I’m working on a theory of compliments. (Which, I suppose, is a theory of insults in reverse.) Maybe that’s an exaggeration. But I’ve been thinking about what makes certain ones stick.
One of the most memorable compliments I ever received came when I was in high school. I was probably in ninth or tenth grade, and I chaperoned my little sister’s middle-school class on an afternoon outing to a local ski hill. On the bus ride back, I befriended a somewhat lonely nerd. We sat next to each other on the way home, and after we had been talking for a while, he said: You talk like an old book. What an absurd thing for a twelve-year-old to say to a fourteen-year-old! But I found it delightful. It really made me feel unimpeachably intelligent.
Consider the following:
What feels better: A compliment about something you know about yourself, some virtue you’ve been actively trying to foster or a compliment about something you hadn’t considered, or hadn’t noticed about yourself?
What feels better: A compliment about something you feel confident about (being recognized when you know you’ve succeeded) or a compliment about something you’re insecure about (thus drawing attention to your insecurity, and maybe alleviating but probably not totally abating it)?
How do the following items measure up: A compliment about something you value; an insult about something someone else values. Are these true opposites? Does the latter feel more painful than the former feels gratifying? Or vice-versa?
Consider: A compliment from a stranger; a compliment from a loved one; a compliment from a nemesis. Tough to rank. These all feel complicated by other factors. (An insult from a loved one vs. a compliment from a nemesis — true opposites?)
There’s no strict hierarchy, right? Maybe it’s less like a theory and more like a matrix. A lot of axes intersecting.
What about: a compliment made in public vs. a compliment made in private? In public there is the potential for performativity. Though I suppose this is true in private, too.
When does a compliment feel better if you hear it second-hand? When does hearing it second-hand make it feel worse?
The axes combine, maybe, into some key factors: whether the comment feels deep or shallow; whether it feels true or false. (I think the element of surprise plays a role, too.)
I have always felt bad about reciprocal compliments — when one person says something kind and genuine to another and that second person immediately responds with some version of, No, you! (Or even, And you, too!) It’s hard for this to escape an air of inevitable phoniness, I think. These rank low on my matrix. But maybe that’s different than your matrix.
(The exception to this is, of course, that ritual engaged in by drunk women in the bathroom at a party or a bar. “I love your dress!” “No, I love your hair!” I will take this any day of the week. This ranks low on depth, admittedly, but high on a general joy factor.)
A compliment that is fished-for rarely feels as good to get as getting a compliment out of the blue, right? But I think it feels really good, sometimes, to give someone you love a compliment when they’re fishing for it. I guess the matrix for giving and getting compliments isn’t identical. Maybe that’s for next time.
Here are some other things I have been consuming lately: Hayday by feeble little horse; sore thumb by oso oso; The Opening, Or Closing Of A Door by Kristine Leschper; this Mirah song on repeat, which made me cry IRL; Kim Gordon live, playing songs from 2019’s No Home Record; Suzanne Ciani live, performing in a church; The Idiot by Elif Batuman; hazelnut Quadratini cookies stored in the freezer; mini cans of Diet Coke; ricotta toast; iced Americanos from a moka pot; this 2007 Boston Globe article about a wife guy and a Tetris championship (it’s a fun read and I don’t want to spoil anything); a long, fascinating, somewhat infuriating article about the #MeToo movement in Sweden; this podcast series, which I’ve been helping to write/coordinate/host(!); hours and hours of screentime dedicated to Brooklyn apartment rental listings1
Thanks for reading. I hope someone says something really nice to you this week, my dear old books. If you’re so inclined, tell me about a memorable compliment you’ve given or gotten. I’d love to hear it.
In other words: in hell. That’s why this month’s newsletter is kind of short.
It’s blooming right now, by the way! :’)