Compliments can be a very positive thing – lifting confidence, creating social connections and affirming people. At the same time, compliments if mishandled can cause massive offence. The people who offend by complimenting generally can’t see why this could be so, and can feel unreasonably got at as a consequence. I’m not sure this will work for all variables, but it is, at least, a place to start.
What is my relationship to the person I’m complimenting? Do I know that they want to hear my opinion? If I know they do, fine, go ahead at an appropriate level. So, if my husband looks really sexy in his new waistcoat, I will tell him he looks really sexy. I know he likes me thinking this. If a friend had a new waistcoat that made them look really sexy, I probably wouldn’t frame it that way. I might say ‘you look fantastic in that waistcoat.’ I know they care about my opinion, but I don’t want to seem like I’m coming on to them, that would be weird.
If I see a stranger who looks fantastic in a waistcoat, I have no idea how they are going to feel about a comment from me. To walk up to a total stranger and tell them they look sexy could either be threatening, or seem like I am making a joke at their expense. At this point, focusing on the waistcoat seems a better way to go. They probably chose the waistcoat, they probably like it, they probably won’t be offended by me saying ‘hey, awesome waistcoat.’ Thus far, I’ve never had this be a problem, at any rate.
If I’m in a professional context with someone who I do not also know in another context – say I’m at the doctor’s, talking to a lawyer, dealing with a volunteer… unless how awesome they look relates directly to the job in hand, I will stay away from it, because it’s a distraction and not what we’re there for. I probably don’t have time. They probably don’t have time. This is particularly why focusing on the appearance of a woman in a professional context is not a good idea – all of the above issues, plus it’s taking attention away from the work. It’s not clever, and makes the one dishing the compliment look unprofessional and like their mind isn’t on the job.
We can be quick to default to the idea that our opinions are relevant and necessary. Sometimes they aren’t. If we’re looking at a situation and inferring something and basing a compliment on an idea of what we think is going on – this is hazardous, because it’s so easy to misinterpret in the first place. The better you know someone, the less of an issue it is. ‘That was brave’ is not necessarily a compliment to someone who was shit scared the whole time and wants to hide under the table. It can make things worse. It may be more useful to say ‘I’d have been terrified doing that, I’m really impressed by you for doing it’ which leaves the other person room to say ‘well, I was terrified,’ but maybe still feel a bit affirmed. ‘I would not have the courage to do what you just did’ is more honest, and probably more useful than calling someone brave when you don’t know what’s going on. If the idea of their courage is based on the idea of them being disadvantaged to begin with (not perfectly skinny people jogging, for example) it may be a lot more helpful to just leave the whole thing alone. If your compliment has a disparagement nestling inside it, don’t say it. ‘I’m amazed you past that test.’
Complimenting on weight loss – when maybe the person was ill and lost weight that way. Complimenting on physical appearance can suggest you’re busily judging people on how they look when they have little control over some aspects of how they look – that can be uncomfortable. ‘Nice jacket’ they probably did have some control over, and it’s less personal. As far as I can make out, the more control someone had over the thing you are complimenting them for, the less likely it is to offend them. Compliments that are velvet gloves for an iron fist of put down, are not actually compliments. ‘Not bad, for a girl’. There’s a definite power in affirming each other over the things we do well, and affirming people we don’t know, as well. Compliments that cause discomfort or irritation do the exact opposite and should not be excused under the guise of being well meant.