Change lives by taking the time to praise others — and learn how to accept a compliment yourself
If you’re reading this I want you to stop. I want you to look up and see the people around you — your partner, your children, your flatmates, the barista in the cafe. Then I want you to think of something they’ve done or something they are or something they’ve said that you really liked. Then I want you to tell them.
“I’m so thrilled you took the time to organise that weekend away,” you might say to your partner. Or … “Your cartwheels are looking impressive” — hopefully to small child not husband. Or …. “Mate, your coffee is the best in the neighbourhood.” OK, off you go. Come back when you’re done. How did that go? I ask because last week I was unexpectedly bowled over by a string of compliments. I wasn’t being particularly nice or clever and I certainly wasn’t looking my best after a week indulging in my mum’s baking.
Typically, I’d bat away such praise. On my hair: “Oh this must be the one day in seven it’s decided to look good.” On my writing: “You’re so kind, but you really should read Frances Whiting, she’s brilliant.” On my cooking … actually I rarely receive compliments on my cooking as I live with two teenage ingrates.
Anyway, having noted that I was inexplicably the recipient of such loveliness I decided to follow the advice of American writer Alice James and “believe the compliments implicitly for five minutes”, then let them “simmer gently for 20 more.”
So when a friend told me my skin looked good I went home and checked it out in the mirror. Yeah, actually it did.
When a fellow TV commentator told me his mum thought I was “intelligent and measured”, I didn’t ask if his mum needed her hearing aid checked but instead smiled all the way up the street.
When my brother told me I was a good listener, I nodded and, um, kept listening since I didn’t want to spoil the impression.
And when a friend suggested I should become an agony aunt since “you are so wise and compassionate and have just the right way of saying things” I read the email three times then floated round the house imagining what my nom de plume might be when Anna Wintour calls to offer me a page in Vogue.
You’re probably thinking I’m a right prat, but it’s time we stopped brushing off compliments and instead held them and turned them over and popped them in our pockets like a pretty shell you might find at the beach. Later we could take them out and see the beauty of them and how, strung together, they form a necklace of self-belief that helps you apply for that job or say yes to that date or the opportunity to travel on your own.
Like impostor syndrome, self-deprecation and our habit of saying “yes” we’ll do something when actually we don’t want to, failing to accept compliments has become the default of the “pleaser” — so often teenage girls. This week I overheard a 16-year-old being asked by one of her friend’s mums which school hockey team she was in. “The firsts,” she mumbled. “Well done,” said the mother. “Actually, the standard’s not that high,” she said, shuffling uncomfortably.
Oh that these girls might exchange the ubiquitous saccharine compliments of Instagram — “so pretty” — for the soulswelling nourishment that comes from being told they sing brilliantly or they’re hilarious or the way they put those green pants with those orange sneakers is genius.
The rest of us need to show them. I need to tell my girls I’ll never forget a colleague in London taking me to lunch and thanking me for being loyal. It was 20 years ago, but I still remember the moment, the savouring of the word. Even now I’ll play Dave Dobbyn’s ‘Loyal’ on tricky days when I’ve been mean or thoughtless, hoping it’ll get me back on track.
How many go to their death never being told what made them precious? I’ve sat through eulogies wishing the person inside the coffin could hear what’s being said of them; the difference they made.
Compliments — like nature and affection and dancing — are like sparklers. They fizz and thrill and illuminate in the moment, but if you close your eyes and remember them days or years later it’s impossible not to smile; to be buoyed by an indelible sense of worth.
Likewise they’re ballast against the harshness of social media and the ugliness of self-loathing. How much harder it might be to self-harm or submit yourself to numbing sex or consider taking your own life if you’d clasped and treasured those kind words, rather than batted them away.
If every person over 30 learned to say “thank you” when complimented, every person under 30 would grow up knowing that’s how it’s done, just as they know you can’t chop raw chicken and salad on the same board and that it’s sensible to wear a coat in winter. In accepting compliments we become better at giving them. And with each sparkler lit it becomes just that little bit easier to walk in the world.