On How To Give a Compliment

Meta note:  A version of this post went out on 3/18/2018 that was significantly less clean and edited – I was offered thorough feedback and editing by Elo – I decided to accept the feedback and suggestions as an experiment.  I like the results.  If you were attached to the old version of the post, feel free to email me (address is in my about page) to get the draft document.  Thank you Elo!

(Epistemic status: Trivially true – there’s academic literature on feedback about this – might kind of be creating a tragedy of the commons situation, not sure I care.)

A couple days ago I was fairly depressed. I felt the kind of bad that wants to keep feeling bad.   I was stuck in the frame of my depression. However, I’ve learnt from experience that reaching out and complimenting people, as well as receiving good compliments can do a lot to fix my moods.

When I get into the depressed frame of mind, usually I’m looking for validation. I asked for some help…and I got the usual cheer crowd of “oh yeah you’re great and amazing.” I find this sort of complimenting/validation to be pretty unfulfilling and fake.  I decided I’d change things – complimenting is an art and I would teach my friends how to do it by “aggressively” complimenting them.

Compliments are an art, but not a particularly hard one to have heuristics about. A good compliment is specific, true, and comes from someone the receiver of the compliment respects as a trusted appraiser. These are generally the rules for feedback – positive or negative.  With that in mind, let’s go into what each of these mean.

Specific means the compliment is more than just saying someone is great generically. It’s saying concretely what you find complimentable – let’s say they’re a great writer.  You might say “Wow, you’re a really good writer,” but this isn’t very specific. A more specific compliment would be “The way you use words gives me vivid imagery of the scenes you’re describing” Specificity can be a difficult metric; it depends on how well you know them. It also depends on the relationship you have to them (such as if they are a coworker, or a friend you play video games with).  Being specific on dimensions of a person’s life that you don’t really know can do more harm than good, you might come off as ingenuine. If you say to a coworker, “I think you’re a really caring and gentle father who truly understands his children’s interests,” it might come off as insincere and possibly creepy because you complimented them as if you know other spheres of their life.

Compliments need to be true and plausible. If you say something that isn’t true, you’re going to get shot down and lose social capital.  Take the above example of the coworker and father – perhaps he’s actually a harsh disciplinarian to his kids even if he’s gentle at work, and your compliment just makes him feel uncomfortable.  If your compliment is not plausible given the frame that your target is in (when I’m depressed, it’s very hard to get me to accept fuzzy statements about my social skills, for example) it’s also likely to get shot down. This is why giving generic compliments is way safer.  You are unlikely to be socially punished if what you’re saying isn’t falsifiable. Generic compliments are far lower impact. A compliment that registers as untrue is going to backfire. You may even have the compliment recipient engaging in negative self talk. In my recent depressive episode, some of the compliments I received highlighted me as someone reliable. This doesn’t really fit my self image, especially when depressed – which caused me to respond that I felt generally like if someone gets an impression of reliability from me, they are being deceived.  Fortunately, we managed to negotiate the compliment to something I would accept and it actually felt pretty good. Other ways a compliment that feels untrue can backfire involve the recipient being less inclined to trust your judgment.

Compliments need to be given by someone the recipient considers a valid appraiser. If you hardly know a person, they aren’t going to expect you to have deep insight into how they think, what they care about or what they’ve invested energy into.  Let’s say you have someone who’s in a band – you’ve just met them, never heard their music, but try to tell them they play well, mirroring things they said themselves about their sound.  It’s clearly not going to a valid appraisal of their musical talent.

As a side note to valid appraisals, ingroup and outgroup dynamics can have a major impact on this dimension.  If you are regarded as outgroup by someone and you nail true/plausible, and specific, your compliment is going to be very high impact.  If you don’t hit those points, you’ll be ignored as someone who “doesn’t get it.” However, you won’t incur a social cost. On the flip side, if the recipient considers you in their ingroup, being a valid appraiser is mostly based on your reputation – i.e. do you shoot straight or do you harmonize with everyone? In the former case, you can give compliments that come off as blatant flattery, because you have a reputation for bluntness. If you’re aiming for harmony, you have to make sure you’re more specific in your compliment.  There are other cases, this is meant to be the general heuristic. Complimenting as an art is a combination of self knowledge and theory of mind. Once you get the hang of it, you can generate warm feelings and social capital rapidly.

Posting this might be a minor tragedy of the commons.  Most people know how to give halfway decent compliments… acting as if you aren’t capable of complimenting well is significantly cheaper in terms of signaling closeness. It does take effort, time, energy, and concentration to craft a well aimed compliment – and you might not want to do this every time you make a compliment. If generic compliments are devalued by knowledge of better techniques, it becomes harder to signal “I care about you” via lazily complimenting someone.

Making it clear that I am aware of how to compliment people makes my life harder.  Whenever I make a low-effort compliment people are going to say “oh, you know how to do way better than that, by giving a weaker compliment to what you would usually give, you are signaling that you don’t care much.” On the flip side, genuine, well aimed compliments feel amazing.  I like increasing the amount of amazing feeling in the world. As such, I want the common knowledge situation to prevail.

Overall, compliments are relatively easy to have heuristics for and take practice to really find the art intrinsic to them. The basic rules are to make sure that what you are saying is true, specific, and that you are being being assessed as someone valid to give the class of feedback you’re giving. There’s a meta point about whether you want to get in the habit of good compliment giving.  Being known for thoughtful compliments reduces the number of moves you can make if you want to do low cost signaling of compassion and care for someone. It’s perfectly reasonable to want to give off low cost signals, sometimes you don’t have the energy to properly do emotionally labor for someone – but the inherent illegibility to not giving decent compliments makes it easier to choose when to save that energy.  Still, compliments do feel amazing when done well, so it might be worth the tradeoff. As mentioned in the opening story, it can improve your own mood to reach out. Crafting a better compliment generates unexpected yields later in life – you won’t always be sure where it will lead, but it’s an interesting place to leap.

Discussion questions: How was your compliment game before reading this post? What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received? What’s the best compliment you’ve ever given? Do you think that the risk of losing lower effort emotional labor options is legitimate? If so, is it worth the tradeoff to develop a habit of good compliments?

5 thoughts on “On How To Give a Compliment

  1. One of the stickiest comments I ever received was that I was a good conversationalist. In addition to the three points you mentioned, it was surprising in that it wasn’t really something I had developed *any* opinion on about myself before, good or bad. I think that’s part of why it stuck so hard. It’s easier to dismiss complements about familiar topics with “oh, I already know that” / “that’s not important, even if true”.

    And best of all, that little seed that was planted grew and had some self-fulfilling nature to it. I’ve felt a little bit more confident/less self-doubting while carrying on a conversation, since then. It was a wonderful gift to me.


    1. Oh, huh, wow, I totally forgot the novelty dimension in terms of really sticking a compliment on someone – thank you for bringing that to light. I’m also happy that you were able to receive such a good, influential compliment; I appreciate you sharing that here.


  2. I believe a well timed compliment can help people who are struggling. You have to time it right though so it is genuine and doesn’t seem like you are just saying it as a way of trying to help them deal with their depression.

    I generally like compliment giving. However I think you are right, if it becomes a norm within the group / larger culture then they get watered down. At first I thought maybe you were overthinking when you started talking about the tragedy of the commons, but you are right. I still think you overthought things a bit, though =P.


    1. One thing I do is make it off hand, like just go on a sudden tangent and say something like “…you know you are really ___ , right??”.

      I know some compliments I’ve gotten have influenced me and recalling them helps me maintain my (admitably fragile) ego. In particular ones from my parents and my psychologist.


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