Saturday 10 March 2012

The compliment currency

I was talking to a couple of friends recently about the concept of graciousness. They have both reached a certain level of maturity and fame - no longer up-starts, but instead people whom up-starts look up to.

They spoke about having to get used to having people ask and act upon their advice; and having people say flattering things about them. Being typical New Zealanders they find this uncomfortable, and both acknowledged a tendency to shrug off or downplay compliments - a behaviour they are trying to break in themselves.

As well they might. As Bryan Coldferry, the Irish-American author of The Compliment Currency: How a few well-chosen words can change the way the world responds to you, notes in his opening chapter:
Refusing a compliment is the same as refuting the complimenter's judgement. It is neither charming nor self-deprecating: it is saying I do not value what you think of me. Moreover, it demonstrates a lack of reciprocation. This person has gone out of their way to notice and comment upon something about you. You have thrown their goodwill back in their face. As much as we all could learn the benefits that accrue from delivering compliments, we could equally benefit from learning to take them.
Coldferry's core thesis is that compliments are the lowest cost form of influence available to us. They cost us nothing to give, and their returns can be completely out of scale to the effort we have invested in them.

Florid compliments used to be the norm: Coldferry, in the obligatory looking-back-through-history chapter, gives the example of dedications to patrons in the Renaissance, the oh-no-you-are letters that flew between the Romantic poets, and the ongoing vestiges of this practice in hyperbolic book blurbing activities. But, he argues, we have fallen out of the habit of making sincere compliments in the flesh. In fact, the contemporary world is almost cynical and suspicious of compliments, looking for the knife in the hand of the arm that's just been thrown around us in a congratulatory fashion.

At the same time, he observes, social networking sites have made complimenting easier in virtual relationships. Retweeting and Facebook likes are cost-free activities that have out-of-scale rewards (admit it: how good do you feel when you see six people have retweeted one of your pearls of wisdom?).  (The book was published in late 2011, otherwise Coldferry would presumably noted the complimentary opportunities of Google Plus and Pinterest.)

Coldferry argues that by taking this complimentary behaviour back into face-to-face relationships, we can harness the power of making people feel good about themselves. A casual 'You're looking well' can open up a warm conversation at a networking function; frequent verbal reinforcement in the workplace, preferably within the hearing of peers, is more motivating than annual pay increases (shades of Daniel Pink here).

The Compliment Currency, like so many of what I now refer to as 'colon books' (Snappy Verb: Longer description of how something very small actually explains/affects the whole world) takes a small point and stretches it over 180-odd generously white-spaced pages. Amid the padding lurk a few gems - for example, Coldferry's list of the most complimentary nationalities (as determined by the number of recommendations written on LinkedIn profiles, a rather ingenious use of this data). The top three:
  • USA [The home of the self-assured self-promoter, this is no surprise. Coldferry notes that Americans have truly learned to exploit the fact that giving good compliments makes the complimenter look like a knowledgeable, powerful person]
  • Brazil [Latin American cultures apparently are more open to compliments about physical appearance than Anglo-Saxon countries, but Coldferry does underline to aspiring complimenters that weight is an issue that should never, ever be broached in a compliment. For women, he recommends shoes; for men, ties and watches. Also, noticing that someone has had a haircut indicates that you pay attention to them over time, not just when they're immediately in front of you.]
  • Canada [This surprised me, given the stereotype of the chronically self-effacing Canadian, but Coldferry identifies a strain of compliments that sound like the phenomenon of the humble-brag - less bombastic than American compliments, but still reflecting well on the maker as well as the receiver.]
Perhaps unsurprisingly, England comes in low on the scale, but still ahead of the ultra-reserved Germans. Poor old New Zealand doesn't rate a mention, but if asked to venture a guess, I'd say we'd closely resemble the British - compliments are mildly suspect, and seldom graciously received. So next time one comes your way, try a 'simple thank you' (and then check out Coldferry's chapter on how to draw on a store of rehearsed compliments to make a 'spontaneous' return).*


Coldferry misses a trick here - Jane Austen's priceless description of the ingratiating Mr Collins explaining his pre-cooked compliments for his patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh:
"[Lady Catherine's daughter's] indifferent state of health unhappily prevents her being in town; and by that means, as I told Lady Catherine myself one day, has deprived the British court of its brightest ornament. Her ladyship seemed pleased with the idea, and you may imagine that I am happy on every occasion to offer those little delicate compliments which are always acceptable to ladies. I have more than once observed to Lady Catherine that her charming daughter seemed born to be a duchess, and that the most elevated rank, instead of giving her consequence, would be adorned by her. -- These are the kind of little things which please her ladyship, and it is a sort of attention which I conceive myself peculiarly bound to pay." 
"You judge very properly,'' said Mr. Bennet, "and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?'' 
"They arise chiefly from what is passing at the time, and though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.''
Mr. Bennet's expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and, except in an occasional glance at Elizabeth, requiring no partner in his pleasure.

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