On Paying Compliments

Penny: What was all that about me trading sexual favours for material gain?

Sheldon: It was a compliment. I believe in giving credit where credit is due.

-Big Bang Theory

In the Disney Movie Zootopia, the protagonist-bunny Judy Hopps pays a few compliments to the fox Nick Wilde who would eventually become her partner in solving a huge case.  One of these adjectives is “articulate”.  I was a bit puzzled as he was not particularly articulate for a fox.*  Later in the movie, she is apologizing to him and she uses the word “articulate” again.  This time over, I really did not think it was a compliment at all.  The fox’s problem was that other animals did not think of him as trustworthy and were prejudiced against him. So the real compliment here is to tell him that he is reliable, trustworthy or dependable for he really is all this and more in this story.  Being articulate is a positive trait. But in this case, it works against him as a fox will not want to be known as overtly sweet-talking or glib.  Even if he is pretty articulate, the rabbit should choose her adjectives wisely when trying to make him feel better.

I later found that this is meant to be condescending.  A politician had called Barack Obama “articulate” and plenty of people had taken offence at this comment.  That is what they are highlighting here. Only, it is the exact opposite of what had made me uncomfortable. It appears that White people are known to pay  this compliment to Black students or colleagues and usually mean that they are more articulate than they would expect a Black person to be. It is the racist counterpart of the #DespiteBeingAWoman compliment Modi gave Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina.

In the same movie, Judy Hopps tells a Cheetah that only a rabbit can call another rabbit ‘cute’. This brings us to the topic of this post. Do you know to pay a proper compliment?  Do you know to receive compliments with grace?  It does not sound like Rocket Science and it isn’t. But we have all fallen into this trap.  We have done this and have had this done to us.  Let us explore a few variants of bad  compliments.

The “You are better than I would have expected you to be” Compliment

You look young for your age, you are articulate for a Black person, you are sensible for a woman, you are beautiful for a dark girl, ahhhhh. The list is endless.  People are usually fond of the demographic they fall under.  So it is not nice to say that they are an exception in a rather stinky group.

I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog that a guy once told me, “I want to be friends with you. I have never met intelligent women before.”  This is the same guy who thought that he was going to get somewhere with a “You are beautiful. Really! I am serious, I am not joking.  Believe me.” Did that damn thing sound even distantly like a compliment? Well, there are female misogynists, and in all probability some men do get away and further with compliments like that. I can well imagine Enid Blyton who later in life admitted that she modelled George Kirrin (who is basically a girl called Georgina) after her own childhood being mighty pleased with the compliment “as good as a boy.”

Do not pay compliments like giving a dog a bone

I had mentioned in another post that I prefer people who say “Beautiful for a dark girl” to those who say “Dark is more beautiful.”  So I want to clarify something.  Saying just “You are beautiful” is certainly better than either, and that is a given. The problem is this: Some people who want to advise you against wearing certain colours and those who want to recommend fairness creams sandwich their advice between two compliments.  That is more annoying than I care to elaborate.  Do not use compliments to sweeten blows.

Do not compliment just before you ask for a favour. That is plain disgusting.

Do not compliment instead of issuing a heartfelt apology or distract a person from the issue at hand. I know a man who raised a grievance and the senior just doused him in honeyed compliments and threw him away without bothering to address the grievance at all.

“Yippee, ABC is on time to work!!!” and “Hurray, you did not screw up today” are fine as jokes. We all say that to our friends and colleagues. But some people congratulate colleagues for not screwing up the situation and seem to do this in all seriousness.  Don’t be too good and inadvertently come across as rude.

It is an art. Learn it.

Here a few points I believe are crucial for a good compliment.

  1. It is about the other person. The only acceptable reason why you should pay compliments is because you think the recipient is awesome (or did something awesome recently). It is about them, not about how kind or sweet you are. There are a few people who pay compliments just because they took a new year’s resolution to pay at least 5 compliments a day or because they just saw a motivational image on WhatsApp. If that is what you are thinking, then the recipient will easily see through it.
  2. It is fine to mention that the recipient is a better singer or dancer or achiever than you are. But a friend of mine once mentioned that another girl often gave compliments that went “Wow! How beautiful you are. I am sure many guys will propose to you. I myself am not half as good looking as you are and no guy is ever going to look at me.” It was very embarrassing for my friend to accept this very weird compliment and the other girl was making a habit of it. I would have personally classified this under the heading ‘Nuisance’.
  3. Anyone who has cooked a meal knows that the best compliment they can have is to see that the food is being relished by those who taste it. Compliment with your actions, expressions and the time you spend with someone. Anyone can string a few flattering adjectives together. Actions always speak louder.
  4. Avoid using one-size-fits-all compliments like ‘hardworking,’ ‘beautiful’ and ‘nice’ and go for more specific compliments. Tailor the compliment to that particular person and that particular situation. It is always more flattering that someone paid attention to what you were doing or saying. It also pays to improve your vocabulary to make the compliments come alive.
  5. A good compliment’s effect is multiplied by the number of people who witness it. Try to say these nice things in front of other people. In fact, it is great to say good things about people who aren’t there. If you hear that people were actually gossiping flattering things about you behind your back, you feel mighty pleased.
  6. Pay abundant compliments to children. Children learn what is good and what is bad based on what you scold or appreciate them for. Some people laugh and make merry when children say horrible impolite stuff and scold them for asking innocent childlike questions. What is wrong with these people? Sometimes they make me want to find a sturdy wall and bang my head against it.
  7. Ah, the soft bigotry of low expectations. Say you expect to score 100% in math and your friend who is better than you in sports is expecting a 50% in the same exam. Say you get 97% and it breaks your heart and you cry but genuinely feel happy for your friend’s unexpected 65%. It is good to congratulate him/her for the achievement in what is not his/her strong point. But please do not make a song and dance about it. It kind of implies a certain sort of bigotry and can at times hurt a lot. In fact, I know people who deliberately overdo this as a form of stealth insult and jump up and down congratulating people for “unexpectedly” passing relatively easy exams. If you have something against someone and want to insult them, then have the guts to use  plain, straight insults rather than insults masquerading as compliments

Receive Compliments with Grace

Most people mean well even if there are missteps. So accept the “Wow, you look great in this picture. It does not look like you at all” brand of compliments with the same grace as the genuinely sweet-sounding ones.  If you have an inferiority complex and have problems accepting the real compliments too, then start working actively towards graceful acceptance of compliments.  It is an art too and not an unimportant one.

Some men use compliments as pickup lines and pickup lines as compliments. They don’t know any better. Let them be. Accept/Reject them based on whether you like the guy or not and based on whether you are unattached or not.  Pickup lines are a whole new topic. Maybe someday we can discuss them too.


* I know that foxes don’t talk. I mean to say that foxes are usually stand-ins for con-persons in anthropomorphic tales and con-people are chatty to a fault.

Edited by Iswarya


14 thoughts on “On Paying Compliments

  1. I agree with your take on paying compliments, but graciously accepting a compliment is also a lost art today. (You’ve touched on that.) And I feel sorry about that.

    One other set of compliments you missed is the one which minimises your efforts – ‘Oh, it’s so easy for you.’ No. I worked bloody hard for it. 🙂


  2. Anu, True. I have seen many people who look very awkward when complimented and they often look embarrassed by it. I did think of writing more extensively about accepting compliments too. However, I did not think I really know why most people don’t. I mean if someone walks up to me and says “Hey! You did a great job the other day” how difficult can it be for me to tell something like “Thank you for noticing, you are most kind” with a smile? Maybe I will think about it and fill up the comment section soon but for now I can only say that I am unable to wrap my head around it.

    As for belittling one’s effort, well, is that a insult masquerading as a compliment? I thought that was a straightforward insult. I remember Preeti Shenoy wrote about how annoying it was that some people thought writing novels is just easy work and fame. I also remember BR mentioning that people did that to him w.r.to the book “Conversations with ManiRatnam” and implied that more work was done by MR than BR who only had to watch a few movies and then ask a bunch of questions. In either case, I felt that they were just belittled with not a whiff of compliment in the air.

    I think people pay the “Easy for you” compliment as they believe that innate ability is in someway better than hard work and toil. They think that if two people get 100% in an examination and one of them toiled for it night and day and the other person did not, the second person who had not worked that hard is somehow higher. In fact, many people do say “Oh, I did not practice at all. I only chose the song at the last minute” after they win a music competition and thereby implying that effort and planning are bad things. That is plain silly of course.


  3. As Anu said, I think receiving compliments with grace is more of an art than delivering them. My instinct when paid a compliment is to respond with a compliment. I think compliments may be as effective an interrogation technique as silence. 😀 At least with women, since we’re conditioned to prize modesty.

    When giving compliments, I think it’s best to confine yourself to a person’s actual accomplishments and avoid praising “born-with” traits/abilities…like someone’s appearance or even name. I never know what to say when people tell me “Oh, Shalini is such a beautiful name.” Um, my parents thank you? 😀


  4. @Shalini, what about, ‘Yes, isn’t it?’ 🙂 Some names are – subjectively – prettier than others. I’ve said that myself about some names that sound so musical when they’re spoken, or an unusual name that means something unique…

    [By the way, I have absolutely no problem, if /when we meet, you want to compliment me on my beauty, my intelligence, my name, etc. I promise to smile graciously and thank you, whereupon, you’re welcome to praise both my graciousness and my smile – thankewberrymuch. 🙂 🙂 ]

    @Rahini – true. I got that every time – for what it’s worth, I worked my backside off in college for my grades. Yes, writing came naturally to me, but to be told that because of that, ‘Oh, it’s ‘easy’ for you’ always made me bristle.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “if /when we meet, you want to compliment me on my beauty, my intelligence, my name, etc. I promise to smile graciously and thank you”
    Ahem, Anu. We’ve been there, done that 😉

    Btw thought-provoking post, Rahini. It’s funny how a sincere compliment brightens your day and an insincere one does the opposite. With subordinates, colleagues and students, giving credit where it’s due and praising effort makes a huge difference in their willingness to repeat the same thing again. It’s used as a behaviour technique in parenting/ disciplining difficult children (positive reinforcement)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The quote I wanted to use for this article is from P.G.Wodehouse. Here is the paraphrased version.

    You are not the idiot people take you for, Bertie.
    Who takes me for an idiot?
    Don’t people? Ah well. Nevermind. The point is that you aren’t.

    Does anyone know which book this is from?


  7. Rahini – very, very well written. I especially liked your points 5 and 6. I have noticed this (#5) at the workplace a lot. There are colleagues of mine who come across as insecure at group meetings because they almost seem to think that they might put themselves at a disadvantage if they were to praise a peer in front of a manager. And, #6 – bull’s eye! I consider myself very fortunate to have been blessed with a family that was always lavish and sincere in praise when I was a kid. It certainly made me warm up to them when they admonished me for going off track at times!!

    I loved this quote (attributed to William James) that I came across in Dale Carnegie’s book – “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” Isn’t it so true? One of the things that I have picked up from my Dad is the tendency to give prompt compliments for meals. I am happy to say that I compliment my wife for EVERY meal (except for the rare occasion when something is drastically wrong in which case both of us will laugh it off together!). I of course give compliments to other people’s whose homes we visit. But more importantly, I make it a point to do this everyday at home because for someone who is pathetic at cooking, I know that it takes skill and hardwork to bring a good meal to the table. The one thing I will add here is that I have sometimes given compliments for food (especially when I visit someone’s place) even when it was not great. Because I sincerely believe that food is a matter of comfort, not taste. As long as the host is warm and generous with their emotions, I absolutely don’t care if the salt content was too much or too little. If they themselves say that it’s not that tasty, I will just smile. That might sound mushy. But I absolutely mean it. And, the genesis of this behavior came about more than a dozen years ago when I went to someone’s house for a meal. The food was absolutely delicious but they behaved as though I shouldn’t have been there. It hurt me so much that I vowed to never eat at someone’s place if I didn’t feel comfortable. And that I would never fail to compliment someone who is nice to me even if their food is just so-so. That incident is something that hurts me whenever I think of it but in a way I am grateful to that rude host for making me appreciate kind-hearted people who might not win “Master Chef” competitions 🙂

    PS: I feel absolutely dumb saying this but I will! So, I didn’t even notice that you had written a new post yesterday because all I looked for whenever I checked your page was the comments column on the left which said “7 comments” (as was the case with your previous post!). I just happened to notice the new title post this morning!!


  8. nithya: Thank you so much. I was looking for it like crazy. Will read it again.

    Ram Murali: I just happened to notice the new title post this morning.

    Actually it is my fault. I had turned on an option in the previous post accidentally. So the previous post was always on top. I had to fiddle with it to find what was wrong. I was sure someone would have been deceived. To tell the truth, I am not sure how the others noticed that a new post was already posted beneath an older one. I am still a beginner in handling blogs and am learning these things little by little.


  9. This is *such* a great post. Ever since I discovered this post, I’ve been coming back to it every so often because I know it’s going to bring a smile to my face.

    Especially, this point: “It’s about the other person”. This one’s worth a million dollars, no? One’s got to be really self-aware to realize this.

    Actually, “It’s about the other person” is relevant in so many other scenarios too, no? Just by itself — it deserves a post 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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