A compliment is a message of praise, flattery, or congratulations. It’s the opposite of criticism, insult, or complaint. Usually, it occurs in an interpersonal situation but it can occur in group situations, in public speaking situations, and of course in the media, where talk shows are often one compliment after another.
The compliment functions like a kind of communication glue; it’s a way of relating to another person with positiveness and immediacy. It’s also a conversation starter, “I like your watch; may I ask where you got it?” Another purpose the compliment serves is to encourage the other person to compliment you—even if not immediately (which often seems inappropriate).
Compliments can be unqualified or qualified. The unqualified compliment is a message that is purely positive. “Your paper was just great, an A.” The qualified message is positive but with some negativity thrown in: “Your paper was great, an A; if not for a few problems, it would have been an A+”. You might also give a qualified compliment by qualifying your own competence; for example, “That song you wrote sounded great, but I really don’t know anything about music.”
A “backhanded compliment” is really not a compliment at all; it’s usually an insult masquerading as a compliment. For example, you might give a backhanded compliment if you say “That sweater takes away from your pale complexion; it makes you look less washed out” (it compliments the color of the sweater but criticizes the person’s complexion) or “Looks like you’ve finally lost a few pounds, am I right?” (it compliments a slimmer appearance but points out the person’s being overweight) or “That’s great; you finally passed your driver’s test” (it compliments the successful passing but the “finally” adds criticism) or “Your hair looks very natural; you’d hardly know it was dyed (it compliments the natural look but the “hardly” takes back the compliment).
Compliments are sometimes difficult to express and even more difficult to respond to without discomfort or embarrassment. Fortunately, there are easy-to-follow guidelines. Let’s consider first, some suggestions for giving compliments.
Giving a Compliment
Here are a few suggestions for giving a compliment.
• Be real and honest. Say what you mean and omit giving compliments you don’t believe in. They’ll likely sound insincere and won’t serve any useful purpose.
• Compliment in moderation. A compliment that is too extreme (say, for example, “that’s the best decorated apartment I’ve ever seen in my life”) may be viewed as dishonest. Similarly, don’t compliment at every possible occasion; if you do, your compliments will seem too easy to win and not really meaningful.
• Be totally complimentary; avoid qualifying your compliments. If you hear yourself giving a compliment and then adding a “but” or a “however” be careful; you’re likely going to qualify your compliment. Unfortunately, in such situations many people will remember the qualification rather than the compliment and the entire compliment-plus-qualification will appear as a criticism.
• Be specific. Direct your compliment at something specific rather than something general. Instead of saying something general such as, “I liked your speech” you might say something more specific such as “I liked your speech—the introduction gained my attention immediately and you held it throughout.”
• Be personal in your own feelings—“your song really moved me; it made me recall so many good times”—but not personal about the other person—“your hair looks so natural; is that a weave?” At the same time, avoid any compliment that can be misinterpreted as overly sexual.
• Some interpersonal watchers recommend that you compliment people for their accomplishments rather than for who they are or for things over which they have no control. So, for example, you would compliment people for their clear reports, their poetry, their problem solving, their tact, and so on. But, so goes this advice, you would not compliment someone for being attractive or having beautiful green eyes.
Receiving a Compliment
In receiving a compliment, people generally take either one of two options: denial or acceptance.
Many people deny the compliment (“It’s nice of you to say, but I know I was terrible”), minimize it (“It isn’t like I wrote the great American novel; it was just an article that no one will read”), change the subject (“So, where should be go for dinner?”), or say nothing. Each of these responses creates problems. When you deny the legitimacy of the compliment you’re implying (at least in part) that the person isn’t being sincere or doesn’t know what he or she is talking about. When you minimize it, you imply, in effect that the person doesn’t understand what you’ve done or what he or she is complimenting. When you change the subject or say nothing, again, you’re saying in effect that the compliment isn’t having any effect; you’re ignoring it because it isn’t meaningful.
Some people deny the compliment because they’re embarrassed, generally feeling “I’m not worth that kind of praise”. Or, they’re shy or apprehensive and they don’t want attention brought to themselves. These are uncomfortable situations and are likely to be helped by understanding a few simple principles about accepting the compliment, clearly the better alternative.
An acceptance might consist simply of (1) a smile with eye contact—avoid looking at the floor; (2) a simple “thank you,” and, if appropriate (3) a personal reflection where you explain (very briefly) the meaning of the compliment and why it’s important to you (for example, “I really appreciate your comments; I worked really hard on the project and it’s great to hear it was effective”). Depending on your relationship with the person, you might use their name; people like to hear their name spoken and doubly so when it’s associate with a compliment: “That was a great report, Mary, you really nailed it.”
Here is a simple exercise that will illustrate that the common compliment which many think such a natural and easy type of communication, isn’t so simple. This may be more easily illustrated if the exercise is used before any discussion of the compliment.
The exercise is in two parts and simply consists in the giving and responding to a compliment. First, form a dyad with someone you don’t know well and compliment the person’s reliability, intelligence, sense of style, fair mindedness, independence, perceptiveness, warmth, or sense of humor. [You’ll have to make up something since you really don’t know the person.] Second, the other person should respond to the compliment. Then reverse roles where the “complimenter” becomes the “complimented” and vice versa.
One variation is to focus on inappropriate or backhanded compliments and the appropriate responses to them. Other variations are to team people from obviously different cultures or to set up some same-sex and some opposite sex pairings.