The Problem with Compliments

I love to give people compliments. I think people deserve to hear good things about themselves and I’m happy to be the one to dish out the good things. I’ll literally stop a stranger on the street to hand out a compliment. I once stopped a young woman in a park to tell her she had the most amazing hair I’d ever seen. She had this long, curly cascade of carrot red hair that was breathtaking. Now, you know she’s been given rafts of crap from her peers for years because of that hair, which is too bad because it’s rare and gorgeous. (Whoa. There was a lot of rhyming in that sentence.) It’s possible she thought I was insane, but by the time I was done gushing, she had a huge smile on her face. Boom! Day made.

But, there are, in my opinion, sometimes difficulties with giving compliments – difficulties that make me bite my tongue more than I would like. They are:

1. Women

See, giving another woman a compliment is a fairly benign thing. Unless they think I’m coming on to them, which rarely happens. But the real issue with giving women compliments is that so many of us don’t know how to take a compliment. We either think we need to diffuse the situation by retorting with something self deprecating (example: I say, “Wow! That skirt looks amazing on you!” And the women responds, “Yeah, it hides my wide hips!”), or we feel the need to immediately respond with a compliment back, which is totally unnecessary. Really, all that’s needed is a simple “thank you” and a smile!

2. Men

Complimenting men is a really hard thing to do unless you have an established relationship with them whereby the basis for the compliment is understood. In plain terms – they either know you’re hitting on to them or they know you’re not. For example, my good friend at work knows I’m not hitting on him when I tell him how awesome I think his goatee looks. But a new male friend may not know how to take a similar compliment.

However, I’ve found that no matter the intention, it’s all about the delivery. “Dude! That beard is awesome!” (Add a totally friendly, non-flirty smile.) Versus, “Hey, I love your beard!” (Add a coy look.) See? Another approach, if you’re just trying to give a genuine compliment and not hit on him, is to pay him the compliment in front of, or to, his significant other. “Man, that is such a sweet beard he’s rocking, right?” (Smile big at the girlfriend so she knows you’re non-threatening.)


Honestly, I’m not as good at giving the people I know well compliments as opposed to strangers. If there’s a miscommunication about the intention of a compliment (or any awkwardness) with a stranger, well, who cares? But if there’s a miscommunication about the intention of a compliment (or any awkwardness) that stems from complimenting someone I care about, well, that can suck.

Aw, screw it. I think I’m just going to start doing it regardless. Let them work it out for themselves. After all, I can’t control other people’s perceptions, right?

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  1. I do believe that is should fall under the “I am only responsible for what I say, not for how you interpret it.” clause. :)


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