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I recently ran into a friend from college whom I hadn’t seen in about a year and a half. Cooing hellos and exchanging hugs, my mind began grasping for something more to say that would convey how happy I was to see her, how awesome I think she is, how I value her being in my life still. And I wanted something that would make her feel all warm and fuzzy inside, too.
In haste, I came up with the painfully unoriginal, instantly regrettable, “You look so great!”
Inside, I cringed at the words — not because I didn’t mean them, but because my means of communicating the serendipitous delight, the rush of sweet nostalgia I felt at suddenly reuniting with my friend hinged on her physical appearance.
Complimenting someone’s appearance is the knee-jerk approach. Acknowledging what’s right before our eyes — a person’s exterior — doesn’t require leaving autopilot, nor does it require we even know a person well, which is why I (and why I suspect many of us) lean on the appearance-based compliment quite often. The effortlessness of complimenting someone’s looks opens the floodgates for us to heap compliments on anyone in eyeshot, and giving compliments feels good, and so on.
But I want to give better compliments. I don’t want to express admiration, gratitude, love on autopilot. I crave alternatives not so much for myself, but because I believe we, however unconsciously, learn to value about ourselves what others indicate we should. If I am noticed or praised most often because of some aspect of how I look, I could naturally translate that to mean that what meets the eye is the most important part of me — my strongest suit, my wisest investment, who I am. And as the ladies of Beauty Redefined so perfectly put it: “There is so much more to be than eye candy.”
So I asked myself: What am I trying to say that I’m glossing over by mentioning something physical? What if I didn’t sidestep that thought?
Uncloaked, the compliment I want to give is the simple yet powerful, “I’m so happy to see you.” It’s precisely what I intend to say via my appearance-based compliment a good 90 percent of the time, so why not just go with it? Variations on the expression are many and flexible, and, although I’m not attaching my words to anything concrete, something about this compliment feels much more rooted, real.
My hunt for body-free accolades met a remarkable ally in blogger Elizabeth Patch, who has assembled an invigorating list of 10 ways to compliment a woman without mentioning her looks.
And I plan to keep pursuing even more alternatives. Sure, sometimes someone really is just wearing an awesome pair of boots or has a gorgeous new haircut. But being more mindful of the messages I send via compliments feels empowering, because sometimes even the smallest, most seemingly insignificant moments — brief reunions, water cooler banter, passing in the hallway — count a lot toward the big picture.