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Why do people compliment everyone on everything? “Great job on your performance,” “You’re so funny,” “I wish I were as tall as you.”  Is there some kind of Boost Everyone’s Esteem campaign?  I don’t want to hear close-ended compliments.  They’re worthless to me and worth very little to the giver.  How can I improve my weak points without criticism? Exactly, I can’t.

Compliments can be very awkward on top of being useless.  Say a girl approaches me.  Let’s say I don’t like her.  Let’s say she compliments me on some aspect of my physical appearance.  I have two choices: just say thanks—and feel like a jerk—or compliment her back, which would be lying through my teeth.  I guess I do have the third option of saying thanks and redirecting with some wisecrack (“Thank you, darling, you’ll get there someday, too”) but I don’t have the confidence to say that to people with whom I’m not exactly friends.

Or how about fake compliments? When I was in symphony, I always sat in the back so I felt like statements like, “Great job on your performance,” were pretty ludicrous.  I’m sitting completely out of sight and drowned out by some 20 other kids in my section.  Whom do they think they’re kidding?  To point that out would be impolite.  I can’t say thanks all graciously because I know how many mistakes the others drowned out.  If I say, “Thanks, but I think I did pretty badly,” that’s also impolite because that means, “Thanks, but no thanks.”  Now if these people say, “You did really well but I think you could have done better if you [insert suggestion],” I can say thanks un-awkwardly.  It’s up to me to take the criticism or leave it, but since the compliment is tempered by advice, I don’t have to worry about offending the other party by not considering their compliment valuable because they’re giving advice, and I’m taking it, so instead of, “Thank  you for telling me I’m wonderful,” I can say, “Thank you for the advice, I’ll think about it,” which has some merit for both of us.

Another key point is the “I think.”  Two people can give the same advice, and I’ll listen to one and argue with the other.  For example, when I cut my hair boy short (I think it’s cute but maybe because I’m a girl), a lot of people had something to say.  Most of the responses I got were “Aw, you cut off your long, pretty hair.  Well, the new cut is cute, too,” which is a neutral statement. Several guys said, “You were so pretty with your long hair [emphasis added].” I got offended. “You think I should grow my hair how long?  Have you ever taken care of long hair?  Do you know it’s very inconvenient for me?  You can just wear short hair and no one will say anything, but if I wear short hair, you have a problem?  And who are you to tell me how I should look?” One of my best friends (a new phenomenon to me but YES I DO IN FACT HAVE FRIENDS, EVEN BEST FRIENDS) liked my hair but she said, “I think you should try this”: and we discussed a new hairstyle for me when this cut gets long enough.  When she made her suggestions, I felt really interested in her opinion even though I didn’t completely agree.

Let’s remember these two simple rules when we compliment and when we criticize:

  1. Keep the two together.  You’ve probably been told not to criticize without complimenting so I’m telling you it works the other way around, too.
  2. Your opinion is not fact.  Unless you’re writing an essay or an opinion column or a blog, in which case your opinion is a given, don’t forget the “I think” to denote that you know you’re just another human and that this happens to be your opinion.
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