really appreciate about compliments…or at least partially. They probably also appreciate being told they look hot. 😉

  • Jen

    When I was sixteen I was six feet tall and rather thin. I tried on a long denim skirt at the Gap which fit perfectly. Finding clothes that fit well was a rarity for me at the time so I was thrilled. I felt so fabulous when the guy working in the dressing room told me, “Honey, that skirt was made for you. You look fantastic in it!” And then he followed that up with, “Most people don’t look that great in that skirt. You have to ABSOLUTELY HUGE to pull it off.” My fragile teenage ego was crushed. Instead of feeling beautifully tall, which I’m sure is what he was going for, I felt freakishly tall. Big difference. It took years to get over that one.

    Ever since, I’ve tried to be very careful about phrasing the compliments I hand out and tried not to read too much into the ones I receive. Generally I find that less is more. Say something nice and be done. No need to qualify it.

  • I always worry about compliments from my husband that way! Isn’t that silly!

  • I’m still laughing over the blogger who said to me, “You look so beautiful in person…you need better photography!”

  • Lydia

    Though it is usually better to think before you speak, especially with compliments, what makes compliments so endearing for me is their impulsive, genuine quality, and not overthinking what people say.

    I am careful how I phrase the compliment, but when I have to carefully edit every compliment I want to give, I am less likely to even say it to the person. I try and accept compliments gracefully at face value — It is rare that they are ill meant, though they can be odd.

    Case in point — a woman at work loved the colour I was wearing and said it looked good on me; she then turned to another woman and said ‘don’t you just love that colour on her?’ The other woman said — I only wear black and white and I dislike colours. The woman who gave me the compliment, should not have expected someone else to agree with her, but (the other woman’s reaction shows how insecure she may have felt. One more quick point — I actually do compliment a woman’s blouse, or shoes, and not only how it looks on her because the fact that someone picked it out is still a compliment, and by focusing on the item, I am saying I want one like it, and isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery or ‘compliment?’

  • I’ve gotten a lot better at receiving complements, thankfully. Most of the time, I just say, “Thanks!” and move on to something else. The one time I go out of my way to say something more is when the item is ethically made. I’ve gotten a lot of complements on my fair-trade purse, so I like to point out to people that something can be beautiful and ethical.

    In terms of bad complements, the absolute worst for me is, “You clean up so nicely!” Because it very directly implies that I was a mess before. This comment has come more than once from male friends (never females, thankfully) who just then noticed that I was female when I put on a dress. That one they could have kept to themselves, even if they didn’t mean it that way.

  • I adore the idea of being thoughtful about compliments and directing them at the person. That said, I have been feeling a bit ambivalent about appearance-based compliments across the board recently. It probably started with reading this article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-bloom/how-to-talk-to-little-gir_b_882510.html?ref=fb&src=sp How do you give a compliment on how a person looks without sending a subtle message that looks are super important? Should we only compliment people we know well enough that our appearance compliments are balanced by admiration of other qualities? That seems… prohibitive. And I think sharing the kind of compliments you describe in this post can combat the body image issues so rampant in our society. What’s a person to do? For now, I guess I will keep complimenting people (not just their accoutrements), and try to find other ways to combat the mentality that idea that looks are everything.

    • Kris, that article articulated a lot of doubts that I had been feeling for some time. I am still interested in style, but when I was style blogging I spent a lot of time complimenting (mostly) other women on their appearances. While I think that can have a positive impact, I’m not sure that it changes the unfortunate associations of women with looks/clothing/spending. This is not to say that style blogging can’t also be a cerebral activity because it certainly can, but that, when I examined it closely, it seemed to be perpetuating harmful stereotypes as much as shattering them – as well as eating up lots of my time.

  • I try to always give honest comments. I try to compliment the outfit and the person, but always make sure to read their words of their post and leave “more” than just “Nice _____”. I try not to overthink comments because if I do it becomes a circle of suck. Part of being a blogger has taught me to take everything, even compliments, with a grain of salt and make sure not to be too affected by someone else’s words.

  • TK

    I agree with others who say that appearance- and especially weight-based compliments are tricky. I try never to give those myself, even if I know a friend has been trying to lose weight. It’s just not comfortable for me because, having been on the receiving end, I just can’t remember a time when it’s gone well.

    I also refuse to accept those compliments with a “thank you,” because they irritate me. I have some relatives and family friends whom I tend to see once a year and who always, every time without fail, say to me, “My, you’ve lost weight!” This has never been true; my weight has been the same for years. I know I’ve been learning to dress better, but a simple “You look great” would cover that too. Instead, these people have to assume that I’ve been trying to lose weight, or at the very least that that’s something I would be happy to hear. Also, there’s the comparison thing: since I haven’t lost weight, they’re just telling me I used to look heavy for my size. Again, even though I try hard to accept all other types of compliments gracefully, I feel entitled to respond to “You’ve lost weight” with “Hmm, actually, I haven’t!” because those comments make me mad.

  • Em

    that is so true…. i never really thought about it before!

  • I think giving compliments also does as much for the giver as it does for the receiver. Making someone smile and giving them a confidence boost is a great feeling; it opens us up to all sorts of good things. I definitely steer clear of weight-based compliments though, unless I know the person has been working on losing weight and is anxious to hear that they’re making progress. But even then it has to be someone I know very well, and I’d steer more towards making a comment about their overall look of fitness and health rather than dwelling on the person being thinner. But other than that I try not to over-think it. If I like someone’s shoes, then for me I’m complimenting not only the shoes, but also the wearer’s taste in selecting them. If I tell someone they look great today, it’s probably only because yesterday I had too much on my mind to notice what ANYONE looked like, not because I thought the person looked terrible by comparison.

    The most common type of compliments that strike me as backhanded (even though I realize logically that many are not intended that way) are the ones that go, “I could never get away with wearing that (outfit/top/skirt/etc.). It looks great on you though.” It always sounds like the person is really saying, “A classy person like myself would never wear that, but for a weirdo like you it’s okay.”

  • PamDDO

    One day I wore my glasses to work instead of my usual contact lenses, and was feeling quite self-conscious. A fellow I barely knew told me, “You look cute in your glasses”, which I noticed was very different from “Your glasses are cute.” Not only have I always remembered that comment, but its thoughtfulness meant so much to me that that fellow and I celebrated our 18th anniversary this year.

  • lisa

    I began with compliments to co-workers and strangers that focused on a specific piece, but these days – with women I know – I’m much more likely to try to compliment the thought that went into choosing a look/piece. Instead of: ‘I love that jacket’, for instance, I might say ‘I love the way you always wear such beautiful textures – you have such an eye for finding striking pieces’. I like to honour the person’s creativity and, that way, I can usually appreciate the woman’s choices without needing to like them first – make sense?

  • Mel

    Giving compliments is a great way of breaking attitude. I recall being in a restaurant and a women walked in with a complete “air” about her. I got the look up, look down, look up again and was given a snotty look like trash left out gathering maggots. I was dressed appropriately, so I don’t know what warranted her look. I was with my husband and son, so she had no reason to be threatened. (a good blog topic I think). The next time she looked at me, I told her, “I love your handbag.” Boy did THAT take her off her guard. She spluttered a thank you and smiled. Hopefully she’ll be less judgemental to other women.

  • Anonymous

    I worry a lot about giving complements in a good way. As a plus-size person, I am used to “challenging ” comments dressed up to look positive. Complementing the style seems to work: you look elegant, sporty, etc in that. For me, clothes are expression of my relation to the circumstances that prompted the outfit, and compliments that recognize that feel the best. Stears away from the feeling that an article of clothing has saved me from eternal frumpiness, or that for just this once I have pulled it together. Since I teach, I have found that this is very helpful for teenagers w/ body image issues as well.

  • Angeline

    Funny…I always thought of it as the opposite way around with you-in-clothes/clothes-on-you compliment. “you look amazing in that blouse” sounds to me like it’s only the blouse that’s making the individual look good, while “that blouse looks amazing on you” sounds more like the blouse itself would be nothing without the wearer and it’s the individual that is the star. I hope people haven’t been taking my compliments the wrong way.

  • Lovely article. The world needs more compliments. As to your question of phrasing…

    I think the genuine-ness of the compliment is far more important than phrasing. If you are genuine in your compliment, the spirit of your intention will speak more powerfully than if you don’t say it ‘just right’.

    Another thing to consider is that no matter how you phrase it, people receive compliments in their own way. Some are gracious, some are not. That can also change with their moods. So, deliver the compliment, be genuine and heartfelt about it, and don’t worry so much about how it’s taken.