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

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Does Motherhood Really Change Us?

Does Motherhood Really Change Us?

By Jen Maher

me and jackThe mothers wouldn’t stop moving.  It was impossible to focus on any one mother individually as they shuffled into and out of my line of vision, bouncing on exercise balls, rocking from side to side, hoisting babies into patterned cotton slings that allowed one (after viewing the instructional video approximately nine thousand times) to slip ten pounds of naked hairless desire onto one’s chest using only one hand.   In striped wool stockinged feet they swayed to a rhythm of middle-class motherhood, equal parts women’s studies and attachment parenting, self-reliance and self-abnegation.  I had wanted desperately to join this dance for so long I hardly remembered what it was like to walk through the world without the psychic background hum of baby lust for company.  It took three years, two miscarriages, the possible sacrifice of my marriage, and thousands of credit card dollars handed to a reproductive endocrinologist who didn’t understand apostrophes (“Making Families’ since 1996” read the promotional material) in order to get here: my first New Mothers Support Group.   Now, huddled in the corner next to a cluster of half-priced Bella Materna lingerie and BPA-free nipple guards, I nursed my three-week old infant and an imaginary cup of spiked resentment-punch, feverish and hostile as any seventh grade boy at his first dance.

By now it’s a cliché to argue that motherhood is an epic of transformation.  You will finally know what Life Means.  You will know what Real Love is.  You will not believe how little sleep the human machine requires, especially if it doesn’t need to do things like read words or have conversations.  You will re-frame all of your priorities.  You will become an activist for access to clean water for other mothers and to keep guns out of the hands of people who want to harm other people who have mothers.  You will open your own business when you realize how little respect corporate America has for working mothers (that said business will involve either organic baby food, yoga, or brightly colored infant clothing made by an NGO-sponsored Guatemalan sewing collective is a given).   But what hardly anyone ever talks about when they talk about motherhood is this: sometimes it doesn’t change you all that much at all.

Though it frustrates me to have to say this, here goes:  I love my son.  I love him like I never have loved another single creature in all my life (in some sense this should be obvious—I have never had a baby in my life before so how could I have?).  The shape of the pinky toe on his right foot can send me into such a paroxysm of tenderness that only a shot of tequila can bring me back to my senses.

In short I would give up my life for him, but here is my dirty little secret: Given the choice, I’d rather not.

From that first support group I began to realize this.  Love, awe, trepidation, a Stockholm-Syndrome-inspired devotion borne of not sleeping for more than an hour and a half at a time for weeks at a time, had lead me less to towards transformation and more towards recrimination.  The things that parenthood are meant to ameliorate: selfishness, pettiness, impatience, are, for me, often magnified by the practice of contemporary motherhood.  These are the parts of my seventh-grade soul that dig in their heels in the presence of other practicing Mothers whose endless debates over long-term breastfeeding’s effect on IQ make me want to reach into my baby bag and pull out a can of Reddi-Wip to squirt directly into Jack’s mouth, perhaps followed by a generous handful of Baco-O-Bits.   I quit smoking fifteen years ago, about the same time I quit sleeping with guys just because they accessorized with tour buses, but I have never, ever, wanted a Camel unfiltered as badly as during my first “Mommy and Me” music class when all the toddlers not still attached to their mother’s breasts sang of the nature of bus wheels (they go round and round, in case you were wondering).

Still, sometimes after I get home we take an early evening walk and I do my best to be present for the pace of a (now) two-year-old consciousness.   Dry grass, melting snow, the food-encrusted cat bowls on my neighbor’s porch are as absorbing to him as any novel.  Minus his devotion to putting everything he likes into his mouth and his resistance to bedtime, Jack could be a Zen priest.  Come to think of it, without these impediments, so could I.

Of course, I want to be like these Mothers too.  I want to wear yoga pants all day with confidence and skip vaccinations.  I want to make my own peanut butter and bury my high-heeled shoes in a backyard composter.  The Mothers tip a yearning in me that is neither new nor the stuff of transformation.  Instead it reminds me of how badly I secretly wanted to go to the Homecoming Dance instead of staying home and reading The Bell Jar for the fourteenth time.  Luckily, sometimes, if I listen, Jack can help.   The other night I rocked him to sleep with my best imitation of Perfect Motherhood, whispering over his fluffy head, “I love you I love you I love you; Who is the best boy in the universe? You are!”  At perhaps the third recitation of this feeble talisman against my flaws, he responded by placing his sugar-cookie-sized palm to my cheek:  “Enough Mommy,” he declared.    “I go to bed now.”

Jennifer Maher teaches in the Gender Studies Department at Indiana University, Bloomington.  Her work has been published in Bitch: Feminist Response to Popular Culture, Brain-Child (Summer 2012) and a variety of academic venues.

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