Compliments: How to Get Happy and Make a Better World
Generate goodwill, make people like you, and get free stuff.
Posted December 19, 2018
This post was co-authored by Grace Mabie (Williams College class of 2019) and Nate Kornell. The baker and bartender stories are Grace’s, the dentist is Nate’s.
If you’re like us—human—you probably like certain kinds of articles. They should be short. They should increase your ability to dominate the world. Their messages should be simple and wise. Following their advice should be easy. And fun. There should be no downsides. It should be a win-win for everyone around you. The insights should be universally true. They should be totally obvious when you think about them, but relatively unknown. And, oh what the heck, why settle for second best: The advice should be supported by solid scientific research.
This article delivers all of that.
Without further ado, here are a few tips for how to live surrounded by a warm glow of goodwill, make people like you, and get free stuff.
Lesson 1: Give compliments
As I wandered through the bakery section of a Whole Foods one day, I saw a detailed arrangement of gorgeously decorated cakes and cupcakes. I told the woman who made them that they were beautiful. She smiled, asking me to hold on as she slipped into the back, returning with an entire box of cupcakes that had fallen over or been damaged in some other way. She told me she couldn’t sell them, but she wanted someone to enjoy them.
I could tell she took pride in her cupcakes and put her heart and soul into decorating them, so I acknowledged that I appreciated what she was doing.
See that’s the whole trick. If someone wants to be complimented, compliment them.
Sounds obvious, right? Yeah. It is obvious. But most people don't spend much time complimenting strangers. Or even their friends, for that matter. How many compliments did you give last week? Can you increase it?
Here’s the key scientific idea: When you have a positive view of yourself, you’re happy (Gilovich, T., Kruger, J., & Savitsky, K., 1999). Compliments increase self-esteem, which therefore boosts the receiver’s happiness and satisfaction (McCullough, Huebner & Laughlin, 2000). When someone receives a compliment two things happen: They like the complimenter more and they become more compliant (Grant, Fabrigar & Lim, 2010; Tal & Gal, 2017).
Lesson 2: Create trust
Here’s another example. A few months ago, my friends and I were in a crowded bar in Boston, laughing and having fun. One of the bartenders, sporting neon light-up suspenders, was dancing and doing tricks with the bottles before he poured them. I confidently approached him. “Cool suspenders, and nice dance moves. You seem like you have a good personality,” I said. He smiled. It was a 10-second, no-big-deal interaction, on a night when he had hundreds of them, but he didn’t forget it. About a month later, I returned to that bar and the dancing bartender remembered my name and offered me a free drink.
I was being sincere. But if I hadn’t been, it wouldn’t have mattered. He trusted me, so I benefited from his goodwill. Trust is a key factor in encouraging generosity (Habibov, Cheung, & Auchynnikava, 2017, Mayer, R. C., & Gavin, M. B., 2005), as well as cooperation (Gambetta, 1988). It can even enhance social relationships and eliminate biases (Blau, 1964; Vermue, M., Seger, C. R., & Sanfey, A. G., 2018).
So why did the bartender and baker trust me? Simple: Because what I said seemed true. I said they were cool and they thought I was right. This is due to a phenomenon called confirmation bias, which says that we readily accept information that confirms beliefs we already hold (Nickerson, 1988); deep down, we believe that we are good and that our praise is well deserved (McCullough, Huebner & Laughlin, 2000; Gilovich, T., Kruger, J., & Savitsky, K., 1999). We take compliments as facts, but try to rationalize and discredit criticism. Why would a bartender assume I was lying when I told him he was well-dressed and cool? After all, he went out of his way to purchase those suspenders, even though he had been provided a more generic pair with his uniform. Why would a baker think I was being malicious when I told her the cakes she made were beautiful? She dedicated a lot of time and energy to the creation of these desserts, and confirmation bias would suggest that she believed they deserved praise.
Still, we have a tip for how to give compliments: Confidently. To enhance trust, it is essential to seem unambiguous and self-assured (Gutierrez-Garcia, A., Calvo, M. G., Eysenck, M. W., 2018). It also helps to smile. People are put at ease by those that are socially comfortable. These qualities make you likable and easy to talk to. (Bielak, Moscovitch & Waechter, 2018).
And thus, a well-directed compliment is a great way to establish trust and begin a strong relationship.
Lesson 3: When this will backfire
Here’s a warning. When you give a compliment, if you seem like you’re trying to get something, it will backfire. For example, showering a police officer with compliments after you get pulled over. Bad idea.
Thus, we must modify our strategy. Be less assertive. Like a crafty boxer, hang back, wait for your opening, and then attack. If you get pulled over, agree with the officer. He or she is right. You were speeding. You deserved to be pulled over. You needed to learn a lesson. The officer will believe you’re honest because of good old confirmation bias: You are supporting a preexisting belief that he or she is doing a good job. That honesty will lead to trusting, liking, and generosity (Mayer, R. C., Davis, J. H., & Schoorman, F. D., 1995; Bielak, Moscovitch & Waechter, 2018; Habibov, Cheung & Auchynnikava, 2017; Mayer, R. C., & Gavin, M. B., 2005), which will make the officer more likely to let you go.
In short, you aren’t lusting after a chance to give a compliment. You aren’t trying to get anything. You are admitting defeat. It’s just that, well, if they force you to give an opinion, you have to be honest! And if the truth happens to be full of agreement and compliments, so be it.
Lesson 4: Who You Should Compliment
Your biggest fans will care about your compliments most. This gives you great power and great responsibility.
Two weeks ago, during finals week, I was sitting with a student I know well. She was in the throes of multiple end-of-semester crises but she was holding it together. I paused, solemnly stared her in the eye, and, with total honesty, complimented her. She started sobbing.
I’m a professor, so students automatically respect me (until they get to know me, obviously). This makes my compliments hit hard. If I compliment a stranger it is like I shot them with a squirt gun. If I give a heartfelt, authentic compliment to a student, about something where I’m an expert (e.g., their paragraphs not their photographs), it’s more like a firehose.
Compliments breed trust, as we’ve said above.
Don’t underestimate trust. Without trust, you can’t really give a student meaningful criticism. It’ll hurt, they’ll resent you, and they might not listen. When you build trust it’s like throwing pillows on the floor. Later, when you give out a meaningful criticism, the student will have a softer landing and they’ll bounce back. If they trust you they will listen. At least, this is what I’ve.
The responsibility part is, it would be despicable to use this as a trick. Never abuse it. It is a serious part of being a good teacher. I only do this if I really do care about them and the compliment is sincere. And I don’t do it for me.
We’re not just talking to teachers, though. What about business? A lot of employees try to kiss up to their boss by complimenting them. That’s fine, as long as it’s deserved, go ahead. But you have your priorities backwards. A good manager hunts for chances to compliment people below her, not above her. Those are the compliments that matter.
This applies beyond teachers and managers. It applies to everyone. No matter who you are, someone respects your opinion, and that gives you an opportunity to spread goodwill. If you’re a high school senior, compliment a freshman. Heck, if you like good food, compliment the chef.
So, who should you compliment? Pay special attention to people who care what you think. But compliment everyone. Actually, there are two schools of thought here. Mr. Rogers was nice to everyone. Anthony Bourdain was nice to cool people and mean to bullies and jerks. But either way, there are plenty of people you can compliment.
Lesson 5: Practical Advice
So how do you actually do this? You might need to upgrade your mental software. Try to install a radar system with one job: Searching for chances to give a compliment. When it detects an opportunity, alarms should blare, red lights should start flashing, little imaginary technicians should start running around yelling in all sectors of your brain, and you should spring into action. (You don’t need to install a radar system for things that piss you off—that comes built in.)
Your new radar system should respond to two triggers.
Trigger one should fire when you think someone did something awesome. Just tell them. Like the other day when I told my dental hygienist that she did a really great job. She did, I said so, and we both basked in a warm glow of goodwill. Plus, she gave me a bunch of floss. But the goodwill was my real reward.
Trigger two should fire when you can tell someone wants to be complimented. You’ll see this a lot. Like how a few days later, my dentist tried to extract my tooth for two hours, with me under half-working anesthesia, and eventually gave up. It was pointless and painful. When it was over, I smiled, shook his hand, and complimented him on his effort and dedication. I was being sincere, but I could have been lying. It would not have mattered. As long as they don’t think you’re trying to manipulate them, they’ll believe you. You say something nice, they’re so sure it’s true, it’s like you told them the sky is blue. What are they going to do, doubt you? They’ll be like, “Finally, someone else noticed the color of the sky!”
And by the way, the compliment was a win-win. He was happy, I have friends in that dentist’s office now, and he didn’t charge me for the visit.
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Gilovich, T., Kruger, J., & Savitsky, K. (1999). Everyday egocentrism and everyday interpersonal problems. In R. M. Kowalski & M. R. Leary (Eds.), The social psychology of emotional and behavioral problems: Interfaces of social and clinical psychology(pp. 69-95). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.
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