“Do you love me because I’m beautiful or am I beautiful because you love me?” — Oscar Hammerstein
Here’s a mule. We can use the stick to beat him forward, or entice him with a carrot so he moves ahead himself. Though we got a bit of both, the preferred method of most teachers in my childhood was the stick.
This is no longer the case. Our current climate not just continually praises children every step of the way, but employers too now avoid negative terms in the workplace. We’re expected to thrive only on positive reinforcement.
So, you would think with all this practice that we’ve become really good at handling praise, yet many of us are still awkward about both giving and receiving them.
This should be the easier of the two. After all, someone else has done the heavy lifting by praising us in some way. Yet, the responses!
There’s the faux deflect – an attempt to be humble by saying, no, no, this isn’t good at all. It has the effect of vaguely insulting the complimenter by negating their praise.
There’s the outright rebuff – “You’re crazy! No way!” This makes the complimenter feel misdirected, if not downright wrong. It turns the praise into an affront.
To get a non-socialised understanding of a situation, I consider a four-year-old’s position. Tell young people they look lovely, they’ll beam at you. What they will never do is say: “Oh, I’m having a bad hair day. I was going to say how nice you look.”
A thoughtful compliment can really make someone’s day. We move through life taking so much for granted. When I worked in film production, I often said that when we did our job right, we became invisible; but when something went wrong, man, did we have to hear about it.
Because of this, I make it a point of telling people when I like how they do things. I’ve even written to my bank and emailed airlines I’ve flown with. Of course, I am saying it for its own sake, and not trying to curry a favour or blag a freebie (I suspect that never works).
Most of us can tell whether a compliment is sincere or if it’s coming from a hidden agenda. There is nothing more tedious than a rehearsed chat-up line, for instance. Then there’s the nifty trick of telling the pretty girl she’s clever, and the clever girl she’s pretty – but that only works on the pretty girls.
The best compliments are sincere and specific. Actually, just sincere works.
The evil side
Many Eastern cultures fear Too Much Praise, in case it tempts fate, leading to a jinx. This is why I walked behind my (Iranian born) best friend at her wedding holding a silver bowl with a smoking thingy (sorry, can’t recall the name) in it, neutralising the guests’ voluble praise as she walked down the aisle.
This is why babies in Bangladesh traditionally get an ugly black spot smudged onto their foreheads, to guard against people rhapsodising over their beauty. My mother, fatigued from delivering me in the middle of a war, didn’t do this to me and maintains that this is why I’ve been riddled with one illness or another all my life.
Praise in general is seen as somewhat suspicious in these parts. It took me years to understand how South Asians handle compliments. The outright rebuff is common, making a straightforward person like me feel a little dejected.
The Bangla language, used by great poets and writers, influences the culture, or perhaps the culture influences the language. Either way, the Bangla term for “thank you” sounds formal and too curt. Instead, at least three flowery sentences will be used in its place: oh, you’ve gone through so much trouble. I’m always causing you so much distress. You’re an exceptionally kind person and I am unworthy of breathing the same air.
For most other places, there’s the always elegant “thank you.” If someone is thanking us for something, I’m not wild about the French de rien or its English equivalent (it’s nothing) as it sounds dismissive. My favourite is my (American) brother-in-law’s choice of words: my pleasure.
Responding to a compliment with “you’re too kind” can convey that the complimenter was speaking only to be kind. This is a good time to do the I instead of you and take ownership: “I’m so pleased you think so”, etc.
I used to think actors were a particularly needy breed, always wanting praise. Now I realise that everyone is happy to get acknowledged. (Unless we’re only doing something to get praised for it, in which case there can be no praise extravagant enough.)
Alternatively, I thought anyone successful would be bored by all the praise they inevitably always get. But I’ve seen huge superstars be delighted when fans come up to them, and never once are they “oh, yawn!” about it. Who doesn’t like being told that they have affected someone positively?
I like your smile
Some people are just not very comfortable singling out something they admire. This is fine, provided they don’t criticise either. The ratio of saying three kind things to one critical is mostly useless. Human nature means that the criticism is all that rings in our ears, however effusive the praise.
Men’s direct or indirect appreciation of women (especially related to physical attributes) is viewed as less flattering these days, and more lecherous and inappropriate. Meanwhile, women complain that men don’t compliment them any more. Poor men; damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
My male friends tell me they actually do notice everything, but don’t say anything out loud; someone somewhere is always getting offended. I say: speak up to the women you know, and withhold (including the staring…) with those you don’t. Praise is like good manners; it’s meant to put the other person at ease, not make them uncomfortable.
Women are more adept at giving compliments – especially to other women and especially about appearances – than men are. Some even have a whole social ritual of spending elaborate minutes upon meeting someone, and using carefully selected words about every item worn by the other person. Personally, I – in my black monastic clothing and simple sandals – find it bewildering and too exhausting to do it for the sake of social niceties.
When I was married, I’d read that instead of nagging your spouse into sharing domestic chores, it’s better to rave about it when they do. This way, they’ll repeat the actions just to hear more praise. So when my ex decided to take the rubbish out, I went into a long string of compliments about how well he did it, etc. He looked at me as if I was demented. And no, he didn’t readily do it again.
As a relationship ages, as the qualities we like about each other become familiar, the first bit to be dropped is often the compliments. It is always good to continually remember why you chose your partner, and let them know too.
Giving a compliment because you mean it is one of the nicest gifts to give someone. Expensive presents and flamboyant gestures can’t compete with simple, heartfelt words of appreciation.
“Don’t give a woman advice; one should never give a woman anything she can’t wear in the morning.” — Oscar Wilde
A collection of short stories, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You by Amy Bloom examines the complex layers of different relationships, and how we stand by each other through trying times. These are sad themes, handled with an exquisite hand.
Anyone who was a teenager in the 1980s will remember Say Anything, directed by Cameron Crowe. Especially the now-iconic scene where John Cusack stands outside Ione Skye’s house holding up his boombox playing Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes.