It was during a recording of the Guilty Feminist podcast that I remember the topic of paying compliments came up in response to male responses to #metoo that “you can’t even pay a woman a compliment these days without it being harassment.” The discussion was yes you can, you just have to do it in a non-creepy way. Deborah Frances-White said that in a training course she used to run, she suggested to men that they should compliment women on public transport just before they get off the train or bus. That way there is No obligation. You have complimented a woman but she doesn’t feel obliged to you in any way because you are gone. (She did then add that she might not give men the same advice now.)

Some years ago, while living in a backpacker house, my female friends and I got dressed up for a night out: you know, nice clothes, makeup, high heels, that kind of thing. A bit of a change from our usual t-shirt-and-trackies-around-the-house look. Our antipodean male flatmates said nothing but the one flatmate from South America saw us going out the door and said “Ladies, you all look very beautiful this evening.” Nothing more than that, nothing creepy, just a simple, honest compliment. And we all headed off into the night feeling good.

And that’s the key to a compliment. It should be honest and to some extent unexpected.

One of the cleaners at work I have a nodding acquaintance with. I am often in the kitchen in the morning when she is cleaning and I sympathise with her when she finds something unspeakable baked into the microwave. This lady always manages to look glamourous at work despite the un-glamourous uniform she has to wear. She came by my desk the other day and she had had her (normally lively and full) hair straightened, which made her look even more glamourous in a 1950s film star way. It was such a dramatic change, as she came by my desk I found I had stood up and was saying “Wow! I love what you have done with your hair! It looks great!”

I could see the immediate effect of this compliment – not just the smile but the lift to her whole posture. And that was a great thing to see.

So now I am trying to give compliments more often and to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

On holiday recently I was admiring a woman’s umbrella. It was a hot day and she was using it as a parasol to keep the sun off. She walked past me several times and on the third occasion I said to her, “I really like your umbrella, it’s very pretty.” Of course she didn’t understand English and she blanked me and turned away. Even though her friend said something to her (hopefully he had understood what I said) she just shrugged and walked off. So that was a lesson for me. Make sure you can be understood, otherwise your compliment is just a random stranger making random noise.

I am also trying to be specific with my compliments. So rather than say “You look great today” (which admittedly, I would be happy to hear), I say “Oh, you’re wearing that beautiful gold scarf today. I love that scarf. It’s such a great colour and it looks wonderful on you.” Maybe this is an outcome of management training feedback courses I’ve been on – saying you should always be specific when giving feedback. I guess compliments are a kind of feedback.

When did you last receive a compliment?

How did it make you feel?

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