Compliments, Stewardship, and Control

complimenting other women

Compliments are controversial around these parts. I’m a fan of both giving and receiving them, and feel that doing so is beneficial. But I’ve heard you folks say time and again that compliments can be tricky, confusing, even painful depending on how they’re presented and how the person receiving them interprets them.

Since I am fascinated by all things style and body image, the compliments I tend to encourage have to do with those two topics. And what I’ve learned is that when some people are told, “You look great today,” what they hear is, “You look better today than you usually look.” That when some people are told, “You’ve got gorgeous hair,” they feel uncomfortable accepting praise for something that is genetic, inherited, and mainly beyond their control. That when some people are told, “You look fabulous in that dress,” they feel the underlying implication is, “You have conformed to social beauty norms. Good job.”

All of that is valid. And, frankly, frustrating. When I hand out these compliments, I don’t have a hidden agenda that’s intentionally tied to manufactured norms, fueled by keeping tabs on how “good” or “bad” someone else looks from day to day, or based in the belief that biological traits are the only ones worthy of praise. I give compliments so that people feel appreciated, significant, noticed, and happy. I give them to lift spirits. And knowing that an urge promote positivity may be inadvertently creating negativity? It saddens me.

In attempting to defend compliments on personal style and physical beauty, I landed on the idea of stewardship. We cultivate personal style, select our own clothing, and make decisions about how we clothe our bodies. Compliments on personal style and the clothing items we wear are tied to taste and active choices. Someone may say, “I love that skirt,” but underneath that is, “and your taste and personal style.” And while gorgeous hair may be an inherited trait, it must be washed, cared for, styled, cut, and … well, stewarded. Same goes for great skin, fabulous legs, perfect nails, and marvelous posture. Biology gave a those traits a leg-up, but invested time and energy, care, and active stewardship keep them in admirable shape.

Sounds good, right? But this defense falls short because so much of how we look is beyond our control. We wear what we can afford, what fits, what is geographically available. We wear what’s appropriate to our jobs and social circles. And while working within constraints is admirable, it can feel like a rigged game when many who receive style-related accolades have different constraints. Or none at all. And what about the aspects of our bodies that change despite our best efforts? What about physical changes that happen to us and leave us struggling to react?

And that brings us to the philosophy of complimenting things that people DO instead of things that people ARE. Which I love. It can be trickier to implement and requires a more intimate connection with the complimentee, but often generates compliments that feel more meaningful, genuine, and earned.

Which leaves me chasing my tail. Because if I see a woman on the bus who has the most gorgeous hair I’ve ever clapped eyes upon, I want to tell her. Can I? Should I suppress the urge? What if I say I love how she styled her hair? Is that more doing than being? I want to be able to praise people I don’t know, and I want to be able to hand out compliments that boost self-esteem as it relates to body image. But this circular logic has me wondering how.

I suppose I can just encourage you – and myself – to assume positive intent when in comes to compliments. Maybe I’m naive, but I believe most praise of this kind comes from gut-level reactions to seeing pleasing things, and is unlikely to stem from premeditated hopes of undercutting confidence or long-term comparisons. When people see beauty, they remark. If it is your beauty that is being remarked upon, I’d urge you to see the good inherent in that act instead of defaulting to suspicion. It won’t always be possible, but it’s something to strive for.

Image courtesy Tor Kristensen

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  • I give compliments all the time! To people I know and those that I don’t, and I have never had a bad experience. Once going through the McDonalds drive-thru for a cup of coffee I was served by a woman who had perfectly applied makeup, a colorful top and the most pleasant smile, I told her she looked like a fashion magazine ad and she told me that she was in her 50s and enjoyed looking nice. She made my morning and I know I made her smile even more.
    Why would you think that there is a hidden agenda behind every compliment? I just refuse to live my life that way!

    • k

      I totally agree, Lisette! At the age of 46 I am really beginning to think the key to life is to not think too much! JUST ENJOY!

    • Shay

      Completely agree. It’s actually quite sad that someone might have such low self-esteem that they’d take any kind of positive and turn into a negative.

    • Marsha Calhoun

      Amen, Lisette, and k, and Shay. I think it’s a matter of self-esteem to be able to accept a compliment at face value rather than searching for some malign hidden meaning or presumptuous judgment. Life’s too short to stress over things that don’t bother you unless you hit yourself over the head with them!

  • RM

    It’s a good practice to try. We especially try to do this with our students. “Wow, I know you worked really hard on that,” vs. “You’re so smart!” Or even “I like the colors you put together” instead of “it’s beautiful.” (That one’s harder.)

    Just yesterday I told a woman on the street, “I love your sandals,” but what I wanted to say was, “I love those shoes and all the colors you’re wearing them with,” but that’s a lot to say walking past someone on the street.

  • Lindsey

    *Sigh* Sometimes (most times) a compliment is a compliment. I just say thank you and move on. It makes me sad to think that wonderful women are torturing themselves over what is meant to be, well, complimentary. In my experience, it’s pretty obvious when a person is using the backhanded compliment to insult someone. At which point I say let them have it.

    • I work with a lady who gives compliments that, to me, seem like back handed compliments. Maybe I am being too sensitive or too suspicious about where she is coming from. She has criticized me to my face a few times so when she gives these types of compliments, I start thinking “is she saying she doesn’t like the other hats I wear?” O-k, here is the compliments she has given me twice in one week. I have been diagnosed with discoid lupus (lupus of the skin). I have to keep my head covered indoors (floresent lighting) and especially in the sun. I started wearing hats. The last two hats I have worn she says”I like that hat better than your other ones.” Just this morning I walk in and she says it again…”I like that hat better than your others” (different hat again). If I didn’t know how critical she is I probably wouldn think anything but I just looked straight at her and said don’t say that. I wanted to go on a rant about the fact I had to learn to love ALL of my hats, which I do, since they serve a purpose. A compliment should be simple. Just plain and simple….”I love your hat” or I really like that hat. PERIOD! Don’t always compare with the other things I HAVE to wear. This is new to me. I would much rather not have to wear a hat. but I do. So there it is.

  • T.

    Keep giving your compliments. Don’t complicate the compliments!! Although I did have a compliment situation of my own the other day. I was at a function and an acquaintance remarked how lovely I looked. I thought that was really nice. She commented several times–she loved my hair, my outfit, she thought I looked so pretty and happy. I knew she was very sincere and genuine, and she made me smile the rest of the day. However, two days later when I knew I’d be seeing her at another function, it did give me pause–I felt like I had an expectation to live up to! I almost froze with indecision about what to wear, but then I laughed at myself and thought eh, if she thinks I look like crap today, that’s okay!

  • Jen

    I love compliments! I love getting them and giving them. I work in a junior high school, and whenever I see my students taking fashion risks (and that is all the time with these girls!) I tell them how awesome they are. When I was their age I always felt so proud of what I had on when I left the house, but by the time I got home I felt so torn down. If only someone had noticed my crazy efforts. Even if I looked like a nutcase-I was putting in an effort. And so are these girls. And I give them same props to my coworkers. We get so wrapped up in our own heads that we forget to bestow kindess on each other. Remember, if it makes your day when someone notices your pretty shoes, your new haircut, or how you accessorized your ensemble-it will make them feel just as good. Share the love!

    • Sarah.

      You are awesome. That’s so true in junior high and high school. It takes so little time for something that could make such a big difference to these girls.

  • Colleen

    “And what I’ve learned is that when some people are told, “You look great today,” what they hear is, “You look better today than you usually look.” That when some people are told, “You’ve got gorgeous hair,” they feel uncomfortable accepting praise for something that is genetic, inherited, and mainly beyond their control. That when some people are told, “You look fabulous in that dress,” they feel the underlying implication is, “You have conformed to social beauty norms. Good job.””

    You know what, some days we do look better than other days (hello, smaller bags under my eyes after a good night’s rest). And yeah I may have been born with thick and shiny hair but if I didn’t brush and wash it it would still end up tangled and smelly. And anyone who equates a compliment on looking good in clothing they chose (presumably in part because they liked how they looked in it) with some sort of insinuation they are just conforming to a norm rather than being themselves – well, it must be exhausting to come from a place of such defensiveness all the time.

    I think being able to take a genuine, face value compliment gracefully reflects confidence and self possession on the part of the receiver. Wanting only a certain type of compliment (i.e. none that reference ‘social beauty norms’) is kind of controlling.

    I mean, I dress in vintage, and people make mistakes about the era I’m dressed in all the time – “that look is so mad men!” when I’m dressed in a 30s look, that sort of thing – and I just smile and say thank you. It is *mildly* annoying if it happens several times in one day/week but I remember that the intentions are good, they are trying to essentially say “your look is neat and reminds me of another era” and not sweat the details too much.

  • I tend to give compliments on people’s choices: that color looks amazing on you! those earrings are so cute! I love what you’ve done with your hair! Or on their capabilities/accomplishments: yum, great brisket!

    On the receiving end, I made a decision a while back to just take comments at face value. It feels kind of self-indulgent now to try to analyze or brush them off. So I just say “thank you” and move on.

  • I love this kind of post, Sal. I’m a parent, and I take great care to praise my kids for what they DO and not what they ARE (not for everything, but especially for things like athletics and academics). I never thought of applying this to my peers and not just my kids!

    Delivering compliments can be tricky territory, but it’s still worth doing. And in my experience–giving AND receiving them–making the effort to sound genuinely sincere goes a long way towards overcoming the potential ambiguities discussed above.

  • Laura

    I think it’s usually fairly easy to tell went a compliment is meant sincerely and kindly, and I try to take any compliment that way unless I have strong evidence that it was meant in a backhanded way. That said, I do try to phrase the compliments I give in a way that is less likely be misinterpreted, but I’m sure I’ve failed miserably at times! This issue has come up for me lately because I’m 4 and a half months pregnant. I’ve been compliment on both how “big” and how “small” I am, sometimes within the same week (and both comments were made in a kind, complimentary tone). My sense is that most of the folks doing the complimenting mean very well, and are looking for a way to acknowledge that the pregnancy and to say “You seem healthy.” At least that’s how I’m going to choose to take it!

  • A friend of mine works at a math institution and most of her male collegues seem to have mild autism, at least the way she tells it. One day at coffee break she lectured them on giving compliments to women, saying that if you don´t think a girl´s new haircut is pretty, you can at least say something like “oh, I see you cut your hair!” to make her feel noticed. The week after, she had just come from her hair dresser with a new colour and cut, and she ran into one of them on the stairs. “Oh!” he said. “I see you cut your hair!” She had the good sense to laugh.

  • I’ve got to say, sometimes people are reading too much into things! (in my tiny little opinion). I’m not sure when accepting or giving compliments became such an issue. Can’t we just take them at face value and feel good that we *do* have nice hair (even if that’s just because it “went right” that day, or that we *did* find a dress that makes us look really good?

    I do understand that there are backhanded compliments, but when someone’s intentions seem genuine, why can’t that just be the case instead of so many women managing to read a negative into a positive? I know that when I get complimented, I usually feel a little “yeah!” (insert fist pump) inside. And I smile and say, “Thank you”. End of story.

    I say keep giving out compliments. You are doing so with positive intentions and goodwill. How the person on the receiving end handles it is up to them.

  • Amanda

    I enjoy receiving compliments and am not embarassed by them, nor do I (generally) second guess the compliment. However, I was at a wedding a couple of weeks ago and a woman told me my dress was, “so pretty and perfect for my body type.” Hmmm…I didn’t feel so complimented. I suddenly felt like a huge cow! Maybe she wasn’t trying to be snide? When we talk about style, I think compliments need to be item specific vs. body (image) specific. For example, if the woman had said to me, “I love your dress, it looks great on you”, I would have walked away feeling flattered instead of deflated.

    On the other hand, I need to give more compliments. I see woman all the time who look smashing and yet I withhold my compliments. I don’t now why – it could be the Minnesota ice (the “nice” is a myth). Women seem very competitive where I live. We lack a sisterhood here. Compliments do create a bond between women and introduces us to possible new friends, ideas, etc. and while some may see a risk in that, I think it’s worth the risk.

    • Anamarie

      I like to give genuine compliments – I give them when I really mean that I like your hair, dress, shoes. Occasionally, someone will react to my compliment with suspicion – but I think it’s just because people here (MN) don’t speak to strangers unless it’s absolutely necessary or they are just not used to receiving compliments. As long as I mean it, and I don’t say things like Amanda experienced, (“…that dress is perfect for your body type” – WTF?) I don’t see the problem with giving compliments.

    • Hannah K

      I feel like this is the crucial difference between “You look great in that” and “That looks great on you.” They’re used to convey the same thing, but the first one has a subconscious flavor of “You needed the garment’s help to look good,” while the second implies the more complimentary “Not everyone would look as awesome in that as you do.”

      That’s one of the only exceptions I make to the “doing not being” rule of thumb. (Although I have SUCH A HARD TIME not rhapsodizing about beautiful freckles, you guys. The only thing that stops me is knowing that, insane as it seems to me, some of my freckled pals HATE their freckles and think they are so ugly that any compliment would be some kind of self-conscious effort to be encouraging or politically correct–like telling someone their scars are beautiful. You know what I mean?)

  • Bex

    There is an art to giving a compliment, but there is also an art to receiving one. If I find myself questioning others’ motives when they compliment me, then I ask myself why I am defaulting to negative thoughts instead of positive ones. There is the backhanded compliment – my mother’s specialty. These usually contain words like “but” or “even though” and are fairly transparent…. “You look great at that weight, but I wouldn’t lose anymore.”…. “Even though that skirt is so short, it looks great on you.”…. I agree that compliments are tricky business. I think most people mean well, and most compliments usually make me feel good about myself. It’s interesting that men rarely compliment each other on their appearance but rather on their possessions or abilities: sweet ride, nice shot. Sometimes it means to more to hear “You are so friendly” than “I like that dress”. But I will gladly take either one!

  • I get complimented on my hair a lot, and never take it in a negative fashion. Yes, I can genetically grow my hair this long, but it also takes a lot of care to keep it healthy.

    I also need to give more compliments. I am an introvert at heart, so talking to strangers to tell them they are rockin’ an outfit is hard for me. I think it in my head, but it doesn’t come out. I guess that makes me take compliments well, since people are being nice and forward to tell me my hair/hairstyle looks nice or my outfit or whatever. I say, “thank you” with a big smile. 🙂

  • HM

    My favorite compliment and comeback is–
    “Your camera takes great pictures”
    -“Thanks, your mouth makes great compliments!”

    • Kate

      Ha! That one gets me too! I usually just say “thanks, but i took the picture” and then get a confused look from the other person. I really like it when people ask what camera I use and find out it is something simpler and older than the one they have.
      Anyway… a little off topic. Sorry!

      • Hee hee! I once had someone compliment me on my photography, and I protested, saying, “But I take tons of bad pictures too!”

        He replied, “It’s not about how many bad ones you take. It’s all about presenting the good ones to the world.”

        Wise words indeed 🙂 The camera is a tool, but the photographer is an artist. A camera makes no distinction between “good” photos and bad ones.

  • H

    I got an awesome compliment from a woman on the bus recently — as she was exiting, she told me that I “looked perfect” and that she loved how I had styled everything — makeup, hair, accessories, and the dress. Her compliment implied something positive about both my appearance and my ability to think seriously about fashion, my body, and the image I want to show to the world. I felt beautiful, sexy, and smart.

  • D

    Keep on rocking the compliments- there is nothing wrong with putting good vibes out there! Some people will choose to be a negative Nancy, but you know what your intentions are.

    I do not feel that compliments on style or physical aspects are lesser than compliments on actions because in a way, it is a compliment on an action as well. Many people work hard to maintain aspects of their physical selves and/or styles, and I’m sure that they appreciate compliments on that action too!

  • Rach

    I say give ’em wholeheartedly. If you have the urge to compliment that bus woman’s hair, go for it. This whole compliments-are-negative-to-me thing is certainly a valid viewpoint, but NOT a reason to stop doing something kind that quite a lot of people DO appreciate… A lot of people enjoy being complimented. If you say something and happen to hit on one of the people that gets ruffled, well, that’s too bad but your intentions were good and that’s not your fault.
    Give, give away. And hope it lands on someone who it benefits.
    I feel like when you give a compliment, it usually starts a chain reaction of kindness so just because some people don’t like it, it doesn’t seem reasonable to stop that from happening.

  • Cee

    It’s funny, I think the essential problem here isn’t in giving a compliment, it’s in how the complimentee will take it. For years, people complimented me on my beautiful hair, not knowing that I would spend 30 minutes straightening and re-straightening it each day. I felt a bit of a fraud to be honest, because they weren’t complimenting my real hair. I’m not sure hearing ‘your hair looks really well straightened today’ would have helped either.

    But funnily, I don’t consciously think about these things when I give compliments, which is often. Reading your post and thinking about it, though, I realise that with people I know, I do try to minimise any second guessing. So, if I say ‘your skirt is really nice,’ I will tend to add ‘you’re got a great eye for colour!’ in order to compliment their actions as well as an item. I’m not sure if this works (I’ve never asked!) but I hope it does.

    I know this doesn’t solve your conundrum. But, the stranger you compliment will probably be so chuffed that she won’t worry too much about your phrasing.

  • Calamari

    I feel like compliments are really a way to say, “You are a person to me. You register on my personal radar. I notice you.” I always feel happy when someone compliments me because it says that not only did they notice you, and not only did they look hard enough to see you as more than a generic human, but what they saw caused them to feel good, in whatever way – they saw something beautiful, they saw something that makes them happy, they saw something that appeals to them. But, of course, the intent of the compliment has to be plain. Sincere compliments I think are wonderful, but backhanded compliments are especially hurtful, because they belittle your body or your style or something you value.

  • sos

    I do not reject compliments as it like rejecting a gift. I thank them gracefully. i like to give compliments too as i know it makes people happy but i try to look for something genuine as opposed to compliment without meaning it.

  • I think someone who is likely to read THAT much into a simple “Your hair looks great!” isn’t going to be happy with any compliment you throw at them. From my own experience and many of the comments here, it’s clear that the vast majority of women are capable of dealing gracefully with a compliment and take it in the spirit that it was intended. I love giving and receiving compliments and would hate for it to turn into some kind of crazy ordeal. I think the only area I steer completely clear of is weight-related compliments because that’s one topic that is fraught with angst.

  • Great topic! I, too, love giving and receiving compliments, but I’m always very, very careful as to how I word them – I wouldn’t want to insult someone for some of the reasons listed above (sometimes I don’t think people pause and think before they speak!). When I receive a genuine compliment, I usually just smile and say, “Thank you – you just made my day!”

    Worst ones I get, sadly on a regular basis:
    “You’re pretty for your age!”
    “You’re pretty for a redhead…”
    And the worst: “You must have been a knockout when you were younger!” Ugh. *Never* follow up a “compliment” with a qualifier. 🙁

    • Chris

      Oh yeah, the age related ones are hard to take even if they are meant kindly. “You look great for your age.” I didn’t realize there was a standard look for every age. How are you supposed to look at 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100?

      It seems to me that humans vary tremendously. Why not just say, “You look great.”

      I agree with Mel@TheVa-Va-Voom Shoppe. Don’t follow up a “compliment” with a qualifier.

      My favorite for being horrible – “You don’t sweat much for a fat girl.”

    • I’m with you. It’s kind of like the ones I get from the lady I work with about the hats I have to wear to work because of discoid lupus
      I like that hat better than your other hats…..twice in two weeks. It’s as if the other hats don’t meet her approval, which I really don’t care if they do or not. I like them and must wear them so I need to realize she is just very critical and can resist giving her opinion in her compliments somehow, someway. Or one day she told me I was not supposed to wear sandals without polishing my toenails….give me a break. sorry I went off. I get strange compliments too is all I am trying to say

  • 1000Oysters

    Sal, these compliment posts are always thought provoking and a good discussion. Lately, I’ve decided that I will give compliments when I feel like it because I feel it’s putting good energy into the world (I don’t give compliments I don’t mean) and if someone chooses to interpret that energy in a negative way, well, that’s their problem, not mine. I understand why people might not appreciate being complimented on something they personally don’t feel is compliment-worthy but again, that is their issue, not mine. And I feel that the potential benefits of a compliment far outweigh the potential downsides. Saying, “I love your skirt/shoes/hair/whatever” to someone might just make her day a little better whereas someone who interprets that statement as judgmental or whatever is not going to have a worse day because I said something nice to her.

  • Aziraphale

    The ability to graciously accept a compliment is a sign of maturity and confidence. A person who receives a real, heartfelt compliment (not a backhanded one) and interprets it in a way that makes her feel bad probably has some self-examination to do.

    I agree that both giving and receiving compliments is beneficial. However, in my mind there are a few unofficial “rules”:

    1. It’s great to give a compliment, if of course you really mean it. A genuine, heartfelt compliment generally makes both the recipient and the giver feel good. If the recipient interprets it in a negative way, that’s her own insecurity, and not the giver’s problem.

    2. …But don’t overdo it. Gushing, or repeatedly complimenting the same person, makes the giver appear insecure, like she is trying to ingratiate herself. Sucking up is always annoying.

    3. Careful with random compliments to complete strangers, as there’s a fine line between a nice comment and bad manners.

    That’s my two cents. I like receiving compliments of all kinds, although it is true that I prefer the ones about personal style (which implies that I have good taste) over the ones about personal attributes that I have done nothing to achieve (like, “You have a beautiful smile”). Even better are compliments about a specific skill I may have, especially if that skill took a lot of effort to develop.

    As for giving compliments, I don’t do it often, but when I do, it’s an honest one.

  • For the most part I agree that you shouldn’t read too much into complements, especially if they are meant in a positive manner. I really enjoy getting complemented on my clothes in particular, as I had a serious lack of any fashion sense for most of my life.

    However, there are two categories of complements that are generally meant sincerely but I think are really problematic. One tends to come from men, one from women. The one from men is, “You clean up really nice!” when I’m in a formal dress. As if I was so nasty before and certainly not an attractive female. Thanks, guys. The other is, “Have you lost weight?” when it’s never been more than a pound or two. It makes me feel like they thought I looked fat before and reinforces that the most important thing about a person is their weight. I think a lot of people use that as a secondhand to mean “You look great!” but I just wish they would say that instead.

  • Natalie

    I personally feel that most compliments are good*, and that people who object to the types of compliments you’ve discussed may be oversensitive or overcritical. But I understand the desire to maximize the compliments you give – that is, avoid unintentionally hitting on a sore spot for someone. I personally love it when strangers tell me they love my dress, or hair, or whatever. When someone says “I love your dress,” I hear “you have great taste” and “I like your sense of style” – these are good things about me that I have control over: whatever the outside constraints on my budget & dress code, I still made choices about what clothes to buy, how to wear them, and what to wear them with. But I can see how the same compliment may have negative connotation for someone else. I think the odds are, though, most people you give that sort of compliment to are going to be thrilled to hear it. So do you avoid brightening the days of dozens of women to avoid unintentionally offending one? I don’t know – that’s a judgement call you have to make for yourself. I personally prefer to offer genuine compliments, hoping that people take them as they are meant, and that I brighten many more days than I cloud.

    *exceptions to “good” compliments are ones that are actually insults, which I’m sure you would never commit: “you’re smart for a girl/someone so young/someone so pretty”, “you’re pretty for someone of your size”, “you’re hardworking for someone from your race”, etc. I’ve gotten many of these, and they’re infuriating!

  • Sarah

    Sally, I love you for thinking about this! I say, give the compliments you want to give. If your compliment comes from a pure heart and good intentions, just say it out loud. If the other person takes your compliment as a slight on an insult, that is on them. You can’t control that. Now, if you are giving back-handed compliments (like, You’re hair looks wonderful…TODAY) or just complimenting someone’s skirt to draw attention to that fact that they didn’t shave their legs, well, then you would be kind of a bitch. But I don’t think you do that sort of thing, so give your compliment and know that you tried to spread a little joy in this world.

    I personally love to compliment people but most of the time it’s out of my mouth before I think about it. I see my co-worker walk in to work and love her skirt, so I say, Oh I love your skirt! That pattern is awesome! without even processing what I am saying. I know how wonderful I feel when I get an unanticipated compliment, and I like spreading that feeling of happiness. So I try to pay it on.

  • Gwen

    I love the post, even if I am not sure I agree with the philosophy you have proposed.

    Perhaps I’m one of your more sensitive readers when it comes to receiving compliments, but I would rather be complimented on who I am than what I do. I don’t like having attention called to a change because it feels like I am receiving approval for something I wasn’t doing “right” before. As a result, compliments I give and like to receive are about a general trait or talent– e.g. eye for detail, ability to mix patterns, confidence, etc.–and not rewarding a specific change or action.

  • I often think about the bus driver who used to compliment me on a near-daily basis. He gave great compliments, brief and breezy and (this is the crucial thing) he followed them up with an out, a way to chitchat about something other than the compliment. For example:
    – “I like that hat! And it’s good to keep the sun off on a day like this.”
    – “You look mighty smart today! I bet you have an important meeting, huh?”

    That meant that even quite personal compliments didn’t feel as personal:
    – “Gosh, your cheeky are rosy! Must be cold out there this morning?”

    He cleverly gave me a choice of things to respond to: I could pick up on the particular compliment (“Thanks, it’s my favorite hat” or “I just bought this briefcase!”) or blow past it to the follow-up remark (“Nice to see the sun, isn’t it?” or “Big meeting, busy day! How about you?” or “Brrr, so cold! You’re keeping it nice and warm in here!”), or just smile back and take my seat.

    He was a master of giving compliments without creating pressure to respond. I think of him often when I give compliments to people I don’t know well.

    • Susan

      I love this! What a wonderful example.

      • Sarah.

        Smart man 🙂

  • Sally, I appreciate the thought and analysis you put into this. I like the idea of stewardship – taking care of what you have with whatever resources you have shows a certain integrity.

    People are going to have to work out their own personal demons, no matter how or what you do or don’t say. That’s a tough pill to swallow when you’re the type who is especially empathetic to the feelings of others and trying to show sensitivity. I think at the end of the day, giving thoughtful compliments grounded in a sense of honesty and sincerity is a sound practice, and generally will be taken for what it is.

  • I often have issues with compliments that are meant to be flirty, but can come across as uncomfortable or, in some cases, harassing. “Baby, you are so hot in that dress!” has a deeper connotation than “That’s a beautiful dress.” It also depends on who’s giving that compliment. My best friend telling me how hot I look would be well received, but the stranger on the bus? Not so much.

    I keep that in mind when I compliment others. I focus on something specific, like telling someone I love the colors on the dress, or I think the buttons on the shoes are just too cute. It is so very rare that I ever say something like “Wow, you are gorgeous.”

    • erin

      this. sometimes, compliments are just creepy. especially, but not always, when directed at women by men those women don’t even remotely consider to be potential partners. i appreciate that you are probably just trying to brighten my day, and i will react as if that’s exactly what happened, but it really would’ve been better without you. sometimes i’m being too sensitive, but this is a learned reaction to repeated situations in which that sensitivity has not been unwarranted. people can and do use basically sincere compliments to harass.

  • Linda

    I fell that if one even has to be careful about which compliments to pay people, something is seriously wrong. There is such a thing as being too politically correct up to the point where it starts being ridiculous. Of course, sometimes you might accidentaly hurt someone for pushing a strange button, but that is a risk I am certainly willing to take because I know that a genuine and honest compliment can totally make your day. Well, mine at least.

    • Litenarata

      Taking a few minutes to ponder the best way to give a compliment is not being “politically correct”. It’s being kind, and considerate of others.

  • Nicola

    I think compliments have to be given differently to children than to adults. Its appropriate to compliment children on what they’ve DONE rather than what they are to boos their self esteem in a more meaningful way. “You brushed your hair really nicely today” rather than “you have great hair” but, I really think that adults need to have slightly less fragile self esteem and learn to accept compliments generously given. It is often considered rude to refuse a gift and a compliment is a gift and should be accepted graciously.

  • Margeax Batts

    Some people are always going to be offended, miffed, confused or befuddled by compliments, but I can’t control how they’re going to react to my saying “You look great in that color/top/necklace/gunny sack.”

    If people can’t accept a compliment gracefully, maybe they need to take a hard look at their internal self and figure out why they chose to be distressed or disheartened. And if you’re always looking for a put-down, trust me, you’ll find one or two?

  • I was just talking about this today. I was just at an event where I took care to look good, and a lot of people complimented me. By the end of the night, I was uncomfortable with the volume of compliments I’d received. But I’m beginning to realize that I I never learned a healthy way of accepting a compliment; indeed, I am just now learning to view my dress and style as elements of self-care, of stewardship, to borrow your language.
    Some people may be uncomfortable with compliments, and that may be entirely about them, and have nothing to do with the mindful way you’ve chosen to share in and enjoy their beauty. Your care and thoughtfulness (via compliment) is a gift to everyone you share it with, whether or not they can see it. We do well to treat each other with grace, and to continue to enjoy the beauty of one another.

    p.s. I’m one of those who would ALWAYS prefer a “who you are” compliment to a “what you do”. This is about my past experience; too much compliment of my achievement, not enough recognition of my personhood. See what I mean? We’re all carrying baggage that makes it hard for us to be humans sometimes 🙂

    • I agree! As a former overachiever, I’d much rather someone compliment some aspect of me or my personality than something I have accomplished. Too much emphasis on achievements creates people who feel like they can never do enough to be worthy.

  • Joelle

    I try to give compliments freely and feel that is worth the risk of someone seeing my compliment as anything more then its face value. I saw a lady at airport with the most amazing curly blonde hair. I was staring at it and finally told her it was amazing. She lit up, said thank you, and how she needed to hear that and launched into how she’s always struggled with it and how she wasn’t confident with it curly.

  • I think it’s a bit over the top to read so much into a compliment. Sometimes you really do like someone’s hair/face/whatever. Sometimes THEY look really good in a certain style dress. Sometimes your opinions may be swayed because someone can rock an unexpected style or trend you didn’t like before.

    Sometimes compliments – backhanded compliments – are rude, but I think taking a compliment as an insult when it’s no way intended as such is just somebody looking for a reason to be negative or mad.

    • Litenarata

      Or someone who truly doesn’t believe that people actually are willing to say nice things about them. They aren’t necessarily looking for a reason to assume a compliment isn’t real, they just don’t believe it could be.

      • Hannah K

        Yes. That. Exactly.

  • Nomi

    Yeah, it’s a minefield. Even though I compliment people occasionally and never mean anything by it other than “I like your X” or “Y looks nice,” I still can’t manage to receive compliments with any level of comfort. No matter who is saying it, or what the circumstances, or what they’re singling out, I feel embarrassed, self-conscious, undeserving, and wish they hadn’t said anything at all. Over the years I’ve learned to stop countering them out loud (“You can’t be serious! I look like crap!”) and be neutrally accepting (“Thank you.”), but inside I deconstruct the whole thing (She probably felt sorry for me: ‘Look at that fat old thing, I’ll say something randomly nice to her’; or How much does he know about what I do, anyway? He’s just being polite). You can’t really do much about what goes on in people’s heads.

  • Christie

    I think to some extent this is a Midwestern/Minnesota thing. I grew up far south of here, in a place where you KNEW if someone was offering a backhanded compliment. 🙂 I’m forthright about compliments: that color is beautiful on you, I love those cute shoes, etc. Need to work on not responding to “what a cute dress” with “I love it because it never needs ironing.” 🙂

  • Litenarata

    I don’t think that’s a bad response!

  • Lauren

    Since compliment overanalyzers seem underrepresented thus far, here’s my take. For what it’s worth, compliment-haters don’t generally go around actively trying to hate you and twist your words around into the most negative interpretation and stay grumpy and ruin your day. It’s not especially pleasant feeling like a curmudgeon all the time. Some of us who are made uncomfortable by compliments or who interpret them in less-than-flattering ways don’t necessarily think you are saying them backhanded. Generally, we just think you’re not thinking through the implications of what you’re saying. Someone thinking “Oh, she only noticed I look nice today because I usually don’t” doesn’t mean that they necessarily think that the complimenter wants them to think “You look halfway decent today, so try harder the rest of the time!” But that doesn’t mean that’s not a pretty logical train of thought. It doesn’t have to be unkindly meant to be a negative point of data in someone’s self-image. Now, this is frequently because people aren’t actually coming from a place of genuine well-wishing and worthy self-esteem boosting; they just say the first thing that pops into their heads and label it a compliment. (“I love your style” or “Those are fantastic shoes” are compliments; “Wow, that’s bright” and “Hey, you’re dressed up today” are not.) Or they say something generic and not particularly prompted by anything just because they notice that you look depressed and want to cheer you up. That’s worse, as it makes it evident everyone has noticed your bad mood and also cheapens the compliment itself since it was transparently an attempt to cheer you up rather than actually celebrate whatever it was. It’s lazy philanthropy.

    Personally I don’t especially like it when people comment on my appearance. In school I rarely wore skirts because every time I did someone would say “What are you dressed up for?” or “Wow, you’re dressed up today,” and I found the implied dichotomy unsettling. I don’t especially like the first day at work after a new haircut because it’s apparently a rule of society that you can’t let someone’s new hairstyle go unremarked upon. I know most of these people don’t actually care about it, they’re just commenting “Nice haircut” because they’ve been told that’s what people want to hear. But mostly I just don’t want to know that people are thinking constantly about my physical presentation to the world. I don’t want people analyzing my clothing choices every day. I want to pretend like nobody looks at my hair so when I’m having a bad hair day I don’t have to feel super self-conscious about it. I want to be able to think if I gain five pounds nobody’s going to secretly judge me because they have better things to think about than how well my clothes fit or that if I don’t feel like putting makeup on some day nobody’s going to notice I suddenly look tired and older. But apparently none of that is true.

    All that being said, you can generally tell when someone genuinely means something in a happy, positive way, when seeing you has made their day better, etc., and I generally take those comments in the spirit in which they were intended. Generally, the more unique/specific the comment, the better I take it. “Nice [whatever]” gets a “thanks” but doesn’t especially lift my mood or make my day. (Which, you know, is fair enough, as it didn’t especially require any effort on your part either.)

    And of course there’s frequently a gap between how men and women give compliments. If everyone gave compliments the way the bus driver above did, that would be awesome, but cross-sex compliments I receive frequently make me even more self-conscious about how much attention strangers apparently pay my appearance OR (especially with coworkers) are just kind of bizarre. “Hey, you’re wearing your Dorothy shoes today!” (Come on, in what universe is that complimentary? And they’re closer to orange than red, anyway…) Or “Wow, that’s orange!” Yes, it is, and it was orange last time I wore it, and it’s still going to be orange next time I wear it. It’s hard *not* to think after enough of those comments that someone’s trying to subtly shun you for said clothing choices.

  • I’ve been feeling the need to compliment someone for a long ago conversation. This friend moved away over 20 years ago and we’re not in contact anymore, but I just want to let her know she had a profound influence on me for good (it was a talk about self esteem) and I’ve never forgotten that.

  • Eleanorjane

    I think that compliments are a way to show you’re being friendly… I usually compliment my workmates and people at church if I like something (usually their clothes/shoes/jewellery, not something more personal like their skin or hair (one workmate has the most amazing translucent pale skin). It seems to be taken as general good will. I do compliment achievements too i.e. nice singiing in a solo at church, success or a skill shown at work.

    As an ex-teacher I found that praise was the best tool ever! If I ignored the bad behaviour and praised any sign of good behaviour in a troublesome student then they were much more likely to get onboard with their learning. It has such a powerful effect on people – young people and adult alike. The more specific the better (nothing worse than heaps of detailed criticism followed up with a vague ‘but you’re doing a good job overall’).

  • Kim

    While it certainly is important to think before we speak, does a compliment that we want to give really warrant the time and energy of analyzing every possible way the receiver could possibly interpret it? This isn’t foreign relations here, it’s a kind gesture about one’s appearance. I say, if you see something you like, speak up! It may be the only compliment the person has received all week. If it is somebody you know well, and you know what their sensitive spots are, you can think a bit more about how to phrase a compliment… but honestly, I can read right through an over-thought, word-smithed compliment and those actually seen less sincere than if the person just says what’s on their mind. I guess I don’t like to be manipulated in any way, and an over thought, carefully worded compliment leaves me feeling a bit manipulated.

    • Veronica

      Exactly what I was thinking! Especially if you’d like to compliment a stranger. You don’t have much time together to really ‘get to know them’ and what they prefer to be complimented on. It’s just a brief encounter, and maybe their outfit or haircut/style inspired you or made your day.

  • Chris

    I wanted to add a note in regards for men. I have worked with mostly men for my entire working life. Once they were certain that I expected to fully carry my weight as a co-worker and did not ask for special treatment because I’m female, they started trusting me.

    What I have heard from all of them is that they often feel moved to offer a compliment to a woman but are afraid to. They can’t determine if they will be misunderstood and slapped with a sexual harassment violation. So instead of taking a chance they say nothing. I understand their confusion and dismay. It is difficult to judge how a compliment will be received.

    I understand political correctness and the history that brought us to this point. At the same time, I think we have lost some of what was positive.

    • JJ

      I felt this way today. Someone in the office did her hair different and it looked great. I didn’t say anything because of the things you mentioned.

      It seems like some things are easier to compliment–shoes are easier than a skirt, for instance, since I don’t want people thinking about why I might be looking at their butt.

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  • I faced this issue because (1) as a man, my complimenting a woman on her appearance can be suspect for expressing something other than mere admiration and (2) because I’m shy. So I’ve given great thought to if and when and how to compliment a woman’s beauty or clothes.

    What I do, believe in and find works is simply being as sincere and thoughtful as possible. Identifying the specific things that are appealing (e.g., skirt; eye-makeup) and gushing over them. I don’t find the need to distinguish between a woman’s innate characteristics and her actions, as you discuss; that distinction doesn’t seem to matter to recipients (as far as I can tell).

    Women are smart enough to sense the motivation and genuineness of a compliment, particularly when it comes from a man. I rely on that above all else.

  • Suzanne
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