“Oh my god, I love your top!” – Becoming a compliment monster

By: Laura Hornberger

During my exchange program in Amsterdam, I suddenly became a compliment maker. I found myself complimenting my classmates about their outfits, study skills and even about their well-prepared food. But why is it so much easier to say compliments out loud in English? And are many superficial compliments meaningless in the end?

I’m studying with international students from all over the world: Mexico, America, Australia, Finland, Belgium and The Netherlands. That means: Different cultural backgrounds, different appearances, different opinions. There is only one thing we have in common: We speak the same language, English.

At my first weeks of school, Jasmine, my classmate from Australia, shouted across the table: “I love your socks. Where did you get them from?” It’s been a long time since I’ve received a compliment – and certainly never a compliment about socks. Is she talking to me?

I looked at my colourful rainbow-socks before shyly answering: “Oh, thank you, they are from Monki.” She nodded and returned to the conversation with the person next to her. I felt the heat in my face slowly going down and I realized that I was a little ashamed of a little compliment. I’m certainly not the most confident person in the world – but what was the matter?

The answer is simple: It wasn’t about the socks. It was about my background. In German culture compliments are rare, they may occur as often as the season changes – around four times a year for me and I guess for most Germans.

In 2002, Andrea Gelato analysed the German way of making compliments and compared them with American culture. The data were taken from videotaped dinner-table and audiotaped telephone conversations. She found out that the Germans only complimented each other when they really admired the person, because truthfulness was important. Consequently, they offer much less compliments than for example Americans do.

In the weeks that followed, I realized that compliments were more common in the classroom. Mostly it was about looks: “Oh, I really like you’re coat, you look cute in it”, “This outfit fits you really”, … It was strange for me to hear these nice things almost every day without hardly knowing each other. Is it possible that we tried more to get the addressed person to like us? I missed the originality of the compliments. They all seemed to be the same, they all contained words like “nice”, “cool” or “pretty”.

At home I acted according to the motto: The rarer the compliments, the more meaningful. But is that true? Because although Jasmine’s compliment was superficial, it still brightened my day.

In fact, research shows receiving a compliment can improve performance, social interaction and increase general happiness. And they hardly mention anything about the sort of compliments. Acting German by simply noticing things without telling the person who might feel good about them seemed even stranger to me. It didn’t feel right to hide compliments anymore. So, I started not doing it.

Three months later, I realized I was becoming a compliment monster. I made countless compliments. I have complimented a lot more on Jasmines stuff than she has on mine. My behaviour has obviously changed. Even if there is absolutely nothing wrong with compliments about physical appearances and even If I always meant them – Was it my true mission to make others feel good by giving compliments? Did I even think about it before I said it? I realized that I commented on almost everything – especially clothes, which was exactly what had upset me in class before.

Mark Twain once wrote: “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” 

Maybe the answer is a balance of the German and the American way of making compliments. In the end, it shouldn’t become a routine to praise everything – the easier and the more often the words get over your lips, the less you think about them. From time to time we should try to make compliments more individual, original and specific. Dig in a little bit deeper.

Last week I said to my roommate: “You are so funny!”. Instead, I could have said something like: “I love your humour. Remember when I was homesick and you made me laugh even though I wasn’t in the mood.” Maybe those are the compliments Mark Twain meant. The ones that last longer.

But whether compliments are more superficial or more individual – the most important part for me is still their truthfulness. Even if that’s is pretty much German.