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How powerful can a compliment really be?

“Your hair looks nice.” “Your kindness is inspiring.” Though these are both compliments, they hold different meanings, weight and power. The power of a compliment comes from the giver, and the meaning is determined by the receiver. On average, people value compliments about personality more than appearance, with 55 percent of people appreciating compliments about personality. On the other hand, only 10 percent prefer compliments about appearance and more material things. 

What do you prefer to receive compliments about?

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A lot of the time, a compliment is a reflex or a comment made in passing. You pass your friend in the hallway and compliment their shoes, or someone says they like your outfit and you automatically respond, “Hey, I like yours too!” but these things do not go beyond the surface level. A true compliment sticks with you after a while, the thing you remember and choose to love about yourself because someone else did.

To understand the true power a compliment can hold, it’s important to distinguish between the surface-level ones and the more meaningful ones. Anthony Jack, Chair of Ethics at Case Western Reserve University, teaches a course on happiness and touched on the significance of a basic compliment.

If you can speak to a positive impact that someone has had on you by something that they’ve done, that’s a very genuine compliment,” Jack said. “There’s nothing wrong with telling someone ‘Wow, you look great today.’ But, it’s considerably shallower to tell someone they look good than to say, ‘I just wanted you to know, when you did that, that really mattered to me.”

These shallower types of compliments may occur in real life, or more often than not, they happen online. When people post on Instagram, many of their friends or even just acquaintances will flood the comments with very superficial statements. Jack expressed that this type of “compliment” is potentially harmful, perpetuating the “loneliness epidemic” that has emerged after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s a lot of emerging evidence that social media is exacerbating the loneliness crisis, particularly for Gen Z because the interactions are very shallow. They are [performative actions]  rather than genuine contact with other people because you’re trying to get as many likes as possible,” Jack said. “It’s really not a personally satisfying [or] human form of interaction; it’s much more reputation management of performance than genuine interaction.”

Jack went further, explaining how this unfortunate new form of communication and complimenting has replaced what was once familiar: face-to-face interaction.

“But I think that’s pernicious because it kind of fulfills the social need we have. People have a social need – if you go into solitary confinement in jail, that’s when people really run into trouble, right?” Jack said. “What’s interesting about social media is it kind of undermines the quality of your social interactions, and it gets you used to a worse form of social interaction, more social comparison and lots of negative thinking that spirals out of control from your social interactions.”

Despite this negative type of interaction, there is still value in giving genuine compliments, and they can be beneficial in many ways.

Senior Cameryn Smith once received a compliment that she still remembers, even several years later.

“When I was in fifth grade, we were doing a compliment circle and I was just about to move schools. Someone started by complimenting me, saying ‘You’re so positive all the time.’ It made me feel really good about myself because it was a compliment about my personality and not my features,” Smith said.

The impact of this compliment has stayed with her for many years, even acting as motivation to continue being positive.

A behavior that is rewarded, gets repeated.

— Marcia Naomi Berger

“I feel like so often we get compliments that are about superficial things we don’t really have any control over, but [that] compliment wasn’t, so it became something that I now strive to bring to this world,” Smith said.

Marcia Naomi Berger, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, has seen the effects of compliments not on herself, but on other people.

Compliments are very powerful. Most people respond very positively to compliments. And there’s a behavioral principle called positive reinforcement; if you want more of something from somebody, then by telling them how much you appreciate it when it does happen, they’re more likely to do it again,” Berger said. “When I’m trying to explain how powerful compliments are, I say, ‘A behavior that is rewarded, gets repeated.’”

This was emphasized by a study conducted in 2012 and later reported on by Leiden University.

“[The study] suggests that when we try out a new skill – such as dancing, running or playing the clarinet – receiving praise helps our brain remember and repeat the skill. In the study, 48 adults were taught a certain finger-tapping task. One-third of participants received praise for their own performance, one-third received praise for another participant’s performance and the others received no praise. The next day, the group that received praise for their own performance performed better on the task than the others.”

This means that not only can compliments make us feel better about ourselves, but they can also make us perform better in many aspects of our lives. However, this is not to say that all genuine compliments are received well. Sometimes a compliment may be genuine, but it doesn’t have the effect one would hope or expect because the person receiving the compliment feels uncomfortable. Jack has a theory on why this awkward feeling may occur when some people are complimented, which goes back to something that Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, studied.

“[Jung] had this idea that we all carry a shadow around with us, which is kind of this version of ourselves that has all the features we most dislike about ourselves,” Jack said. “I think often when we get a compliment, we hear a mismatch between our shadow and what this person is saying, and we want to believe it. But at the same time, we fear it can’t really be true. So then we just get uncomfortable, because we don’t know what to do with that dissonance, that pull between different things.”

On the other hand, Berger believes that an uncomfortable reaction to compliments stems from a person’s history of them.

People who did not grow up in an environment where they receive compliments may be uncomfortable receiving compliments because it’s a strange behavior for them. They’re not comfortable accepting them,” Berger said.

One way to combat this discomfort could be to accept more kindness in your life. When people spread kindness, it can make that same kindness easier to receive when you’re on the other end of it. Spreading kindness, such as by complimenting others, boosts our own self-esteem and would make those shadows feel just a little bit smaller. And although spreading kindness by complimenting others is beneficial for you, you can’t always rely on other people to give you the positive reinforcement you need. People can compliment themselves, something that Jack expressed can be a positive motivator.

“One of the ancient Hellenistic schools [was stoicism] and the stoics were all about controlling emotions. They always said you have to be very compassionate towards yourself. You must forgive yourself. [And] when you do something good, you must celebrate that as well. That sort of attitude is by far the most effective for long-term motivation,” Jack said.

In a world where so much of our lives are lived online, it’s important to take a step back and connect in person, something we tend to take for granted. But more than that, it’s important to make genuine connections, ones that go beyond the basic, surface-level interactions we see far too often, which is something that Smith emphasized.

“The next time someone compliments you, think to yourself if it was a comment or a compliment,” Smith said. “You deserve to get a genuine compliment, you deserve to surround yourself with people who will give you genuine compliments and you deserve to compliment yourself.”

 

I asked some people what the best compliment they’ve ever received is, and why. These were their responses:

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About the Contributor
Maya Winger
Maya Winger, Senior Staff Writer
Maya Winger is a senior at Redwood High School and is a senior staff writer for the Bark. She enjoys listening to music, watching the sunset and spending time with friends and family.