How to make and take compliments

Receiving a compliment is many introverts’ worst nightmare. “It’s nice that you want to say something kind to me, but can the earth please open up and swallow me right now?” That’s how I used to feel about compliments for a long time. And making compliments – ugh! – even worse. Will the other person not feel just as awful about receiving a compliment as I would in their place? Will they think I’m kissing up to them? That I want something? That I’ve got a crush on them, maybe?

You can tell compliments in general were pretty terrifying to me.

Over the last years, however, my outlook has changed rather a lot. I realised that, somewhere deep down, I kind of like receiving compliments. Who doesn’t like a sincere reminder of their good qualities sometimes? It’s just having to react that feels vulnerable and awkward and awful, having to let the other person see that private part of you that needed validation. But it doesn’t have to be awful! There are a few simple strategies that make taking compliments so much easier, and, in time, even pleasant.

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And don’t get me started on giving compliments. Once I realised that, on average, it doesn’t cause mortification or awkwardness, but heartfelt delight, I began speaking up more often when I noticed something I liked about other people. I am now firmly conviced that making a compliment is a wonderful way to brighten someone’s day, strike up a conversation with a stranger, or deepen your friendship with someone you already know.

As I am an almost neurotically structured thinker, I have compiled a list of pretty straightforward tips and strategies for you. Take a look and start making and taking compliments like a suave social butterfly in no time.

Let’s start with making compliments, because I find that a little easier.

Making Compliments

Be empathetic.

Check that the other person is not currently too stressed, angry or otherwise emotionally engaged to enjoy being complimented right now.

Be genuine.

Noticing something about another person that you really like – their nailpolish, their haircut, their cute earrings – is a great starting point for a compliment

Be brief.

If you go into too much detail without any encouragement from the other person, they may feel weird, or like you’re hitting on them. If you don’t make a big deal of it, but just offer them a smile and a simple “I really like your shoes! They’re amazing”, I promise it won’t be awful.

Be as personal as the depth of your relationship allows.

As a rule of thumb, compliments about outward appearances or skills the other person performs (more or less) publicly are always acceptable. You cannot really go wrong with telling a performer, “Great show!” (as long as it’s from the heart), and even people you have only just met usually react pleased when someone else notices a detail they chose with care, such as an accessory, a tattoo or a piece of clothing. Compliments about private or emotional issues, on the other hand, are only appropriate if the two of you are so close that you occasionally talk about such things.

Be as professional as the context demands.

Your co-workers may or may not appreciate comments on their shoes, depending on the general atmosphere in your company. In a professional context, it is usually safest to compliment people’s performance of their assigned tasks, especially if you’re working on the same team. However, make sure your compliment is phrased in such a way that indicates communication at eye level, rather than a patronising remark. In general, exercise a little more caution n a professional context and only make compliments when you feel sure about them.

Do not compliment your superiors.

You cannot really compliment someone at eye level when it’s not up to you to decide whether you communicate at eye level or not. That’s your superior’s prerogative. They may think that you’re not in a position to judge their performance, and complimenting their appearance may just feel weird and out of place, so it’s generally safest to steer clear of compliments to superiors altogether.

If you genuinely appreciate your superior(s), show your support in other ways. Nod when they say something you agree with in a meeting, chip in for their birthday card (if you do that sort of thing at your comapany), or volunteer to help out when they ask for help with a task that needs to be done but isn’t really anybody’s responsibility (such as organising the Christmas party).

Observe the other person’s reaction.

What do they do when given a compliment? Does it make them uncomfortable? Then maybe don’t compliment them again, or be more subtle next time. If they seem happy, that’s great! Also, what did they say when they accepted your compliment? Maybe you could do or say something similar the next time you receive a compliment and have difficulty coming up with a good response.

Did it go wrong in spite of all this?

Sometimes, anyone can end up putting their foot in their mouth, in spite of their best intentions. Be open, laugh about it, and move the conversation on to prevent getting stuck in that awkward moment. For example: “Sorry, that came out wrong, can we start over?” or “Oh God, that was horrible, I apologize. Can I get you a coffee?”

The moving on part is important. Do that. Don’t just leave, even if every instinct screams “RUN, it’s so embarassing!”. Because, if you do run, it will be awkward again the next time you meet this person, and possibly the next and the next. Just make sure you get back on the right foot immediately.

Most people will appreciate your honesty and cut you the slack you need. Some will even confess their own social awkwardness and say they absolutely understand. A very few will turn up their noses and walk away – so what? You just learned that they are stuffy, don’t seem to appreciate sincerity, and expect others to be superhumanly perfect. In anything other than a professional context, this cannot be a loss to you. For professional contexts – see above – just steer clear of compliments when you’re not 120% certain they’re good and appropriate.

Voilà, you always end up being just fine.

Taking Compliments

So what do you do when you’re at the receiving end of a heartfelt compliment – other than wish you could melt into the woodwork?

Don’t say “Oh, it’s nothing” or “That old thing”.

I know, it’s a knee-jerk modest response that many of us are used to – deflect the compliment, try to escape the uncomfortable situation. Don’t do that! Why? Because now that we’ve been over all the considerations that come into paying a compliment, I think it’s fair to assume the other person went to some emotional and mental work in order to compliment you. Also, they freely offered you kindness and made themselves vulnerable by expressing their opinion without being asked. By turning down the compliment, you more or less imply that their judgement (“That’s great!”) is faulty. So, what should you do instead?

Say “Thank you”.

That’s it. It’s hard at first, to just accept a “hey, you’re awesome” without arguing, but do try. It gets easier and starts to feel less awkward, I promise. Also, it forces the little critic in the back of your mind to acknowledge that someone has a valid, positive opinion about you, which, over time, can work wonders for your self-esteem.

Alternatively, agree.

“Great skirt”? Say, “Yes, thanks, I really love it, too!”. Showing some honest excitement won’t seem stuck up. What you do is you basically return the other person’s emotional offering by engaging on the same level of enthusiasm, which gives away a little bit of your personal opinion, making you a little vulnerable too, evening things out.

Maybe give further information.

It doesn’t devalue the other person’s opinion like a direct deflection does, but it allows you to move the conversation on to an area you’re more comfortable with. So you might continue the skirt conversation in this vein: “I got it at a flea market/car boot sale/H&M! I was so happy to find it/It was almost sold out, I got the last one/I’m trying to live more sustainably. It works great with clothes, I think, but I still find X pretty difficult …”

Agree VERY MUCH, and laugh.

It may feel weird, but accepting praise can be easier when you assume a pose of such exaggerated confidence that it is clear you are partly joking. For example, if someone tells you “I liked your presentation”, you could answer “Yes, well, I’m super amazing like that”, and laugh. This is a little trick which, though it takes a little getting over yourself, actually makes it easier to say “yes” to a compliment – because the joke keeps it ambiguous. Do you really agree, or are you just kidding? It’s anybody’s guess.

At the same time, it allows the person who made the compliment to share a laugh with you, instead of the awkward moment after you say “Nah, it was awful”. Which I think you shouldn’t do unless it was really, really awful and you need a pat on the back. Because that’s what many people do when you decline a compliment like that: they feel encouraged to repeat their positive opinion. If you were uncomfortable with the compliment the first time, I promise it won’t be getting better after you disagree. So, however you decide to take a sincere compliment, accept it! In 99 cases out of 100, I’d say accepting a heartfelt, honest compliment is the best course of action.

What about insincere or creepy compliments?

If someone makes a compliment that is clearly not friendly or just an unwelcome way of hitting on you, the situation is entirely different, though. In this case, the “99 out of 100” thing I just mentioned absolutely doesn’t apply! Receiving attention or compliments does not put you in anybody’s debt, and if you’re truly uncomfortable with the implication – not just embarassed because someone thinks you’re amazing – you shouldn’t have to put up with it.

Let’s look at some insincere compliments and ways you could deal with them. These are just suggestions, mind you; dealing with unwelcome attention depends so very, very much on what your relationship with the other person is like.

The lewd insinuation.

“You have some great legs!” Well, that’s nice, but that predatory look on the guys’ face is just… worrying. If you’re uncomfortable with a compliment like that, there three steps you can take.

  1. Subtle: Body language.
    Smile without your eyes, only lifting your mouth’s corners without putting your heart into it, like you would when you are really tired. Say “thanks”, but nothing more, and extract yourself from the conversation as soon as you can. A little crease of your brow gives additional weight to the “I don’t appreciate this” message.
  2. Straightforward: Say no.
    Tell the other person calmly, in plain, unmistakable terms, that you are not interested. If that doesn’t put them off, bring out the big guns:
  3. Deterring: Imply you have a boyfriend.
    Even if you don’t. Even if you actually have a girlfriend. Unfortunately, many guys still take “not interested” as a challenge, but “I have a boyfriend” translates to “There is someone who’ll punch you in the face if you keep pushing this.” This is wrong and horrible and humilitating for so many reasons… but I digress. It still works.

The possibly, ambiguously sexy compliment from someone you like, but are not interested in that way.

Smile, but don’t try to hide how awkward this is for you. Then change the topic. In case the other person doesn’t get it and keeps on making you uncomfortable, call them out on it and tell them to stop. If they accept that, good! If not, that’s their problem (and a big warning sign of entitlement issues). You do not owe them more affection than you are willing to give freely and voluntairily – and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. A true friend will respect your decision.

The neg.

“You have such pretty eyelashes – are they real?”
“That’s a very pretty sweater – it’s a pity your figure is kinda not made for it!”
“That’s very nice makeup, it does a really good job of hiding those little wrinkles.”

Comments like these are intended to lower your self-esteem and make you vulnerable. It’s disgusting, but, unfortunately, somewhat popular as a pick-up technique. People who do that are like Barney Stintson, but very probably without the sweet heart of gold, and you’re not Robin – you’re one of the random chicks they intend to bang and never call again.

They are trying to use you and they don’t care if they hurt you – in fact, that’s part of the plan. Being hurt means being vulnerable and in need of validation, means being more likely to do something you’ll regret for a little scrap of pretend-sympathy. You don’t need that kind of pain and manipulation in your life. Turn down that compliment like you mean it. No holds barred. This is just my personal opinion, but if you’ve ever wanted to throw a drink in someone’s face or spill punch all over their shirt, then say “Oh, I’m soooo sorry”? Now might a good time.

The backhanded compliment.

In an ideal world, we could all parry backhanded compliments with razor-sharp wit and a comeback that’ll tell the snotty idiot to not try that on you. If you can come up with a good comeback on the spot – possibly a backhanded compliment of your own – that’s awesome! They won’t mess with you again. If, however, you cannot think of anything good right then, your second best option is to pretend you think they’re serious. It’ll drive them crazy to see you excited and happy about something that was meant to be hurtful. Also, it gives you more time for that elusive comeback to form in the back of your mind – which you can still serve up, should the other person insist on clarifying their insult.

How about you?

How do you typically react to compliments? Where do you draw the line between positive and negative compliments? What is the most awkward thing you have ever said or been told in an attempt to be friendly? For me, it’s definitely [imagine dreamy intonation]: “You’re amazing! You don’t insist on being Sailor Moon everytime we play pretend!” … Okay, I was about seven years old, but even then, the other girl looked at me like I was insane. Not entirely without reason. But luckily, I have improved my compliment game since then.

Anyway, I’d love to hear about your experiences with and strategies for compliments!

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