Katie Trotter offers some practical advice on a delicate topic that requires a suave approach - how to be a gentleman without getting your face slapped. Flattery will get you anywhere and people, especially women, love a compliment. Paying one successfully, however, can be a delicate affair. While discussing this with a male friend recently, he shared with me this epigram: "Tell a smart girl she is pretty and a pretty girl she is smart." It was a fleeting comment, a moment I should have forgotten by dinner. But it stuck. The fact that so much thought could go into achieving a personal advantage from brightening somebody's day with a "conscious compliment" rather rattled me.
The compliment is a mark of awareness, a social lubricant, a way in which we choose to interact and build relationships. But, essentially, it should be sincere. Treat it as something to master for personal gain and the spell is broken. Thanks to Dale Carnegie, the American self-help guru, we all know how to win friends and influence people, and it is a pretty obvious proposition to say that complimenting someone is more effective than criticising them. The tragedy is that more often than not we forget to compliment, yet we always remember to criticise.
So how exactly do the best compliments work, and why? The truth is that the simple act of paying a compliment can be fraught. Take the weight loss situation for instance. Does one give a congratulatory nod to Big Suzy from the office after she has dropped a few kilos? "What a transformation!" It might have seemed like the perfect compliment upon delivery, instant gratification, but doesn't it simply bring to light that she had only failed before?
One mustn't pluralise when throwing a compliment out. "Nice dresses" will simply make each girl in the gaggle compare herself to those around her, leaving her feeling somewhat miffed that she didn't stand out to the speaker. It lacks direction, loses its punch and makes the giver appear a bit of a featherweight. Be confident when paying your compliment. Delivery is everything. Don't rush it. If a worthwhile compliment needs anything, it needs realisation. So take your time and think it through. Intent doesn't matter as such; in other words, perception matters much more.
Be sure not to get too personal with someone you don't know very well. Telling the sandwich lady you see every morning that she has a beautiful mole, or the dental nurse that her eyes are like pools of gold, will only spook them and make you sound like a cheap salesman, or a desperate, slightly stricken poetic type. It is far too personal, too focused. Instead, try adding in something rather unexpected, for example, instead of "nice skirt", try: "That colour looks great on you, it's nice to see somebody around here breaking the norm." That's not to put you off risking a little connection though. Just be sure to be sensitive because a compliment is a partnership, the pleasure of giving it lies in its effect on the receiver. Pick the right moment, but don't insist on it.
Never fill a silence or an awkward encounter with a compliment. Anything public or demonstrative reeks of pretence and the receiver will only sense its lack of substance. There should be no show involved, no gushing or obvious lack of conviction or it will sit there awkwardly between you both like a stagnant pond. Of course, a constant need for praise is almost pathological. There are those who crave it, need it, clinging on like a sail to the northern wind if only to momentarily satisfy their fractured state of mind.
Self-confidence - have you not heard? - stems from an inner belief, core values, and so forth. The perfect compliment shouldn't have anything to do with narcissism, egotism, vanity or conceit. As Judy Garland once said: "In the silence of night I have often wished for just a few words of love from one man, rather than the applause of thousands of people." You see, there is no big mystery nor is there one compliment that works for everyone. They are simply the schoolgirl's equivalent of a gold star. And, if we are all truly honest, who doesn't enjoy one or two of those?