Modern Etiquette: Compliment or crawling? How to get it right

Updated: 2010-05-04 08:55
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SEATTLE - Whatever their subject - our svelte new figure, our rousing speech, our strong sales figures - compliments lift us, honor us, validate our choices and efforts -- as long as they are not seen as attempts to crawl into favor.

A compliment is a two-way gift that benefits the giver and receiver alike. Compliments are always socially proper, if sincerely extended and kept appropriate to the context, but in the workplace the giver needs to adhere to certain rules.

If someone looks great, tell him or her.

If someone is always efficient, acknowledge that.

Compliments can break the ice with a stranger, defuse stress, lift spirits, or tighten a bond.

The right words at the right time can motivate, comfort, reward, validate, and inspire.

Compliments are not the same as flattery. Flattery is insincere and excessive. Superfluous compliments are annoying and make others feel as though the giver were angling for something - as if the giver expected a receipt.

So what makes a good compliment? Here are the basics:

* Be sincere: Complimenting someone just because you think it's a good idea is a bad idea. Phoniness is easy to spot and destroys credibility. So if the luncheon speaker was a flop, don't gush about her speech. Instead, talk about her effort, thank her for her time, and note her other accomplishments.

* Be specific: "That was a wonderful casserole" is better than "You're a terrific cook." "That sales research was right on target" is better than "Great job!"

* Don't compare: Never compare one person's accomplishments to another's. Compliments should be consistent with the setting and the relationship between giver and receiver. So what about the boss's new haircut? If she or he is a longtime colleague and you're on very friendly terms, it's fine to compliment it. In most cases, however, it's best to stick to compliments on a colleague's work, rather than his or her appearance.

That goes double for remarks made to someone above or below you on the organizational chart because these relationships contain a power dynamic, personal remarks may unintentionally become highly loaded or easily misunderstood.

At a very personal level, let's say an acquaintance looks far different from when you last met. Maybe he or she lost weight, or had a makeover or cosmetic surgery. You want to say something positive, but you are on delicate ground regarding the reason.

So what do you say? Just: "You look absolutely wonderful!" with a big exclamation point in your voice.

If the Wonderful Looking Person gives you a glimpse of the details, you can chat a bit about them. But if he or she merely thanks you, drop it and change the subject.

This is how you respond to a compliment: "Thank you."

Some unacceptable alternatives include:

* "Are you nuts? I'm a cow!"

* "It was nothing."

* "Oh, you're not serious."

* "Please. I just threw this together."

And so forth. Never dispute, disparage, or diminish a compliment. To do so is to insult the giver by questioning his or her judgment, standards, taste, or - worse - sincerity.

Much better to smile, savor the moment - and watch for the next opportunity to offer that great feeling to others!

This lesson is far easier said than done. I recall with embarrassment giving a lecture in Manhattan to a multi-national company about self-defeating behavior in women.

High on my list was our awkwardness at accepting compliments. After the program, one woman approached me to say how much she liked the author's photo on one of my books. And how did I respond? "Thanks. It was taken a year ago, though, so I was younger then."

Life is humbling indeed! My own life frequently calls to mind the wise Asian saying: "We teach what we want to learn."