On the Art of the Compliment

On the Art of the Compliment

The highest art form, a performing art indeed. The deft compliment, received with grace. It is an act of pure charm, that creates a little bubble of a moment. The giver and the receiver embraced by the fragility – nay – the transience of it. The moment that must pass. The glow that will remain.

A compliment is often merely an appreciation of something done or achieved. No more, no less. And yet it is the gateway to much more. A compliment can bring a team together to work with greater vigour. A compliment can bring a warm blush to one’s cheeks. A compliment can bring awkwardness to the moment. It is the gentle nudge, a little breeze that pushes against unresistant gates. To come up against resistance is to to court awkwardness.

The perfect compliment is always light hearted, intended to do no more than bring a smile to the present. It is the antidote to ennui, lighting up the moment, bringing a few light notes of music to the moment. A little gift, easily returned, easily reciprocated.

The science of the the compliment is rather complex, and we know that people perform better after receiving compliments. Teachers use it in the classroom all the time. Gentle flattery is social grease – too much and it becomes icky. Too little and it becomes speculative, often opening pathways that are best left alone. Unless innuendo was intended, which is when it moves on from a compliment to flirtation.

The sharing of compliments is clearly not flirtation, but is often misconstrued so. The giver or indeed, the receiver may place a notional premium where none was intended. A simple response to the compliment may be seen as validation of that premium. Often, silence is perceived as consent. The compliment plus, as it were gets established as the baseline. Rather unfortunate if not, of course.

To give and to receive a compliment is a skill. It requires a little foreplay to test the waters, a little nuance to phrase it in the right range, a little modulation to pitch it right, and a little twinkle to shield it from harm. A delicate little thing, being sent out into the world, its first flight the only legitimate one (Nothing worse than a compliment used again, it stinks). Who knows how it may fare, the gentle spark. It may die unseen. Or it may just land and become a twinkle in someone’s eye, which is possibly, quite satisfactory.  Tentative shots run the risk of misdirection, and someone will have to clear the inevitable mess, unless the compliment was totally missable – in which case – what was the use?

Compliments have this charming ability to scaffold to higher levels of finesse. A deft compliment, delivered well is like a serve in a game of ping-pong. A worthy opponent can lob it back just so. The volley that follows is a delight both to the players and observers. As in ping pong, the advantage is to those who can surprise, and yet keep it within the limits of the table. The game ends if the limits of the table are crossed.

Of course, all compliments are not what they seem. There is a universe full of meaning in the subtext of the compliment. Some compliments are just the opposite of what they seem.  “Oh, you look bright today” could well mean – garish and overdressed. “That dress looks comfortable” is clearly indicting a sloppy dresser. “Healthy” has of course often been used as a euphemism for fat. The oblivious or the dense are the right candidates for such barbs.  Protip for the well mannered who choose not to reciprocate – a light and breezy – “right back at you” fixes the best of the barbies.

The perfect compliment of course is the simplest one. Said straight, without art or enterprise. Truly felt and yet not intense. A light remark that eases one into comfort. A beginning, yet not an intent.