Editorial: September 21
The art of the compliment. It’s an ancient and simple form of interpersonal communication and mutual good feeling. My recent ruminations and experiments with it were sparked by a conversation I had on Facebook with a professor recently (yes, they know how to use Facebook). We got on the topic of students, and people in general, not giving themselves enough credit. (This is apparently a common Calvin malady, this debasing humility, but that’s another editorial.) “Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone gave out compliments to everyone else?” I said. “I think it would actually affect people’s health,” he replied. And thus began my week long challenge. I would compliment every person I spent more than a passing moment with.
Things started off well. I commented on clothing, accessories and the speed and quality of service at Meijer. I waved at people who let me into bumper to bumper traffic, I praised a fellow student’s writing, I remarked on books purchased at Schuler’s. With the challenge fresh on my mind, it was easy to make a game of it. It was enjoyable, actually, in the way that random acts of kindness generally are. You know, that warm fuzzy feeling.
The game changed when I got to school. The sheer number of people I encountered made personal compliments nigh impossible. Schoolwork and other activities closed in, and I’ve only been managing two or three good compliments a day this week. But it still feels good. At such a generous place as Calvin, I often get a compliment in return, which only adds to the sense of reward I get from passing them out.
While this all may sound like a forced and fabricated activity, it really has been an exercise in paying attention and thinking on my feet. It would, I’ve realized, really make the world a better place if we all passed out compliments as easily as we did jokes or hellos or complaints.
When he heard my topic for this week’s editorial, Chimes’ faithful Op-Ed editor pointed me to an essay published on Esquire a few years back. The author had embarked on a challenge similar to mine. He went out on the street, determined to find out how to give the perfect compliment. His initial short, sweet and generic comments were actually met with hostility. It was only when he slowed down, took time to observe and carefully crafted his compliments to the situation that he got a positive response. People thanked him or looked sheepishly away, but as a compliment hoarder himself, he knew that the receivers treasured the kind words and surely looked back on them later.
That’s really the power of a compliment, isn’t it? Its ability to stick in our minds and come back when we most need it. Many groups (offices, choirs, dorm floors, elementary school classrooms) make a practice of perfecting the art of the compliment. They play “the affirmation game,” where each member of the group pays a compliment to all the others. Or they make personal “mailboxes” in which to slip little encouraging notes. They attach paper plates to their backs and walk around a room, writing on each other’s plates and leaving off their names. These practices, while occasionally phony-feeling, produce physical materials that are often kept for years and looked back upon when we’re in the dumps.
These long-term effects of compliments can extend even further. For this, I’ll introduce the word encouragement. It a compliment, but one specifically aimed at making a person proud of her work and eager to continue it. To encourage is literally “to make or to put in courage.” It is “to make strong, to hearten.” An encouragement lets someone know that he has value, and that he should share it. It gives him the courage to put forth his ideas, to talk to the higher-ups, to publish his work.
The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote poems for years as a child before he was published. His encouragement was surreptitious — his sister found a poem he’d left on the desk and immediately sent it in to the town newspaper. The editors loved it, and a great American poet was born. An unpublished Herman Melville received encouragement from a famous author when he was a budding writer; his novel “Moby Dick” is dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The compliment and its partner encouragement are truly an art. Sometimes it feels like society has lost the gift, but then we receive that particular, thought-out comment from a friend or a complete stranger. These sentences have the ability to turn a day around. Pass them out, won’t you?
By the way, nice shoes.