Wednesday, October 29, 2008
The Art of the Compliment
Criticism is an art that has been carefully explored and fully developed. There are so many books, classes, therapy sessions in which we can learn how to be "constructively" critical in personal relationships, with employees, colleagues, neighbors, etc. There are art critics, book critics, music critics of course. "Critical thinking" is a highly valued skill in my culture. At the end of art classes, teachers deliver "critiques" of students' work. I love that word, critique - it's so ... French??
But the art of the compliment has not been researched except in the context of manners. "This pie is delicious!" is, to me, not a compliment. It's something I say to be polite and often has nothing to do with whether the pie is wonderful or not. What I'm really saying is, how nice of you to feed me. Sometimes the pie IS wonderful, but I still think that kind of statement is more about good manners than about being complimentary.
"I love you!" or "I love the way you dress!" (or whatever) also seems to be somewhat to the leeward side of a true compliment. It's a statement of personal affection, it describes an emotional response to a person. That seems distinct from a genuine compliment.
Compliments are often hard to take in, hard to take seriously. It's embarrassing to be complimented unless that compliment is perfectly constructed and sincerely delivered, but without too much energy around it.
Flattery is far worse than a simple compliment. Flattery, given or taken, gives me the willies, even though I've used flattery more times than I care to remember, in an unconscious effort to get people to like me, I'm embarrassed to admit.
Yesterday I received two compliments from two different people, both of which were so skillfully articulated, and so masterfully delivered (with just enough spin, not too much) that I was able to take them in and feel happy to have received them. Wow. It is an art.
Someone should write a book about how to issue compliments with skill and finesse. Don't you think?