There is a lot of evidence that compliments benefit both the giver and the receiver. Giving compliments makes you feel good about your relationship with other people and also gives you the joy of brightening someone’s day. And getting an unexpected compliment provides a real lift to your mood. Yet, I wrote recently about research suggesting that people give compliments less often than they probably should.
In response to that post, I got a couple of notes from people saying that they avoid giving compliments at work because of the possibility that they might be misconstrued and end up backfiring.
In what ways can compliments go wrong? How can you ensure you’re not making anyone feel uncomfortable?
When compliments go bad
A central way that compliments go bad is when they reinforce or react to a pervasive stereotype or social norm. For example, there is a racist stereotype that African Americans are not good speakers, and so complimenting a Black person for being “articulate” can be seen as being given against a background of this stereotype.
Compliments may also make people feel uncomfortable. A woman focused on demonstrating her excellence in the workplace may bristle at frequent compliments about her appearance, as that undermines her goal of being seen as a high performer. This is particularly problematic in workplaces in which there is a history of sexual harassment, where compliments about appearance may also imply an ulterior motive on the part of the complimenter.
The prospect that someone might take offense at a remark that was intended positively can lead some people to stop giving compliments at all. And that would be a shame, because compliments do have a lot of benefits.
How to give a good compliment
The most important thing to remember is that any communication between people is telegraphic. That is, the words you speak never communicate every aspect of the thought you are trying to convey. The hearer has to make a number of guesses about what you probably mean in order to understand what you’re saying. For example, if I say “The Braves won yesterday,” you need to have some knowledge about baseball in order for the sentence to make sense.
The more common ground you share with someone, the easier it is for them to understand you. That’s why when you are talking to people you don’t know well, you have to say more than when talking to people you do know well, in order to be understood. For example, it is easier to give directions to someone who lives in your hometown than to someone who is just there visiting.
This influence of common ground is also important for compliments. When someone has an extensive relationship with you, they will have an easier time determining what you really mean by a compliment you are giving. If you have worked with someone for years and are well aware of their professional qualities, then complimenting a new outfit or haircut is likely to be taken differently than giving a similar compliment to someone you have met only recently at work.
More generally, if you are uncomfortable giving compliments at work because of concerns about how they will be interpreted, then start just by complimenting the colleagues you know best. Not only are those compliments most likely to be taken in the spirit with which they were intended, but your close colleagues can also give you feedback if you say something that might not be taken well by others.