The Power of the Compliment

Back in the day, my team speculated that I had more shoes than Imelda Marcos. They even teased me about it. Most of the time I heard:

“Cute shoes!”

It was a genuine compliment and I imagined my team member thinking: “I love her style,” or “Good for her that she can pull off that look,” Or simply “I really like those shoes.”

And now and then I heard:

“Cute shoes…”

Which sounded more like an observation tinged with judgment or maybe envy, as in: “Wow. Must be nice to have money,” or, “Who does she think she is?”

Most of the time, I could tell which was which, but not always.

Recognize the Backhanded Compliment

A backhanded compliment is “any comment that blurs the line between an insult and a compliment.” It can leave us feeling confused, unsettled, and upset. For example:

“You look good for your age.”

“That lipstick color suits you so much better.”

“You don’t even notice your thunder thighs in those jeans.”

“Kudos, girlfriend! I didn’t think you’d take on something like that.”

“What a great photo. Your husband must have taken it.”

You can feel the sting, right? We can’t control what others say or the complex motivations behind their backhanded compliments. What we can do is take compliments – the real ones – to a whole new level.

Genuine Compliments Matter, Big Time

When we live our days looking for the good in others, we cultivate the positive and fill ourselves with small doses of happiness. I know you’re thinking “What’s she smoking?” I get it. It sounds silly, sappy, gushy – which is why I suggest you try it for yourself. I really do. Go on down to the Harris Teeter or wherever you shop and look through a rose-colored lens of appreciation. On a recent trip, I saw a:

  • super helpful guy in produce who offered (offered!) to get me fresh beets from the back
  • woman my age who rocked an awesome haircut
  • patient mom who disciplined her squirmy little one with tact and kindness

Through that self-selected lens, I scored the reward of seeing many things about others that I genuinely appreciate, admire, and respect. And then I did the rare and bold thing – I put my appreciation into words:

  • “You didn’t need to do that, really. But thanks so much!”
  • “I just love your hair. Seriously, it looks great.”
  • “What you just did? That was awesome.”

And what I notice, over and over again, is that a genuine compliment – from a stranger who has nothing to gain by making it – surprises people. It catches them off guard in the best way. I know that “they” say it’s better to give than to receive, but when it comes to compliments, it may just be a tie. The giver feels good about giving the gift of appreciation, recognition and thanks, while the receiver feels in some small but significant way, noticed and validated. And maybe more. Maybe you just made that employee’s day? Maybe you broke through that woman’s anxiety about aging. Maybe you reinforced that mom’s sense that she is a good parent.

Here’s what I do know: Those Imelda Marcos compliments struck a deep and heartfelt chord with me. As a little girl, I was made fun of because of the Salvation Army shoes my Uncle George picked up for me. To be complimented on my footwear so many years later was a tiny bit of salve for my old wound.


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