The Art of Compliments

Ever give a compliment and feel like it sort of fell flat and you’re not sure why? Well maybe because your compliment isn’t really a compliment at all. At least, not the way you intended it to be.

I remember reading once upon a time that in some cultures complimenting someone’s possessions is insulting. So saying something like, “I love your shoes!” is not ok in these cultures and can come across as envious.


Because you aren’t complimenting the person. Why should a person thank you for complimenting their shoes? The shoes should say thank you. Even saying something like “You look so pretty in those shoes!” is not right because it implies that out of the shoes? Not so pretty.

Ever since I read it, actually, I think about it every time I hear a compliment. I found it to make a lot of sense to me and I found that a lot of people don’t compliment you personally, they compliment your possessions. So every time I give a compliment, I try and remember to make it personal.

Instead of, “That dress is so pretty” I say “That dress looks so pretty on you” because it implies the dress is mundane without you, not the other way around. If you really want to compliment a particular item, you’re really complimenting the person’s taste so do so. Instead of “I love your shoes” I say “I love your taste in shoes.” See the difference?

Want to know the one that drives me crazy?

“You look so pretty today!”

Aw gee thanks, and yesterday I looked like a monster? And tomorrow I’ll probably be just a walking disappointment? Shucks, you shouldn’t have.

What about you? Do you ever pick up on the nuances of compliments or are you sort of immune to the details? Any other random thing that’s supposed to be positive but just ends up rubbing you the wrong way instead?


16 thoughts on “The Art of Compliments

  1. Wow. I think that level of nitpickiness is totally belittling to the person giving the compliment. I would think it’s implied that if I say “oh wow, I love your shoes” I’m saying that you have great taste in shoes. Or if I say “you look pretty today” it doesn’t mean “geeze you’re a hag the rest of the time, what happened?”

    I get that being careful about what you say and how you say it is important, especially in different cultures. But there’s such a thing as parsing with too fine a hair.

    • You’re probably right BUT I don’t think it’s belittling to the person giving the compliment unless you actually handle it rudely which I don’t ever advise.
      The only thing I would say is that implications are tricky things and it’s probably just better to say what you mean instead of what’s implied. It’s better for everyone to be clear, no?

    • Oh and funny enough, the first time I read about that difference, I reacted the same way you did pretty much. I just thought it was way too picky and the implied was obvious. I’ve changed my mind since then 🙂

    • I think so too. I know passive aggressive people exist and do that sort of thing but for the most I’m sure it is well-intentioned. I guess my point is, if you can do it even better, wouldn’t you want to?

  2. I often find myself saying, “You look really great today” *pause while I think over what I just spontaneously said* “Of course, you always look great, but today you look especially great”

    If people compliment my taste in clothing, they’re generally off base. I would have to say, “Thanks, but my colleague/friend X picked this outfit out for me.” With the baby clothing, I’m always, “It is adorable, isn’t it? It’s a present from…”

  3. OMG….this is so timely.

    I work in a pretty casual environment. Some days I do “dress down” but I don’t think I look like I am wearing jammies.

    Yesterday I wore skinny jeans, a short sleeve sweater, scarf, and “shabooties.” Everyone told me how “dressed up” I was! WHAT!!! People, it is jeans and a sweater….if you think I am dressed up, then do you think I look like a shlub the rest of the time.

    And last weak, I wore a tanktop with a cardigan over it. I am…ah hem…well endowed. Someone commented on my “cleavage” (A female…no sexual harrassment). OK, so now I wear a tank top, and feel slutty.

    Love this post….you are right….you have to be careful how to phrase things, because you can always turn it around!


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