In Search of a Non-Exaggerated Compliment

In Search of a Non-Exaggerated Compliment

0-17I don’t know how to give an authentic, understated compliment anymore. Nor can I graciously receive a compliment since what I hear from others is often exaggerated as well.

I find myself saying “really? either aloud or in my head when I hear proclamations of my amazing lemon chicken, my hilarious essay, or my gorgeous children. (Okay, that last one I’ll accept as truth.)

My problem isn’t a crisis of confidence. I think I’m an above average cook and a good writer (though not a particularly comedic one). I’m also happy to hear niceties about simple “accomplishments” like my ability to have chosen a pretty necklace. I’ll even gladly take a compliment about situations for which I deserve no credit whatsoever such as the subtlety of my highlights. (All I did was sit in a chair for two hours while reading three magazines with Kate Middleton on the cover.) But every adulation feels questionable when accompanied by the equivalent of a standing ovation.

I want to graciously give, accept, and even believe compliments, but our hyperbolic language has rendered the entire industry of verbal admiration meaningless. In fact, I see and hear adjectives used so far past their definitions that the excess can have the effect of making me think the exact opposite of what the speaker or writer likely intended. This happens often in status updates and tweets where bloggers recommend each other’s posts. When I see “stunning,” “breathtaking,” or “extraordinary,” I can’t help but raise an eyebrow in doubt. I’m more likely to click on a link with a toned-down description like “thought provoking,” “solid read,” or “well said.” This culture of exaggeration has made me a cynic. I’ve become suspicious of words.

This lack of reverence for the definition of words extends so thoroughly to the rules of punctation that using one exclamation mark to say you’re looking forward to seeing someone makes it seem as though you’re not very excited at all. Where once upon a time three exclamation points might have seemed juvenile, they’re now practically standard. Likewise, two or three question marks means you’re genuinely curious about the matter at hand. One can seem formal or convey that you’re bored at the prospect of receiving an answer.

The giving of over-the-top compliments is related to the extreme deflecting of them, too. A former friend of mine, when we were teenagers, used to say, “I’m so disgusting,” in response to anything positive about her looks. (She was objectively very pretty. “Very” a true qualifier in this case.)

I love your haircut.

I’m so disgusting.

That dress looks great on you.

I’m so disgusting.

It got to the point where flattering her in any way became an uncomfortable endeavor. Nevertheless, I sometimes hear myself engage in this hyperbolic deflection, too.

This brisket is incredible.

I used too much salt.

Your essay was fascinating.

I thought it was too long.

Yet in my defense, even in my former friend’s defense, it is hard to take a compliment to heart. Was the meal I cooked good? Sure. Was it incredible? The best brisket ever? Life-changing? Unbelievable? Please.

However worrisome I find exorbitant compliments between adults, the problem is worse when it comes to the way we speak to kids. Each turn our children take at bat need not conclude in “great hit” or even “good try.” Sometimes my son stands at the plate and focuses on the people in the stands instead of on the ball. In those cases, it wasn’t a good try at all and saying so doesn’t help his game. If I tell my kids that every line across the page is “exquisite” or “amazing” how long until they learn to roll their eyes upon hearing that particular word from my mouth or anyone’s?

Incredible, gorgeous, stunning, breathtaking, amazing, exquisite, unbelievable!!!

Who’s buying this stuff? I know I’m not, yet I’m still using these words more than I should. I need to remember the satisfaction I feel on the rare occasion of a tempered compliment. When an editor accepts an essay or a short story it is never with dozens of exclamation points, smiling emoticons, or disproportionate adjectives. I’m content to hear, “This was good” or “We’d like to publish your story.” Those simple, authentic, hard-earned sentences mean so much more than ten versions of “I loved this!!!”

The only solution I’ve identified is to get more descriptive. I could say, “I like that picture because you used a lot of color” instead of “gorgeous.” Rather than yelling “great hit” for a mediocre turn at bat how about saying, “have fun,” “you can do it,” or “try your best” right before? And perhaps not every proverbial moment at the plate needs to come with all this commentary one way or another. Sometimes it’s enough to smile and keep both the adulation and the criticism to ourselves.

Brain, Child readers, do you find it difficult to give an authentic compliment or to receive one? Any other ideas to stop this cycle of exaggeration?

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.