Wednesday, May 12, 2010

When Compliments Cause Grief

`Who's making personal remarks now?' the Hatter asked triumphantly. ~from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland
The Wall Street Journal has a thought-provoking article about how compliments can hurt, saying:
Ah, compliments. We crave them, especially from certain people. We bridle when we don't receive them and chafe when they are backhanded. We often have trouble accepting them graciously. Yet we remember the good ones, and the backhanded ones, for a very, very long time.
As children, most of us were taught by our mothers and teachers that offering up a flattering remark to someone else is easy. Sadly, that was a lie. In the real world, there's a fine art to giving—and receiving—a well-tailored compliment.
 Advice is given on how to give a worthy compliment:
• Be sincere. (Enough said.)
• Be selective. Think Goldilocks: You don't want your compliment to be too big or too small. You want it to be just right.
• Be specific. Don't say: "You look pretty today." Say: "That sweater really brings out the color of your eyes."
• Show impact. Tell the person how they have positively affected you. So instead of "I like your column today, Elizabeth, try: "Your story made me run right out and compliment a stranger."
• Just say thank you. When you receive a compliment, be gracious, not self-deprecating. Take the remark for what you want it to be. And don't worry about praising the person in return. It's a compliment, not a volley.
It is good to keep in mind the old practice of being careful of not making remarks that are too personal, even kind remarks, to anyone, especially to those who are mere acquaintances. According to Emily Post:
  Personal compliments, however, are proper only from a close friend. No acquaintance, unless she is quite old, should ever make personal remarks. An old lady or gentleman might very forgivably say “You don’t mind, my dear, if I tell you how sweet I think you look,” or “What a pretty frock you have on.” But it is bad taste for a young woman to say to another “What a handsome dress you have on!” and worst of all to add “Where did you get it?” The young girl’s particular friends are, of course, apt to tell her that her dress is wonderful, or more likely, “simply divine.”


Enbrethiliel said...


Very interesting! Sometimes I think that the original good advice was, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all"--and that it was taken to mean, "Be sure to say something nice!"

I like Emily Post's advice very much. I know I'm very uncomfortable when people I barely know give me personal compliments--and of course I wondered whether there was something wrong with me for my ungracious acceptance of the generous praise of another, because I could understand it was sincere. But it's true that personal remarks can put one on the spot, even when they are complimentary, and may achieve the opposite of their intended aim.

Julygirl said...

Useful information! Any advice or information on how to interact with one another is desperately needed in this day and age, but those who need it most do not avail themselves of it.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, ladies, there is so much our society has forgotten about basic human interaction.