Compliments — more than what meets the eye
Why do you give compliments?
Do you feel genuine when giving compliments?
How do you feel receiving them?
Before we start thinking about compliments and this nature of communication with others, I must begin by saying that it is something which can vary from person to person, their likes and dislikes, and the contexts they find themselves in. Take what you like and leave what you don’t. This is simply a space to start, and continue, thinking about the compliments we give.
Although by the end, hopefully, you’ll see it’s best not to overthink it. We’ll explore the purpose our compliments have and where they may fall short. Throughout, we’ll learn how to grow the compliments we give, from selective, formal praises into genuine and purposeful encouragement.
Definition of a compliment, Oxford Dictionary: a comment that expresses praise or approval of somebody
I’ll just say it — compliments used to make me feel really awkward, for at least a couple of reasons.
I exist in an environment where I could be defined by just the qualifications on my CV, my physical appearance on my social media profile or my historical achievements in my academic transcripts. For example, I work in clinical research and currently study Psychiatric Research at KCL, and maybe that appears to be a great achievement. And yet for me, to be recognised as learning, reflecting on and communicating aspects of our mental health, in the context of my past and present experience, carries greater value. To see more of my work here, you can read my blog recognising our good mental health.
The nature of our compliments
Firstly, the nature of giving and responding to compliments seemed like an automated process, not always requiring intention or meaning behind the words. How often in polite small talk do you respond to a compliment by saying “Thanks, you too!”, without registering what you’re saying? It’s as automatic as replying “Hi” after the first “Hello”, or “Bye!” after the first “Ok, see you soon” in our daily conversations. I still find myself doing it now. Our brains sometimes run on autopilot, and relying on social cues is no exception.
Research has shown that overcomplimenting, especially when focussed on achievements and person-focused attributes, can result in decreased confidence and challenge seeking in children with existing low self-esteem. It’s thought that compliments in this context appear to set a high standard, that the child feels unable to meet this. If the child fails to meet the praised standard again, they are likely to feel ashamed. In turn, this fear and possible shame lead to a further decrease in the child’s self-esteem. The authors of this research suggested that process-focused compliments do not induce this chain reaction of lowering self-esteem and fear of failure. In this context, person-focused compliments evaluate the person, whereas process-focused compliments evaluate aspects shown like effort, strategies and attitudes.
The compliments we give can communicate so much more than just polite social formalities and expectations. Our compliments can highlight where we think someone’s value lies — whether this is intentional or not.
Recognition of a person’s achievements and results have their place, but why limit ourselves to standard, automated dialogues when we can give and receive so much more?
The content of our compliments
Secondly, especially growing up as a teen, compliments people usually gave were focussed on either something you’d achieved or the way you looked/appeared. Neither of these are inherently poor aspects to highlight in balance, but the subtle praising of exclusively these factors naturally shifts our attention towards these aspects and away from others.
In a society where our perception of our self-worth is perhaps quite fragile and vulnerable to decline, can we add purpose and value into the interactions we already have?
Our interactions can both build up a person and build connection between us, if we shift from giving surface-level compliments to meaningful encouragements.
Compliments based on abilities and appearance describes what someone was like or has achieved in the past. Instead of just looking backwards, we can highlight the qualities a person has for future challenges by focussing on their efforts, values and choices.
Granted, you can’t substitute every pre-requisite or criteria in life with some sort of objective measure of the effort you’ve put in. But equally, how far can you progress by just looking back at your past achievements? We need to see what aspects surrounding our past achievements mean we face future opportunities and challenges.
When we give and receive compliments based on a person’s appearance, they are made with good intention. Sometimes, receiving such compliments can be encouraging, help us feel good and like we’ve been acknowledged. However, we can also find ourselves striving for such compliments if we notice we haven’t received them. We can be prone to focus on the way we appear and make particular efforts to present a certain way. Like receiving praise in any context, it’s natural to become subconsciously focused on the goal of winning approval from others. Whilst social media may provide some good, we see how it can amplify this cycle. As such platforms facilitate dynamic opportunities for peer feedback, ie. social validation, you’d be swimming against the tide if you venture away from presenting the most likeable ‘version’ of yourself. You can read Frances’ blog about the effects of social media on adolescents here. Realistically, how we look is really not the most interesting thing about us. But continual praise affirming our appearance, or the absence of such praise, whilst other aspects about us are not praised, helps to reinforce the narrative that our appearance matters and is intrinsically linked to our happiness and acceptance. If we compliment people based only on their appearance, we ignore other things, for example, the creativity, helpfulness or thoughtfulness they show.
So how can we make meaningful compliments? Well, what we have is a good start — we have some connection, some authenticity and many good intentions. Let’s build on that, let’s do addition, not subtraction
Focus on the ‘how’ instead of just the ‘what’ — notice the processes and behaviours someone displays, in addition to what they are and have achieved
Actively pay attention — a key part of making genuine compliments is taking time to reflect and appreciate what qualities you admire about that person, what things you’re grateful for or have noticed. Authentic compliments are then easier to make without over-thinking, because making a compliment is just saying out loud an encouraging observation.
Compliment the whole person — your friend/colleague/family member is so much more than just their achievements. Yes, those things may be wonderful and due appreciation, and yet compliments can also recognise their efforts, values and choices.
If compliments are to be an encouragement and provide connection, then compliments can recognise parts of a person that aren’t just in the past. A compliment, if it recognises the attitudes, approach and values someone has or has shown, communicates strengths they currently have and can use in the future.