How to Pay a Compliment

Small pink roses on a bush with a background of bright blue sky.

The title of this post makes it sound like some sort of entry in Debrett’s (shudder), but I can assure you that it won’t be anything like that. A compliment is a powerful thing and can do a lot of good, or a lot of harm. Every compliment is meant to be positive (we all know back-handed compliments are really just insults), but they can often have unanticipated effects. This piece is in no way meant to serve as the be-all and end-all of guides, but is rather a collection of thoughts on the meanings and effects of different ways of complimenting people. I was originally going to title it ‘How to compliment a woman’, but when I really got thinking about it, all these issues apply to people of all genders. If we’re going to dismantle the patriarchy, we have to be aware of how it and our behaviour impacts all people, not just women. So without further ado, here are some ideas you might want to think about when you next find yourself on the verge of offering a verbal nicety.

*Unable to figure out how to visualise the concept of paying someone a compliment, and at the risk of being accused of comparing people to flowers (not a good way to compliment someone), I’ve chosen to illustrate this post with a series of soothing images – hope you enjoy!*

Compliment the Clothes, not the Body

In my own life, the thing I most often find myself spontaneously complimenting is the dress-sense of those around me. I’m interested in clothes and have pretty broad fashion tastes, so it’s predictable that I’d be likely to react to someone’s outfit. But I think it’s important to consider what it is I really like about the clothes. Is the cut interesting, it is a great material, do I like the pattern? Or am I just liking it because it makes the person’s body more closely conform to normalised societal beauty standards? Clothes can be a wonderful mode of self-expression, and what we choose to wear can say a lot about us – a lot more than just ‘society approves of my body’. This is all the more important to bear in mind when the person you’re talking to doesn’t totally conform to the kind of body type the media is constantly telling us is ‘the best’. I find it super depressing when it feels I’m only getting a compliment because my dress makes me look thin. So try instead to direct your admiration to aspects of their outfit which reflect their personal taste and style – remember, you’re complimenting a fellow human being, not an object.

Terrace house with blue door, surrounded by large pink roses and lavender bushes which aren't yet flowering

If you do want to compliment the body, compliment what it does, not how it looks

Sometimes you really do just want to compliment someone on their body. They’re looking in great shape, and you want to show your respect for that. But again, try not to make it all about their appearance, or how it makes you feel. When women compliment other women’s bodies, common rhetoric and turns of phrase often emphasise feelings of jealously or inferiority in the complimenter. This isn’t exactly going to make the complimenter feel great about themselves. Society creates a false sense of competition between women when it comes to beauty and the body. It’s as if there is a finite amount of beauty in the world, and if another woman has some that must mean she’s depriving other women of it. But it doesn’t have to be like this. You can praise a person’s body for what it brings to them, not for how it makes you feel, be that negative feelings of envy or positive feelings of attraction. Highlight strength, stamina, and agility, make it about what they can achieve. I’ll admit this can be a slightly sensitive area – women have been so used to finding ways to compete that even positive words like ‘strong’ have been taken as euphemistic insults. But as the world grows and we’re seeing a rise in women championing and uplifting each other, I hope we’ll see how it wonderful it is to be called ‘powerful’.

Stone doorway surrounded by red roses, at Worcester College Oxford.

Don’t mention their height

With the exception of doting grandparents addressing growing children, it is rarely a good idea to praise someone for their height (or lack thereof). People of all genders are equally likely to be poorly-served by such compliments. Tall women are rejected by shorter (insecure) men, short women often struggle to be taken seriously in the workplace, and the bias towards taller men continues to play out in elections across the world. Unless they are truly exceptional, at either end of the spectrum, height is unlikely to have played any role in forming their character (and even if they are at either end this will likely have only led to discrimination). It’s not controversial to say that people should be treated equally regardless of their height. No matter how well you mean it, such comments are likely to come across as vaguely patronising. If you tell someone ‘you look so tall’, they’re not necessarily going to take it badly, but you will be contributing to the continuation of a system which gives utterly undue value to the simple fact of how tall someone has grown. Best avoided.

Don’t mention their age

Ok, so this is one most people will know to steer clear of in face-to-face conversations. No one wants to be told they’re looking great ‘for their age’. It is important that we resist narratives which suggest that people, and women particularly, are in their prime in their 20s, and become increasingly ‘past it’, the further from this age they get. But this can also be an issue for younger people. If you tell a child or teenager that they look ‘grown-up for their age’, or that they ‘look older than they are’, what you’re really saying is that society can start to treat them like an adult. This is particularly a problem for black children, who are routinely called ‘old for their age’, playing into a system which places unrealistic and unfair demands on them, which would not be placed on their white peers. ‘You look old for your age’ soon becomes a weapon used against them in their own oppression.  

So once again, it is key that we think not only about what the compliment might mean to the individual, but also about how it might reflect or play into existing oppressive systems in society.

Thick purple wisteria around a cottage door in Iffley Village, Oxford.

Avoid talking about the thickness of their hair

This one is sort of more how not to insult someone, but it amazes me how many people think it is still ok to criticise a man for losing his hair. How is is still acceptable to insult someone for genetic or health factors which are beyond their control? So, if you’re complimenting anyone, but I suppose more usually men, try not to praise how much hair they ‘still have’. You’re reinforcing the idea that how much hair is on your head has something to do with who you are as a person. It’s a bit different, but thick hair is also often seen as a desirable trait in women (there are so many shampoos on the market which promise to thicken your hair). Many women lose hair as a result of stress, physical ailments, or growing older. We should be working to move away from a value system which equates more hair with being a better person.

Think about how your compliment fits into the bigger picture

Ultimately, all you need to do when paying a compliment is think about how it might effect the individual receiving it, and how it might reflect the society you live in. Is it going to uphold a value system you believe in? Words have power, and we have power over words, so choose them carefully, and use them to create a world you can be proud of.

Light purple lilac flowers in front of a tall townhouse in London.

As I’ve been writing this I’ve realised how much of this applies to our attitudes towards ourselves as well as others. Self-compassion is such an important achievement, and thinking about the way we choose to define and compliment ourselves can be life-changing. It’s sort of like the inverse of ‘judge not, lest ye be judged’. More like ‘judge yourself as kindly as you would like to judge others’. So next time you’re looking in the mirror, think about complimenting yourself, with the same kindness, compassion, and sincerity with which you treat those around you.

To finish this post off, I thought it’d be nice to share some of the compliments we’ve received which mean the most to us, and share a compliment we’d like to give ourselves. I’ll start us off: recently someone at work said they didn’t know how anyone couldn’t like me – as someone who’s never been riotously popular and is often very insecure about what people around me really think of me (especially as I’m a bit of a cynical grump), this was an incredibly lovely thing to hear, and made me feel a lot more confident in my interactions. My self-compliment would be to acknowledge my sense of determination, and ability to make good of situations I get thrown into. I’d be delighted if you shared yours in the comments below – let’s spread some positivity in these unsettling and uncertain times. As ever, thank you so much for reading!

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