I never would have thought of the Wall Street Journal as a place to look for good advice on interpersonal relationships. But as with so many other topics, it offers a solid dose of common sense. Two weeks ago, Elizabeth Bernstein’s column discussed how it is often the little things that lead to serious conflict in marriage, and what to do about it. This week, her column is about giving and receiving compliments.
When I was a teenager, working at Word of Life Ranch for the summer, my supervisor noted that I was not very good at being friends with the other teens I worked with. She challenged me to give three compliments each day. I would much rather have worked an extra three hours a day, as that would have been far easier. I struggled to come up with anything to give a meaningful compliment about. Even when I thought of one, I felt so self-conscious about doing something that felt so out of character for me.
I would hope I am less self-centered today than I was back then, and that I am more observant of the people around me. I feel far less self-conscious about saying such things, and if I notice someone’s blouse or jewelry or some other item that particularly strikes me as good-looking, I say so. But I doubt I ever manage three compliments a day. The things I appreciate the most – someone who is always a pleasure to talk with, someone whom I feel safe to share things with, or someone whose godly character I admire – I find the most difficult to mention.
Bernstein points out some reasons why we have difficulty giving and receiving compliments. When we receive compliments, we tend to second guess the other person’s motives. Is he just trying to flatter me? Is she really just giving me a backhanded compliment? Bernstein says that often, we hear negative connotations in what is supposed to be praise because we are already insecure in those areas.
Other times, we discount what we hear because we know the other person is unlikely to be objective. My mother always praised anything I wrote, so her praise stopped meaning much to me. One time I typed out a poem I had written and used a pen name to hide the fact I had written it. When she praised it, it meant more to me because I knew she was praising the poem and not just her daughter. As the president of the American Psychoanalytic Association puts it, with people who love us unconditionally, “there is a lot of grade inflation.”
Knowing how we question the true value of compliments we receive, we naturally worry about the same problem with the compliments we give to others. If I hear someone else’s compliment as backhanded, will mine sound that way also? Even if I mean this sincerely, will it sound like flattery? And if I try Bernstein’s advice to improve my ability to give compliments by practicing (as that supervisor thirty years ago pushed me to do), will they come across as forced and unnatural?
I’m glad to know it’s not just me that finds this difficult. I know I grew up without the social skills that many people take for granted. I have worked, as an adult, to develop some of the habits of courtesy that others have tried to teach me. (I do put more effort into conversational skills than those concerned with proper etiquette at the dining table.) But if many others struggle with the matter of compliments, I don’t feel so inept for not being better at it.
Of course, knowing I’m not alone isn’t a good excuse for not trying to do better. And the internet, however good a place for exploring this topic intellectually, isn’t the place for trying to put it into practice. So my goal for the next week will be to try to give at least one compliment a day. (Maybe I can work up to three.)