Principles I follow when complimenting people.

This is a list of my own personal thoughts and habits when I compliment people but I figure they're also useful for other people to know the mental frame through which I interpret their compliments.

  1. No trivial "favourite" compliments

    Anyone who has ever tried telling me that I'm their favourite Vagrant knows how this conversation goes. I ask them how many Vagrants they know, they say just me, and then I ask them if they realize that that trivially means that I am both their most and least favourite Vagrant and this is not a meaningful compliment. (Yes I was Like This even before I took any classes in logic).

    Some friends recently taught me that the pragmatic function of this type of compliment is still as a positive compliment that means they like and appreciate me. One friend said, "It means I want to tell you I like you so much you're my favorite, yet I don't really want to rank people so I'm making the category irrelevant. So I get both the pleasure of saying you're my favorite with none of the ranking implications."

    Nevertheless I tend not to give these types of compliments - not just limited to names but to any case where the person is the only one in a group and the compliment relies on their being my favourite in that group, e.g., I wouldn't call you my favourite entomologist if you're the only entomologist I know. But this conversation was useful and maybe that will change my habits going forward. It will certainly help me receive this type of compliment from other people in a less insufferable way in future, which is good.

  2. No "favourite" compliments that rely on ranking

    I agree with what my friend said from earlier about not wanting to rank friends and put some down. I do have levels of closeness of friends, of course, and the bounds are sometimes fuzzy, but in general within a level, I do not like ranking. This means I have multiple best friends, even if that pisses pedants off. In fact, I imagine this is a fairly common case of the pragmatic use of superlatives being different from the semantic definition.

    So this means I can compliment someone by telling them they're one of my best friends or one of my favourite linguists, and I can even estimate or exactly state the size of those groups, but I refuse to rank within them.

    I learned the hard way that the way this is phrased can have unfortunate pragmatic consequences. I thought I was being clever and diplomatic in separately texting three friends that they were one of my top 3 favourite goths on the planet. What I meant was that I know a lot of goths but I have three favourites (unranked). But my phrasing had the unfortunate consequence of making someone assume they were #3 because, well, why would I say top 3 unless they were the worst of the top 3, I'd just say #1 if they were #1.

    This is a sensible implication to draw even though it didn't occur to me before. It's sort of like in sports: if someone is ranked 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5, you'd say they're top 5. It's trivially true that they are top 10 also, but you usually only hear "top 10" in reference to someone who's ranked 6, 7, 8, 9 or 10. Grice is probably rolling in his grave because of how long it's taken me to figure this out.

  3. No unexplained compliments

    This tendency comes from a preference about receiving compliments: I prefer compliments that come with reasons because otherwise I feel a bit like I've lost the plot. Sometimes it's obvious from context, e.g., if my advisor is talking about a thing I just did or if a text compliment is in response to something I just said. But I have recently noticed a tendency to be surprised and confused by more generic or unprompted compliments and in these cases it's best when they come with an explanation so I know where they're coming from and don't confuse them with flattery.

  4. No flattery

    I prefer not to give disingenuous compliments for any reason, including and especially personal gain. Sometimes returning compliments is part of a social script, e.g., when a stranger compliments your shoes at a party, general wisdom says you're supposed to compliment something of theirs back. I will only do this if I can actually quickly think of something I want to compliment them about, otherwise I'll just say thanks and maybe tell them where the shoes came from.

  5. No compliments that stem from or reinforce -isms and -phobias

    This means that it is not a compliment to tell someone they're thin, and it is not a compliment to call a disabled person inspiring, and just please never ever ever call me articulate because it is just too loaded a word given where I come from and the colour of my skin.

    I have tried to stop telling people they're smart as a compliment (with some success) because of how it reinforces this idea of smart = better, which is associated with plenty of things I don't like including saneism, eugenics and capitalism. I sometimes think about how complimenting people on their appearance reinforces the idea that beauty matters and is linked to a person's worth, but frankly I enjoy calling people cute too much and don't see myself stopping.

So what's left?

My rules are a list of don'ts. The big do is basically: compliment people generously, but genuinely. In terms of content, I tend to compliment qualities I value in people or in their actions or in their work (e.g., thoughtfulness, openness to new information, clarity in writing, etc.). They're also often informed by the things I see in other people that I want to be better at.

My friend L is my gold standard for compliment-giving and generosity. She has taught me among other things that compliments and gratitudes are very closely intertwined, so you'll find messages that blur the boundaries of the two in this curated selection of good and representative compliments from our texts (included with her consent):

If you ranked these, hers would definitely be the better ones, but I am trying, I swear! Inspect the HTML if you want to know who said what.