There are a multitude of reactions whenever I give a compliment to another person, usually along the lines of genuine acceptance, a greedy grab, cold rejection, casual dismissal, or even a minimization to the point of not being a personal compliment at all. I’m talking about an actual compliment, a felt statement of appreciation and respect for another person, not empty praise, which does not truly touch a person’s sense of worth or their impact upon another person. Compliments are our way of reaching out to another person, holding our emotions, giving a place in our hearts, and acknowledging the meaning and worth of another person in our life; they esteem another person and if the compliment is accepted, and internalized, it fortifies self-esteem.
A compliment is a felt statement of regard. “I really appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to meet with me.” “I was going through such a difficult week and having you there when I called, crying, in the middle of the night, well it made me feel not alone in all of this.” “That dinner was exquisite and I’m warmed by the meal and all of the care you show for my and our health.” “I’m speechless, touched, and just at a loss for how to thank you.” These are some compliments that have truly touched me.
A compliment is not praise. “You’re so nice!” “You’re such a good friend!” “Dinner was super good!” “That was amazing!” What do these statements of praise convey, other than a vague liking? Much like, “I feel that you are a great friend,” is a thought and not a feeling, the above statements are presumed compliments, but ring as hollow praise. Praise is often offered instead of a compliment, for it is simple to say that we like something, and it takes time and effort to explain what we like about something. In this way, praise is a passive regard for what occurred rather than a genuine and personal acknowledgement of what happened. Calling an act “good” robs the act of the impact that was intended; a personal touch lost in a lazy blanket of approval.
Praise is not a compliment, despite the dictums of etiquette guidebooks. Those guidebooks also combine the two and often recommend that the polite thing to do, when given a compliment, is to defer back to whatever happened. In this, I understand the knee-jerk reaction to appear humble, and to not think too highly of oneself when given a compliment, but this reaction serves neither the giver nor the receiver of the compliment. There is nothing humble in overlooking what another person has done. It is not selfless to abnegate a compliment, for it is a truly personal dismissal. If “I really didn’t do anything at all” is true, then the act and the compliment is void, and it didn’t matter, and by extension, you and your feelings don’t really matter.
In the Bhagavad-Gita, it is said that, “The man who is devoted and not attached to the fruit of his actions obtains tranquility.” I see this statement not as support for denying compliments, but as a call to acknowledge a compliment and the meaning it has for the giver. Accepting a compliment, with weight and kindness, is another gift, an action that says again, “yes, you do matter” that deepens bonds and evokes tranquility in our relationships. We do matter to each other, and when we realize that, and give compliments from that place where other people matter and our own feelings matter, then we are more fully with others.
Giving and receiving compliments is one of my soapbox issues, for I believe we need to give compliments and share how people have contributed something of worth to our lives. I believe we need to accept compliments and admit that we have an impact on those around us. I believe we need to reach and touch each other, both with words and deeds. If we don’t, then impersonal acts, polite denial, and hollow praise is good enough, but not really