This article was originally written for Post Grad Survival Guide.
There are two ways you can give someone a compliment:
You can compliment someone on something that is not within their control and is not deliberate
Or you can compliment someone on something that is within their control and the result of deliberate effort.
The two are completely different and they get a completely different response.
The first type of compliment is shallow and, at its core, meaningless. It’s lazy and it gives the impression that the complimenter hasn’t put much thought into it. Considering it’s usually about something surface level (for the most part, appearance) it’s the kind of thing the complimentee is probably well aware of and tired of hearing.
In the same was as criticising someone for anything they can’t change is an obnoxious act, complimenting someone for what they can’t change is a bad move.
If they were born with it, being nice about it isn’t really being nice to them. Or as Tracy Moore puts it, this is more a case of commenting on something.
If you find it hard to accept compliments in general, it might be for this reason: you’re getting a lot of the first type. They’re tricky to swallow because they say so little about you.
The second type is far more meaningful. It’s likely more specific and shows that you’re paying attention to and observing. The things people choose to put active effort into are more representative of their personality. People put effort into what matters to them.
You have beautiful eyes.
You put so much energy and thought into the way you look after your kids and it really shows.
I love how that dress looks on you
I love how proactive you are about chasing what you want.
We value what we work for which is why we secretly glow when someone acknowledges that. We place much less importance on whatever is handed to us.
A lot of people assume that complimenting someone is always a positive thing and should always generate a positive response.
But the motivation behind and context of a compliment matter. While I can’t prove this, it seems that the first type of compliment is more often about getting something, the second is more about making the other person feel good.
We don’t compliment people for no reason. There’s always an impetus behind it. Most people can tell, most of the time, when a compliment is meant to be seductive or ingratiating or otherwise pointed.
When compliments are given with sincerity and without any agenda beyond brightening the other person’s day, they are a show of warmth. Telling people they’re directing their limited time and energy at something worthwhile can have a genuine positive impact.
The line between the two types can be blurry
Of course, sometimes the lines between the two types of compliments isn’t entirely clear. Some attributes can be either inbuilt or earned. We might not be able to always differentiate perfectly.
For instance, a couple of people have told me recently that I strike them as being unusually emotionally stable. Having worked hard to get to a point where I can manage my own brain and avoid projecting crises onto other people, this is a huge compliment to me. But if I’d always been like this, it wouldn’t mean much.
Still, certain principles hold. Compliment efforts, not outcomes. Compliment the work, not the award. Compliment the passion, not the pay cheque.