How to Compliment

What topics get compliments, how do people react, what are exotic ways of praising?

How to Give Compliments

Table of Contents

The 4 most common compliment topics
The 4 situations where compliments are most likely to be made
The 3 most common types of responses to compliments
The 7 most frequently occurring motives for complimenting
The 5 types of topics that constitute “killer compliments”
The 13 ways to amplify or diminish the power of any compliment
The 10 ways to give understated compliments that have plausible deniability


I grew up in a small town where compliments weren’t really a thing. Back in school, the highest praise I ever received came from a classmate who wore metal-tipped boots “all the better to kick people with”. One day, he gave me a nod of approval for something important, I can’t recall. I savored that nod for months.

My relationship to compliments in those days was simple: I didn’t give any and I didn’t receive any either. Talking openly about feelings - or heaven forbid - giving praise - simply wasn’t the norm. This was especially so with the older generation, people like my granddad.

But then I moved. Moved to the big city, a place filled with people themselves big on compliments. My upbringing had left me underprepared for this change. Even something as simple as receiving praise was complicated. There certainly were times when my soul would be lit up with joy. But other times, my feelings were murkier and a compliment might leave me feeling weirdly uncomfortable.

The fear of inflicting this discomfort on others — or of being perceived as sleazy — meant that I had no interest in adding complimenting to my social repertoire. Instead I wanted to be more like my friend Fabio: effortlessly likable, disarming, and sincere — the exact opposite to the sales-y flatterer type. Fabio was above needing to deal in compliments.

One day I was inside Fabio’s apartment and saw a note pinned to his mirror that read “Compliment someone every day”. I asked him if he lived by that advice. He stopped, thought for a few seconds, then told me I looked amazing.

That evening, I replayed all my previous interactions with Fabio and realized that he’d been complimenting people — including me — constantly. It was just that he did it with so much grace that I hadn’t noticed it. Perhaps all his complimenting was what made him so effortlessly likable in the first place…

Realizing that I had been too hasty to dismiss compliments, I decided to investigate in earnest, embarking on a year-long side quest to truly understand them. The following 40 pages are what I learned by taking hundreds of my own observations in the field and reading dozens of papers on the topic.

Part 1: The Status Quo and Standard Compliments

I What Is A Compliment?

I began with the most fundamental of research tools. Not the dictionary, but my mum. She defines a compliment as an expression of praise that lifts the other person up. A sociologist will tell you that compliments fit into a catalog of behaviors know as ingratiation tactics. Sociologist Edward E. Jones, dubbed the father of ingratiation, found that compliments were the most prevalent of these behaviors, outpacing opinion conformity (“Sir, your plan for a winter invasion of Russia is a masterpiece.”), the rendering of favors (picking ticks out of your fur — if you are a chimp), and self-presentation (e.g. boasting and name-dropping).

Categorizing anything correctly — including ingratiation tactics — is hard.

Most compliments are given with words, but that’s not to say a knowing grin paired with a ravenous, lusty undertone in one’s voice doesn’t speak volumes to your date, nor that a pat on the back from a curmudgeonly sportsball coach doesn’t let you know he respects you.

II What Topics Are Complimented?

The academic work on compliments (such as by Holmes) suggests that they center on a surprisingly narrow number of traits. The most common topic is looks, accounting for perhaps one of every two compliments given. It’s clear we’re a vain bunch.

Other frequently praised topics include performances/achievements (“great article on complimenting, LessPenguiny), material possessions (“nice pad”), and personality/friendship (“you’re so funny”).

Below is a table from Holmes’ study that displays how sex affects the choice of compliment topic. You can see how M-M (Male to Male) compliments centered on material possessions twice as often as F-F ones, whereas F-F compliments were far more likely to center on appearance than M-M ones.

The topic of a compliment is sometimes left vague. Imagine being told: “Your fiancé is a very lucky man.” How would you interpret this? Is it a compliment about your looks? Your personality? Is it even about you at all – maybe the speaker considers your fiancé lucky for unrelated reasons. Such a compliment amounts to a choose-your-own-adventure in praise, one seeped in the speaker’s plausible deniability, the most powerful force in the social universe.

Similarly vague are activities on social media. When someone likes my photo on Facebook, it’s not clear what exactly I should feel good about. Was it because I was looking rugged? Or was the composition of the photo praiseworthy? Or are they just acknowledging that I uploaded? Who knows?

By the way, allow me to rant: It’s common for ”complaineratti“ columnists to write op-eds lamenting how social media turns us all into monsters. But doesn’t every social network have a like or a heart button, basically a compliment in binary form? As such, in all of history, never have so many kind sentiments been expressed. It’s just that negativity is better at commanding our attention on these networks.

III Timing

When exactly do compliments occur? You might think people compliment “whenever they feel like it”, but that’s not the majority case. Most compliments occur at rather specific times, and while plenty of compliments appear between this invisible metronome’s beats, these stand out that bit more, their salience raising the emotional stakes. Depending on the situation, this can be either a good or bad thing.

Time #1: Greeting and Farewell

The most common time for a compliment is at the beginning of an interaction, almost as an extension of — or a substitute for — a regular greeting. Why welcome your friends with a mere “hi” when you could say “Ahh the beautiful people have arrived” or “Amazing jacket! Where’s the catwalk?” The great thing about using compliments in your greetings is that they promptly reaffirm affections that may have grown ambivalent through time apart.

Fennec Fox reunited with his best friend, William the Cat

Lad-ish males riff on this theme by mock insulting each other on greeting. “Ahh the vermin have arrived” Despite being a put-down on the face of it, these are far more affectionate than vanilla greetings, the affection proportionate to the effort put into the banter.

No surprise, then, that compliments also fill in for farewells, closing off the interaction on a sprightly note: “See you… Oh yea and BTW, your new scooter is so futuristic-looking!” Parting praise like this demands no response, for the parties are already on their separate ways. This can be a boon, because many people find responding to a compliment to be trying. More on this later.

Time #2: In Response to Change

Motivational Post - Before and After :)

Whenever we notice something’s changed with a friend or acquaintance, there is a powerful impulse to bring it up, to say something positive. This impulse is strong enough to even derail sentences:

Someone opens the front-door and shouts out to a flat-mate out of sight and in another room

“Hey! I really need to tell you the news! Me and Steve got back from the doctors and the results are in. We’re –” (the flat-mate emerges from their room and into sight) “- OH! What an elegant dress. You look fab! – pregnant!”

This phenomenon — complimenting in response to change — explains why we receive so much praise about our new haircuts, our new cars, or the latest decorations in our homes. Novelty gets noticed.

Time #3: When Customary

Why hasn’t my human told me I’m a good boy for sitting?

There are circumstances where the absence of applause is taken to mean disapproval – as if the situation itself were fishing for a compliment. Imagine giving a talk after which no one claps. Or cooking a meal which no-one tells you they enjoyed. Wouldn’t your confidence be undermined?

Now flip the roles. Instead of being the cook, you are now the dinner guest. If you’re anyway wired like I am, you’ll probably feel immense pressure to assure the host that the food is great, even if you’ve barely tasted it yet. Etiquette tells us that it’s polite to compliment in such circumstances.

In the business networking world, when I make an introduction on your behalf, I’m sort of expected to big you up, to explain why you’re worthy of the other party’s time: “You have to meet Annie. She’s a kick-ass online marketer who knows absolutely everything about how Google’s algorithm works and is single-handedly responsible for why you can’t find anything good online anymore.” (I presume this is the highest praise a man can give in such circles.) Incidentally this is also an Outsourced Brag, as I write about in my bragging article.

Because of this, I quite enjoy being in the loop for these exchanges. Sometimes they reveal what your colleagues admire about you, things they might never express in normal circumstances. In a sense, the situation forces their loving hand.

Lastly there are situations when the speaker is explicitly fishing for a compliment. Of course, they won’t go out and say “I want you to compliment my new sofa”. Instead they’ll ask you want you ”think about” the piece— but you can tell they’re anxious for praise. This is the complimenting equivalent of a gun to the head, a hold-up, where a compliment is taken rather than given.

Time #4: Counter Compliments and Compliment Pile-Ons

In the Diablo 3 game:

Lackey: You are a great warrior.
Your character: I’d say you know a bit about war yourself!

Old Joke:

Wife: “You have a great cock”
Husband: “You too”

The giving of compliments has the wonderful property of being infectious. When you receive a compliment, you feel a reflex to return one in kind. It’s as if you think, “ah, so we’re playing that game.”

In larger groups, this can explode into a chain reaction of compliments. Before I go any further, pause and consider the way many friendship groups have an inner circle of close-knit friends that do everything together, along with an extended but more distant ring of acquaintances that do cameo appearances. Now for the anecdote: Camille, who lives in Paris, is very much in the outer orbits of one particular gang from Belgium. Said gang heads over to Paris for a 30th birthday and they extend the invite to Camille. But because Camille happens to already live in Paris, she is unsure to what extent this was a token invite, reluctantly doled out to acknowledge geographic overlap. She worries that she would be intruding on the larger group. This uncertainty was not to last. As soon as she meets the gang, Lucas hugs her and says, “I’m SO GLAD you could make it. You were literally my favorite new person last year.” This compliment triggers compliments from others: Léa, not wanting to miss any of the action, dives in with “Oh my God Camille’s the fucking bomb!” Then Antoine rolls up his sleeves and joins the fray with “Camille was my friend first. I had to sort through so much chaff to find this diamond.” It became a compliment pile-on, with everyone attempting to outdo each other with their praise. Camille felt touched and welcome.

This old pic of my friends is first on google images for "cuddle puddle"

Part 2: The View From the Compliment Receiver’s Side

Compliments — as expressions of admiration — are surely meant to make us feel good, to be verbal sunshine, right? Surprisingly, this often isn’t the case. The science in this area has instead found that a compliment has about a 1 in 2 chance of being rejected. Complimenting is a sugar-laden minefield.

Thanks to some questionable flavors, I consider this to be a similarly sugar-laden minefield.

I Observed Responses to Compliments

Before looking at the psychology behind the receipt of a compliment, let’s take a glance at the behavioral responses researchers have spotted in the field.

Response 1: Acceptance

The most common way a compliment is accepted is with some token of gratitude, often a simple “thanks”. However, as I’ll cover later, there is social pressure to appear graceful upon receipt of praise, therefore verbal acceptance can sometimes conceal inward rejection. Whereas tone of voice may clue you in to this possibility, ultimately you can’t read minds so you’re in the dark.

There is less need for doubt about the palatability of a compliment when the acceptance is communicated in a less ambiguous way (and it might be useful to use these techniques to reassure someone that’s paid you a compliment). One way is describing how the compliment affected you, e.g. “I really appreciate you saying that. You’re making me feel so good about myself.” Another is jokingly inflating the praise. E.g. in response to a compliment about your cooking, you might say, “I’ve inspired Michelin to introduce a 5-star rating.” Yet another way to communicate acceptance is to deliver a counter-compliment, such as we already saw in the section above about timing.

Finally, more so in Spanish-speaking countries than English-speaking ones, some people show acceptance by asking for elaboration on the compliment or casting the net out and fishing for even more: “Nice necklace!” “Really, do you think so?”Note that asking for elaboration is distinct from asking for justification about the compliment, which is more likely to be a rejection of the compliment.

Response 2: Rejection

There was a case some years back when a man complimented the rims on another man’s car, asking what brand they were. By all reports, the compliment appears to have been rejected. The recipient responded not with “hey thanks they’re a set of Rob’s Rims” but instead by punching the speaker into a coma.

Such extremes are not normal, however rejection of compliments is nevertheless commonplace. Those without severe mental instabilities tend to reject a compliment by reassigning the praiseworthiness to someone or something else.

You: “You are such a skillful sailor.”
Them: “With the latest tech, the boat practically sails itself.”

You: “Outstanding essay.”
Them: “I got help from Stacey. You should be praising her.”

These “reassignment rejections” aren’t too jarring. As with false compliment acceptances, such rejections may not be sincere — it could also be a display of false modesty.

The same cannot be said of rejections that call the complimenter’s motives into question (“You’re just saying that!”) or that ask them to justify their veneration as if in a court of law:

You: “You were so much fun at the party!”
Them: *Speaking in disbelief* “WHAT? Why did you think I was fun?”

Response 3: Ignore

During an exchange I carried out while writing this article, I complimented a new acquaintance on his palpable meditative calm. Then I waited for my words to register. But there was only zen-like silence. It was as if he hadn’t heard me at all. Instead he turned to someone else in the group and said something unrelated. The whole situation felt supremely odd, and as my cheeks began to flare up in embarrassment, I wished I too had meditative calm.

It turns out, however, that my experience was rather ordinary. Those professors of praise who have studied this area found that an exceedingly common response to a compliment is ignoring it. Often the reason is uncertainty about how to proceed, but ultimately the reason could be anything at all. For all I know, the fellow I complimented might have subscribed to the ideal of divorcing oneself from praise, lest one become dependent on the opinions of others and consequently susceptible to injury by its inverse, insult. Who’s to tell?

Although I had just experienced the full silent treatment, there are also lighter versions of the ignore response. A response that’s a smidgen lighter would have been to keep the conversation going but change the topic:

“You are such an incredible person and I think I’m falling in lo…
”Ha.. Oh yea, did you pick up toilet paper in the shop?”

An even softer form of ignoring a compliment is to reply roughly on-topic, but without affirming or disconfirming the praise:

“Nice suit.”
“I bought it at Harvey’s. Have you seen their window display lately?”

II Battle of the Maxims

Imagine yourself sitting with a group of peers. Loud and clear, in front of everyone, you are told that you are ridiculously (choose whichever of the following tickles you most): hot/witty/smart. You feel elated, but there’s a hitch: now you’re expected to say something back. What thoughts go through your (quickly swelling) head?

When we receive compliments, we are placed in a moral bind, torn between competing prescriptive social norms. For one, there’s the battle between the modesty vs. the agreement maxims. Part of you feels pressure to appear humble and even-headed, whereas another part wants to appear easy-going and graceful, and to not run any risk that the speaker feels uncomfortable. Depending on the winner of this moral tug-of-war, you may wind up outwardly rejecting or accepting the praise, possibly even when your feelings about the compliment are otherwise.

Then there’s the truthfulness maxim. Imagine a writer who gets complimented by a friend on the genius of her work, even though the writer’s personal belief is that she’s nowhere near as good as claimed. Her belief might boil down to imposter syndrome and therefore be unwarranted. But then again, the compliment might in actual fact be exaggerated, despite being given with the warmest of intentions. In her heart of hearts, she knows she’s still a wretched writer by her own standards. Combine these thoughts with a fully general moral prescription most people feel to “be truthful”, and you can see how our writer might be swayed towards outwardly rejecting the compliment. In fact, the existence of this truthfulness maxim may explain why society places so much emphasis on genuine compliments, since these have no need to overcome this additional moral hurdle. A good rule of thumb then, from a compliment-giving point of view, is to make your compliments plausible. Otherwise you’re setting your compliment up to be rejected.

A big reason why praise can sometimes make us feel unhinged is that we don’t know how to balance these warring moral factions. It is this moral uncertainty that explains why etiquette guides are stuffed with prescriptions about how best to respond to a compliment – the usual advice being to say a brief (but somewhat inscrutable) “thank you” before swiftly moving on.

III The Purpose of the Compliment

People respond as much to what they believe to be the intention behind a compliment as to its actual content. So if someone – rightly or wrongly – interprets your praise as a flirty gambit, their response will be dominated by whether they fancy flirting back. As such, when it comes to the acceptability of praise, a compliment perceived as flirtatious will have more hurdles to overcome in terms of acceptability compared to one perceived as being an expression of politeness.

There’s an oft-repeated argument that the difference between a compliment and flattery is that flattery has an underlying motive whereas compliments do not. I don’t buy this. To me it seems that compliments, like everything we do in our social lives, have a motive. The real dichotomy is that between praise spurred by underhanded purposes and praise imbued with benign/noble ones. If your friends told you you looked amazing to boost your confidence, is there really a problem?

With that out of the way, let’s look at the most common purposes behind a compliment:

Purpose 1: Increase Intimacy

Imagine you are a freshman at college. You’re wearing a t-shirt that your dad bought you which reads “May the Undead Live Happily Ever After”. While waiting for a tutorial to start, a classmate you’ve not yet met says, “Nice print—you make that up?”

Zooming way out, you might understand this exchange as an invitation to stop being “strangers” and start being “acquaintances who chit-chat before class”. If you’re game, you might respond with enthusiasm, perhaps even returning a compliment. But if you’re not interested, say because you wouldn’t be caught undead hanging with this guy, you might flash a fake smile, utter an abrupt thanks, assume a maximally rigid posture, and stare your phone into oblivion. The deciding factor in whether you accepted his compliment hadn’t really anything to do with the compliment itself, so much as the overall situation and your prediction about how it might develop.

Looking at the scenario where this compliment was rebuffed furnishes us with yet more reasons why we might develop negative emotions around compliments. Since compliments can occur along with requests for escalations in intimacy, we might form an association between the two. This association will be negative if the requests for intimacy are primarily unwelcome in that person’s life. On the compliment-giving end, the complimenter might associate the giving of praise with rejection and start shying away from giving them in future, even in totally different circumstances.

So far in this section I’ve discussed compliments as conversation starters — from zero intimacy to that first wink of friendship. But more typically, such compliments occur between people in existing relationships, people who are renegotiating their levels of intimacy. There might be growing displays of affection as camaraderie develops into deeper friendships Or indulgent words exchanged after arguments, so as to rebuild solidarity after damage was done. Or, as we already saw, flirtatious invitations fired in the first fireworks of courtship.

It’s important to take a reality check here. Our social world is shaped by pecking orders, and complimenting behavior is shaped too by these hierarchies. At the family-owned MegaCorp, the fresh-faced intern is hardly on track to become the CEO’s trusted confidant. Were he to somehow manage to compliment the CEO to his face, it would at best be seen as toadying and at worst as an affront. There’s this old joke about two medieval priests talking in a cathedral. Suddenly the first priest prostrates himself and cries “I am nothing compared to you my Lord.” The second priest follows suit and both lie in prayer on the ground. Taken in by the spirit of the moment, a janitor polishing a bench at the back of the church throws himself to the ground and cries: “I am nothing compared to you my Lord.” The two priests then look up at each other and say, “Look who thinks he’s nobody”.

Generally, it’s more acceptable for compliments to move downwards along status gradients, from the highly regarded to the less so. If the CEO complimented the young intern’s work, it would be par for the course.

Even more common again are compliments between those of similar status. According to Nessa Wolfson’s, Bulge Theory compliments move at a disproportionately higher frequency between status equals. She reasons that this is because status equals have a more realistic chance of negotiating an increase in intimacy than those spaced far apart along a status gradient.

Feel Goods: could be 10 if you like the person

Purpose 2: Demand in Disguise

You’re having dinner at a restaurant with friends. You missed lunch and you’re absolutely famished, so you and you alone order dessert. When your cake arrives, jealous eyes start stealing greedy glances. “That’s a really unique-looking carrot cake”, someone says in a voice that simultaneously sounds both untethered and restrained. “In retrospect, it was such a good idea of you to order that cake, ha!”, someone laughs, despite nothing being funny.

Translating into plain-speak: these people want your cake. At least in the social circles I haunt, it’s rude not to send your food on a tour around the table after someone has communicated any interest in it. So, with forced charity, you sigh, “Wanna try it?” and watch in agony as your cake suffers terrible losses.

Some non-Western cultures rely more heavily on this trope of packaging demands as compliments. Due to this tendency, these peoples are also far more likely to incorrectly interpret routine compliments from outsiders as being demands. Holmes tells us: A Westerner meets with a Samoan friend and says “What a lovely necklace!” The Samoan responds, “Take it. It is yours.” The Westerner demurs, but the Samoan insists, so eventually she takes it, feeling dreadful at being offered a gift when she only wished to be friendly. To a Samoan though, expressions of admiration for a material object impose an obligation to hand it over. Such “compliments” really amount to polite muggings and are therefore far from being wellsprings of good feelings.

Feel Goods: 0. Just ask already!

Purpose 3: Currency in Reciprocation Games

You scratch my back...

Whenever I pay back money owed to a friend, I feel satisfied, as if a burden has been lifted. But monetary debt is atypical in its quantifiability. Most other debt isn’t like this, instead consisting of an untidy calculus based on never-ending reciprocation games, a calculus measured in tit for tat. There is no SI unit for a “tat” – and as for “tit”… well let’s just say Wikipedia reckons a Great one weighs in at about 16g.

People can perceive compliments as shifting the balance in reciprocation games. A neighbor calls by and says “hey! …Oh wow! Your hair is a-m-azing! BTW… I just dropped in to borrow some ketchup. Is that alright?” The offering of a condiment – apologies compliment – demonstrates that the speaker knows he is imposing. The trigger for this praise is his felt need to cancel off the debts of his minor intrusion with a morsel of ingratiation. But do not expect the praise delivered in such circumstances to feel anything but hollow and transactional. As Mark Twain remarked, “Do not offer a compliment and ask a favor at the same time. A compliment that is charged for is not valuable.”

Another place where compliments occur in reciprocation games is as expressions of gratitude. When someone cooks a meal for you, it’s good manners to compliment the chef’s cooking.

Yet another reciprocation game is set in motion when someone fishes for compliments (as we’ve seen a little of already). They might compliment you with a certain tone in their voice, a nodule of neediness suggesting that their words were not so much motivated by your own praiseworthiness as their own desire to strong-arm you into giving praise in return. They might start: “My favorite thing about our relationship is that you’re so loyal.” And there they stop. And wait. And look expectantly over at you, expecting you to tell them your favorite thing about them. You’re left put on the spot.

Probably the most despised use of compliments in reciprocation games occurs within the activities of sales reps, charity muggers, and others whose job it is to butter us up before springing some big ask. To accept their compliments is to enter an ambiguous debt, a debt which may inhibit your ability to politely decline their subsequent requests. I know I’m at my rudest when accosted by such actors. I sharply avoid any engagement, lest they ensnare me in my own politeness.

So as to loop all this back to why compliments sometimes backfire: If the recipient of a compliment suspects it is a prelude to a future ask they don’t wish to fulfill, they’re liable to reject the compliment, thereby shielding themselves from entering an. uncomfortable debt.

Feel goods: 2

Purpose 4: Pick-Me-Up

Another classic pick-me-up, this one edible.

The good samaritans of this world, whenever they witness someone mired in self-doubt or otherwise having a rough time, are so kind as to extend emotional pick-me-ups in the form of compliments: From reddit:

“I was in a high-end-ish ladies’ clothes store in Paris waiting for my mom (I’m 19, male, and we were on holiday just me and her). I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror, and I pushed my hair back to fix it a bit, and a store assistant, a French woman who was beautiful in the way that only French women in their mid-40s can be, looked up at me and said “Don’t worry, you look gorgeous as you are.”

Compliments like this lift you up from the abyss and up to the moon.

I’ve personally witnessed something like this. At a jam session in college, I remember how this guy Pete monumentally messed up his guitar part and began apologizing desperately to the singer. We all presumed that the singer, dressed in his Slipknot get-up and being the only professional musician among us, would have little patience for slip-ups. But he laughed and said he liked it - that it was “jazzy”. His kindness allowed Pete to save face in front of the others, and, moreover, rescued him from his own demons. Pete didn’t exactly feel ecstatic afterwards, knowing that it was just a sympathy compliment. But he was damn glad to have received it.

Feel Goods: Up to 8. But you could have started at -10, so the uplift is huge.

Purpose 5: Reverse Sadism

There’s a certain kind of pleasingly perverted mind that loves nothing more than to whip you into a frenzy then watch as you squirm in joy.

In contrast to the compliment-givers driven by the other purposes we’ve looked at, the reverse-sadist sometimes engages in “drive-by” compliments, saying their bit only to go some separate way. (The other complimenters tend to stick around afterwards for repeated rounds of whatever game they are playing, accruing their rewards in intimacy, in reciprocation, or met demands etc.)

All this makes the reverse-sadists’ motivations unclear — are they acting out of some moral conviction to spread joy, or is it something a little darker, like getting a kick out of wielding their emotional power over you? Regardless of what drives these delightful devils, they can turn you to putty.

Feel Goods: They can easily max out the meter — and I’m OK with that.

Purpose 6: Mould People’s Personalities

“More people are flattered into virtue”, wrote Robert Smith Surtes, “than are bullied out of vice”.

Compliments intended to change the recipient’s behavior feature prominently in the compliments we already saw that cross from higher to lower status, such as from boss to employee, parent to child, or disgraced dung beetle to whoever invented the GDPR cookie popup. What are some examples of behaviors encouraged by compliments? It can range from a toddler’s emptied plate of vegetables at the dinner table to what eventually became of said vegetables in the training potty upstairs. “Nice job,” my parents once said, and I’ve been producing crap ever since.

These compliments-as-encouragements may sound excessive or even undeserved, but as Richard Stengel argues, this is hardly a crime. After all, if children who are told they are smart do better in exams, isn’t it in everyone’s interest to engender such a belief?

While this is mostly good news, there are, of course, cases when it isn’t. For one, the compliment may come across as condescending rather than encouraging. This might be because of unfortunate wording: e.g. Saying to a beginner guitarist “I really like what you tried to play there.” Or it could be the revelation that the speaker believed encouragement was in order at all - for example, when twig-thin friends applaud someone, until this point content with her figure, as “brave” for wearing a bikini. Another place where these compliments lose their lustre is when it’s sensed that the praise is solely designed to reinforce behavior that benefits the complimenter. “You’re so good at cleaning the bathroom, Darling. I just love that about you.”

Feel Goods: All in all, averages about 4.

Purpose 7: Manipulate People to Do Your Bidding

Manipulative folk sometimes use compliments to ensnare people in their need to be consistent with the complimented traits, a vanity trap of sorts.:

Him: “Gosh you look strong.”
You: “I’ve been lifting”
Him: “Way stronger than anyone else here.”
You: “I reckon I can deadlift double what they do.”
…Wow this neighbor is being so nice to me!….
Him “You’re probably the only man in the entire building with the brawn to lift my washing machine up these 14 flights of stairs for me.”
Checkmate. I can no longer claim I’m too weak and now I’d better help…

Feel Goods: 1

Level 3: Flourishes and Flair

It’s not enough to give Less Penguiny readers the status quo, the tried and true. They deserve better, a proper social safari. What follows is my attempt at sorting through the hodgepodge of complimenting techniques I witnessed in the wild while I researched this piece. This is neither science nor moral philosophy, so don’t expect clean-cut categories or anything remotely resembling advice on how one ought to behave. But do expect plenty of ideas for things to experiment with.

I Killer Compliments

Here’s where we leave our comfortable everyday lives behind and set foot inside the flattery equivalent of a future weapons research center. A killer compliment is one so potent that it permanently changes whoever hears it, elevating them into something more than they were before. Anyone lucky enough to have had a killer compliment bestowed upon them will keep it squirreled away in a special place in their heart till the end of their days, drawing from it a steady stream of strength and joy.

How might one conjure such a beauty? What we’ve already seen above about compliment purposes informs us that, at least as a starting point, a killer compliment should be felt by the recipient to arise out of motives both palatable and pure. Going beyond this and into new territory, what topic might a killer compliment focus on? After all, “Nice hair”, isn’t going to cut it here. We likely need a topic that’s more unique, one that’s sculpted with euphoric intent, tailormade for the listener.

Killer Topic #1: Aspirational

A contributor recounts:

“When I was 16, I had a lot of anxiety about being a bore. Worried enough to start making changes, ones I hoped would spice up my mentalspace. Things like going out of my way to develop unique interests and to read books which weren’t on other people’s reading-lists, takings risks and getting into trouble etc. Fast forward a few years, I’m attending a wedding not long after graduating. At 3am a classmate tells me that I am an ‘enigma’, fascinating yet unfathomable’. I feel absolutely floored. I know it sounds pretentious, but being called an enigma was the poetic ideal of what I’d strived to become for all these years. Ever since then, I’ve held up my head that little bit higher. ”

Killer compliments are most often on aspirational topics. They address some undersung part of who the recipient either is or is in the process of becoming. They feast you with whatever admiration it is that you’re starving for.

The American Dream...

For another example, take Lea, the programmer who had wanted to become a hacker ever since she’d read Eric Steven Raymond’s famous article describing how to become one. In programmer culture, a hacker is not some blonde-haired basement-dwelling Russian who steals passwords to pay for his 80-s era haircut; she is someone with a profound sense of technical elegance. A hacker needn’t even write code (e.g. Tim Ferriss, of 4-Hour Workweek fame is certainly a hacker), though they often do. Now, even though Lea’s identity had long become entwined with this hacker credo, for four years no-one else thought of her in this way. Until one day, a celebrated programmer, himself an undisputed hacker, saw her work up-close and told her she was “a true hacker”. She’d made it.

Aspirational topics are obviously not one-size-fits-all. A swim-suit model is glad to be thought skinny whereas a bodybuilder would be crestfallen (with a sonorous thud, he would hope). How might one pinpoint what counts as aspirational for someone? One way is to watch who they idolize or what they find impressive. Pay particular attention to what they compliment others on, for this indicates, at the very least, that their mind is attuned to such dimensions, that they leave an impression. And look at the direction in which they appear to be shifting their life.

Killer Topic #2: Creative Output

I cant even make a proper stick figure.

Creators have a near insatiable need for appreciation of their art – especially when they’re just starting out. There was a stage in my life when I wrote music (although I was never good enough for there to be an actual stage in my life). I’d share these ditties on social media, you know, in case they went viral and shit. Young and dumb, I figured it was only a matter of time before I’d be “discovered”. Posting track after mediocre track onto my Facebook wall, I felt utterly vulnerable. One day an acquaintance I barely knew messaged me: “I’m really enjoying your music. You have talent.” And with that, my perspective of our relationship went from that of distant acquaintances to kindred spirits. She enjoyed what I produced, and that in turn made me throughly enjoy her. How simple I am.

Some added context: Not many people know this, but SoundCloud enables music producers to see who listened to their tracks. (In fact a lot of social networks monetize informational asymmetry.) Obviously a man as noble as I would never engage in such stalkerlike behaviors, but wouldn’t you know my finger slipped and by accident I found myself logged in for four hours watching how she played my tracks on repeat.

The opposite of a compliment is criticism. Harsh criticism of someone’s creative output must therefore have an equal and opposite destructive power on the ego. I flinch when reading scathing reviews of a book on Amazon, because the poor author will probably feel beaten to a pulp.

Many people stockpile ego in their taste. If someone spends countless hours listening to music, they may come to see their Spotify playlists as products of heroic discernment, assembled after traveling to the pits of listening hell and back again. Comments which communicate that you see them as the connoisseurs they see themselves as are often highly gratifying. Teenagers seem particularly susceptible to such praise. Perhaps, when we’re young, we elevate taste because we have less going on in our lives, often having no real creative output to speak of other than the opinions we’ve formed about other people’s work.

Killer Topic #3: Importance

Self-esteem consists in no small part of flattering distortions, such as an inflated view of one’s own importance. A compliment that directly addresses these egomaniacal tendencies can be very strong indeed.

At a summer BBQ, a group of twenty were assembled in a circle. A young man standing in the lefthand arc was in spirited conversation with his nearest neighbors and his audience seemed consummately entertained. Across on the far side of this giant circle, stood a woman who seemed roundly bored by her neighbors. Noticing the fun to be had elsewhere, this woman caught the entertainer’s gaze, a stranger until now, and said – “officially” to her neighbors in the circle but loud enough for him to hear too – “Who IS this guy?”, elaborating on his presence and energy. He immediately noticed and lapped up the characterization. He must have felt like a big deal.

When I’m at some event and my name precedes me, I feel majestic. “So you must be Less Penguiny?” Or better yet: “So you must be THE Less Penguiny.” The mere addition of the definite article, a word as common as muck, catapults the flattery level through the roof. Or through the floor –basically whichever direction means “more flattering”…

Telling a friend who couldn’t attend something fun that they were missed (or, better yet, are being missed right now) exactly hits their need to feel important, not least because of the flattering subtext: “Even while consumed in the throes of pleasure, we still think it would be better with you.”

Killer Topic #4: One You’re Qualified to Judge About

When your tone-deaf uncle Steve tells you you’re great at guitar it’s one thing. But when Eric Clapton says the same, it’s another. Your uncle isn’t really qualified to judge your playing – your errors pass him by unnoticed. But not so with Eric. If he says you played well, he knows what he’s talking about. That makes it a killer compliment (assuming he really meant it).

Readers of this piece wishing to deliver compliments of this variety might hold up a mirror and ask themselves what super-powers others might see in them. These needn’t be based on any hard skills or achievements: I once saw the entire staff at a conference flattered when a speaker described these organizers as “My favorite group of people in San Francisco”. This wouldn’t have amounted to much, had this speaker not been in possession of a certain je ne sais quoi that rendered him ferociously sought-after by city cliques. The result of his social super-powers was that being in his favorite group of people wasn’t just something – it was everything.

Killer Topic #5: I like you

I once received a stunningly simple yet effective compliment: A businessman in my industry was having some drinks with me and at some point in the night he simply smiled and told me “I like you”. His calm delivery and cheerful demeanour made his words feel sublime and sincere.

In ways, these three words form the essence of all other compliments – and when spoken, they amount to a fully general compliment, something that gets directly and unambiguously to the point.

II Amplifiers and Diminishers

Most of the early scientific literature about compliments comes not from psychology but from linguistics. The headline result of this wave of research was that most compliments follow simple verbal formulae, such as “I like your {noun}” or “Nice {noun}” or “Your {noun} is {adjective}” (e.g. “Your dress is beautiful.”) These forms are the baseline delivery mechanism for praise, and their simple shapes show that most real-world compliments are snappy affairs rather than being drawn-out gushings of admiration.

But that’s boring. Let’s look at some spicier ways to flavor your compliments:

#1 Fresh, Dramatic, or Poetic Wording

Phrasing can elevate an otherwise unremarkable compliment to heavenly levels of gratifying. A colleague once told me “I love the energy of your thought.” In unadorned form, this compliment might have amounted to something ho-hum, like “you seem energetic”. But his fresh wording brought the praise to life.

More examples: A friend recounts how her holiday romance told her that he loved “every inch of her body”. How much less sensual, less erotic would that same sentiment have been as “hey babe you have such a hot body”?

When Roman orator Cicero wanted to compliment Athenian historian Thucydides’ skill with the written word, he didn’t merely visit whatever the Ancient Roman equivalent of a blog was (a forum?) and say “great content”. Instead he had this to say:

“He so concentrates his copious material that he almost matches the number of his words with the number of his thoughts. In his words, further, he is so apposite and compressed that you do not know whether his matter is being illuminated by his diction or his words by his thoughts.”

Of course, you can still have a poetic delivery even without following Cicero’s example of composing paragraph-long praise. Sometimes a single well-chosen adjective is enough to put the fire into a compliment. I know someone who is what German-speakers would call a Lebenskünstlerin (someone who deals with life in a positive and artful way; literally: a “way-of-living artist”). An admirer, conscious of this Lebenskünstlerin’s vanities, paid her a pithy tribute by speaking of her “Berlin bourgeois lifestyle”.

This technique of using dramatic wording is not without its risks. Ham-fisted or stale attempts will be met with scorn and groans. See, for example, those cheesy old pick-up lines: “Did you just fall out of heaven? Because there’s an angel standing in front of me!”

#2: Comparative

Would you prefer to be told you are “good-looking” or the “best looking of all your friends”? “Good in bed” or “the best I’ve ever had”? For most of us, comparative compliments are so much more pleasing, that there’s really no comparison at all.

But it’s not a clear win: These compliments have a dark-side, one that rears its hurtful head whenever the comparison’s loser learns they were assigned a lower rank. Amit, drunk but with a glint in his eye, tells a friend Luke that Luke was “the most interesting person he’d ever met”. This would have been a fine compliment, except it occurred in earshot of ten mutual friends, who had just learned that they were definitively not the most interesting person Amit ever met. Realizing his faux pas, Amit futilely adds, “—except you lot, of course!” But the damage was done.

Another time, a guy moving from one group’s table to another at a house-party says (all too loudly) that “he didn’t want to be stuck back there sitting with the little league.” The people he was joining love the comment, but those in the “little league” also overhear, and weren’t exactly big fans of that little characterization.

Perhaps it’s the existence of this violence — and the willingness of the complimenter to risk inflicting it — that makes these comparative compliments feel so heady to those who wind up on top.

This risk of offense in comparative compliments can be side-stepped, most obviously, through discretion — simply deliver the praise in private, away from those liable to get hurt by losing the comparison.

Another way to avoid ruffling feathers is to make self-deprecating comparisons, ones where the losing side is you. For example, Matt wanted to compliment Brian about all the social mixers Brian had been organizing. Matt said, “I really respect that you take all these social risks. I wish I could do it but I’m scared people wouldn’t attend.” The comparison was to his own flaws, instead of an innocent bystander. I find this endearing.

#3: Theatrics

After a Rails Girls event (teaching girls to program), a student, Laura, told her coach he was “the best”, pumping her chest with that heartbeat motion you might see in a Backstreet Boys boyband music video. The coach melted, appearing as if he’d have to be scraped off the floor with a spatula. The boost from the theatrics seemed to cause the coach to completely overlook the cynical fact that he was Laura’s only coach, meaning his coronation as “the best” was guaranteed, rendering the comparative element of this phrasing a tad anemic.

Ultimately, theatrics like this make compliments seem more genuine. If a dinner guest tells you “that’s a lovely curry” in a deadpan voice while looking at their phone, you might attribute the words wholly to politeness and not get the slightest bit of pleasure. But imagine instead the guest, upon eating their first mouthful, stamped his feet and cooed: “MMMMMMM–bloody hell–that is DELICIOUS. PWWWWAAAAA. ..YES…” Amplification makes the signal travel better. The same principle applies when communicating satisfaction during certain other domestic pleasures…

#4: Everybody Thinks and “Everyone Thinks”

The gleeful effects of praise grow when it’s the opinion not just of one but of many. It’s easy to write off the praise of a single person but not so much that of a group of independent minds. Here the compliment can more securely be regarded as evincing some actually existent positive trait, and the praise is all the more powerful for it.

There is a distinction to be made between situations where you receive a chorus of compliments firsthand from distinct individuals versus when a single person reports that “everyone thinks [something swell]” about you, the latter obviously being possible to fake and therefore less potent because of this uncertainty about the transmission’s accuracy.

#5: The Complimenter Only Has Eyes For You

Compliments become diluted – poisoned even – when heard repeated to others. The clever old professor praises you for your intelligent contributions. Your heart soars. But, five minutes later, she says the exact same thing about… doggone Steve?STEVE, of all people. You feel betrayed. Why, Steve couldn’t contribute anything remarkable even if he lived a hundred lifetimes! The implication that you are even within sighting distance of Steve horrifies you, so the praise turns prickly.

Sure, as with comparative compliments, this danger can be avoided if you deliver each compliment with discretion, e.g. in mutually exclusive one-on-one settings. But you don’t always get that luxury. I was at an engagement party held in the fiancée’s cramped apartment. The fiancée hostess was thermonuclear with enthusiasm, radiating kind-natured compliments to all in attendance – “GREAT shoes”, “You {someone’s new partner} are REALY friendly”, “My GOD. You have such a great accent.” Due to limited space in her apartment, every compliment might as well have been broadcast on public radio.

She did, however, have a saving grace in this situation: Everyone received unique compliments, each relating to a distinct topic, this diversity going a long way in staving off jealous comparisons. This tactic is worth remembering.

Oh, and have you ever noticed how some people, before giving you a compliment, insist that their favor is hard-won? “Usually I go to these networking events and all the people I meet are clueless. But you… you know your stuff!” These flourishes serve to electrify forthcoming praise — despite some doubts about their authenticity.

Relatedly, I know this couple who first met randomly at a bar. For those who’ve never met a date on a night out, this is as much an exercise in wooing your crush’s friends as it is in wooing the person you fancy. Anyway, this guy recalled the moment he knew he had a fighting chance of winning the girl (Lily): This was when Lily’s most intimidating friend softened her guard and said: “I’m old, and as a consequence of being f***ed over, I don’t like people as much as I used to… But when I heard you talking to Lily, I instantly liked you.”

#6: Absolutes (vs. qualifiers)

Mom: “How’s your *little* music production thing going?”

Example of how a qualifying word creates a negative amplifier

TIMEOUT: What is the difference between compliments and surgeons? Compliments are better without qualifications.

An (ex-)girlfriend once told me I was “kinda” hot. She meant well but honestly those words felt about as good as a slap to my moderately attractive face.

It’s not hard to find examples of compliments ruined by qualifications. From my field notes: “You are in such amazing shape for your age.” Or elsewhere: “Ha, that joke was really good – for you.” (this one was directed at me) “You look great for having just had a baby.”

So: If you’re going to say something nice, drop the kinda sorta maybes. Be categorical in your praise.

#7: Fill in the _

I'm going to read between the lines and say this is a "yes."

You’re at an after-work meetup. Someone says, “Have you noticed that all the beautiful people here are wearing pink?” You look around. What on earth is he jabbering on about? You can’t see anyone in pink. Then you look down. Oh I’m wearing pink! He’s smirking warmly at you.

When you infer some praise – or infer any other idea for that matter – you feel a jolt of pleasure the moment your brain figures out the meaning hidden between the lines. As such, an inferred compliment feels doubly good – once for the actual praise, twice for the joy in joining the dots. This same feeling of satisfaction keeps us addicted to crossword puzzles and appreciative of jokes that take a little acrobatics to get. As in:

“A large egg wearing a woman’s hat enters a hospital and is greeted by a doctor.

‘You might want to sit down, Mrs Dumpty’”

#8: In Front of an Audience

Warning: high risk

My cousin once set up a meetup for professionals in his industry. As people arrived at the first event, he started feeling he was in way over his head: Some serious big-wigs showed up, players with big names, really big names like Wolfe­schlegel­stein­hausen­berger­dorff­welche­vor­altern­waren­gewissen­haft­schafers­wessen­schafe­waren­wohl­gepflege­und­sorg­faltig­keit­be­schutzen­vor­an­greifen­durch­ihr­raub­gierig­feinde­welche­vor­altern­zwolf­hundert­tausend­jah­res­voran­die­er­scheinen­von­der­erste­erde­mensch­der­raum­schiff­genacht­mit­tung­stein­und­sieben­iridium­elek­trisch­motors­ge­brauch­licht­als­sein­ur­sprung­von­kraft­ge­start­sein­lange­fahrt­hin­zwischen­stern­artig­raum­auf­der­suchen­nach­bar­schaft­der­stern­welche­ge­habt­be­wohn­bar­planeten­kreise­drehen­sich­und­wo­hin­der­neue­rasse­von­ver­stand­ig­mensch­lich­keit­konnte­fort­pflanzen­und­sicher­freuen­an­lebens­lang­lich­freude­und­ru­he­mit­nicht­ein­furcht­vor­an­greifen­vor­anderer­intelligent­ge­schopfs­von­hin­zwischen­stern­art­ig­raum.

My cousin did his best to moderate the event, but afterwards he felt uncertain about how it went. Then, in a follow-up email that cc-ed all fifteen at the event, one attendee congratulated him for hosting such an uncommonly good discussion. From the perspective of the guy emailing in, the praise was not costless – some amount of his reputation before his peers in industry was staked, lest his words turn out undeserved. It’s this exact price of admission, this cost to complimenting, that make public compliments feel all-the-more flattering.

Praise in front of an audience can have an implicit comparison point (in the sense discussed above) when it theoretically could have applied to everyone present. For example, outside a nightclub, I once saw an attractive man walk over to a woman in a red dress as she chatted with her friends. He told her with Disney-prince suave that she looked delightful and that he’d like to meet her. She practically swooned. Hell I nearly did too. I suspect that this compliment derived some of its potency due to its being voiced in front of the recipient’s friends, thereby stoking the ego’s eagerness to feel ever-so-slightly better than one’s peers. As my grandad used to say, “I don’t care how much I earn, as long as it’s a bit more than the guy across the road.”

That said, delivering a compliment publicly is hardly an unadulterated good. Some people dislike when the spotlight is thrust upon them. It’s difficult enough to respond gracefully to a compliment in private circumstances, never mind when every Tom, Dick and Harry you know is in the audience. And, as mentioned, the relationship between you and the onlookers (who are themselves not complimented) only adds complications.

#9: Praised by the Praised

Imagine you’re in a room with former President Obama. You ask a question, and he leans in towards you, nods vigorously in agreement, and — only once you’ve completely finished speaking — emphatically tells you what a thoughtful question that was. The once-leader of the free world thinks you’re pretty neat. That’s gotta feel good.

If you happen to be perceived as praise-worthy — be that generally due to status, or more commonly due to ability in some particular dimension – your compliments automatically come turbo-charged, as if they carried not only the praise just uttered, but also a sliver of all the praise ever bestowed upon you.

#10: Belittling Revelation

“I wasn’t expecting your baby to be so cute!

Certain ways of formulating or delivering praise simultaneously reveal that the speaker didn’t or doesn’t regard you in high esteem, and the sting of this belittling revelation ruins the compliment.

Another example to make it more concrete: A software developer told me that after she displays some very basic engineering competence (something you’d learn in the first few months) to a colleague, he’d say “Wow! It’s so awesome that you understand that.” Her thoughts: “What the hell did you think of my abilities if that surprised you? I have a freaking Ph. D. in this stuff.”

#11: Wrong Topic For The Situation

We have expectations about what kinds of praise we will receive in what kinds of situations. Deviations are problematic. For example, when a male manager compliments a female report’s looks instead of her workplace performance, it can stir up an unwelcome atmosphere, not least of which is due to the self-doubt created about whether her work was well-received, her work being the obvious thing to compliment in the circumstances and the thing she wanted to be appreciated for in this context.

#12 Feigned Neg

In the movie Charade, Audrey Hepburn’s character Reggie says accusingly to her love interest Peter, “Do you know what’s wrong with you?” Peter, played by Cary Grant, steels himself for imminent insult. “Absolutely nothing” coos Reggie, suddenly all smiles. By playing with Peter’s emotional expectations and creating a moment of vulnerability, Reggie’s compliment lands all the harder.

# 13 Costly signaling

The more evidence you can provide for the sincerity of a compliment, the better it will be received. One way of identifying sincerity is to filter for signals that are difficult to fake. Kind words cost next to nothing to the speaker, but other signals can come with much higher costs. For example, if the chef’s cooking makes you want to barf, it’s easy to lie and say “delicious” even if you don’t mean it; but it’s not so easy to ask for a second helping and then finish it. Similarly, if you don’t like some clothes you received as a gift, it’s easy to say you love them, but it’s a lot harder to wear them regularly in public.

Because actions talk, this means that some of the most flattering moments in our lives arise from situations involving costly signaling. This is so even though we don’t perceive these situations as the massive compliments they really are. For example, when a popular couple get married, budgetary constraints usually limit how many guests can attend. When they extend one of their limited invites to you, it feels good. And when you, in turn, take some of your scarce vacation time and fly halfway across the world to attend their destination wedding, you are doing some costly signaling of your own.

III Understated Compliments

I’d like to draw a distinction between regular compliments and what I’ll call “understated compliments”. Understated compliments are less direct, less intense, thanks to their reliance on distraction and plausible deniability. These constitute the cash economy of compliments – a transfer can occur, yet nothing is recorded in the books. This becomes an important quality in situations where a more clearcut compliment could lead to awkwardness.

#1: Class Containing You


You are a doctor. On vacation, you wind up talking to an attractive stranger. They ask you what you do for a living. You tell them. They raise their eyebrows, “Doctors are way sexy.”

This certainly feels like a compliment. Yet, you can’t definitively treat it as such. Were you to say “thanks”, you drain the remark of its ambiguity, morphing it from being a comment purportedly about doctors in general into one specifically about you. The intensity just ramped up, and this might commit your conversation partner to a more emotionally vulnerable position than they bargained for. Meanwhile you might get accused (however unfairly) of being presumptuous for jumping from “doctors are sexy” to “you are sexy“. It’s probably wiser to let the ambiguity be, perhaps instead returning the favor and complimenting the class containing your partner after some time has passed.

Obviously, (and this is the whole reason it works), not all compliments directed towards classes containing you are personal compliments in disguise. Sometimes it is merely a coincidence that they find doctors sexy. And sometimes they could have no way of knowing you belong to such-and-such a group, so they couldn’t possibly have intended to flatter you. As astounding as this may seem, this is lost on some people. An American woman was wearing a t-shirt that read, “Scottish accents are sexy” and, wouldn’t you know it, a young Scot buck happened to be in that corner of Texas on that particular evening. He walked over and proudly revealed that he was Scottish, then stood there, expectantly, as if his courtship was complete. The awkwardness was divine.

#2: Not for Your Ears

Compliments which you weren’t meant to overhear hold a special magic, as there is little reason to suspect the giver of ulterior motives: After all, they never expected their words to reach you.

The thing is, that such compliments often have a remarkable way of somehow getting to their beneficiaries, as when a mutual friend, mindful of social cohesion, relays the praise. There is an incentive for the middleman here, for they will be associated with the pleasant feelings inspired by the compliment. The opposite to shooting the messenger who brought bad news.

I once described an acquaintance privately as “the most intelligent person I’d ever met.” A bit exuberant, I know, but you’d have said the same if you knew him. Some time later, I bumped into him. He’d heard how I described him god knows how, said he felt flattered and that he was glad we were mates. I felt about 30% embarrassed and about 70% warm and gooey.

Another example: Back in my video game days, I turned up at my local LAN café to play multiplayer Counterstrike along with friends. My buddy Patrick’s handle was “hotcoldman88”. As soon as we entered, I heard one of the other players address his friends, “Uh-oh. It’s hotcoldman88. We’re gonna get destroyed.” These kids were just stating facts among themselves; they had zero intention of flattering my friend, and this made their compliment all the sweeter for Patrick. This exchange is also an example of an unintended compliment, the subject of the next section.

#3: Unintended

The mug was actually a happy accident

I couldn’t find an image for unintended compliments — but I could for “unintended complement”

You meet a Frenchman for lunch. Having studied the language, you conduct the conversation entirely en francais. At some point he asks how old you were when you left France. “Oh no you’ve got it all wrong,” you say, taken pleasantly aback, “I’m actually American, not French.”

Before going any further, it’s worth asking if this even counts as a compliment at all? Unlike a standard compliment, this one (at its face) is devoid of any intention to ingratiate. The speaker was instead laboring under a false but flattering assumption.

This alone makes the current specimen atypical of compliments. Yet, many people, when asked about the greatest compliment they ever received, report examples fitting this “unintended/accidental compliment” theme. Which in itself is revealing, indicating that many of us prefer our praise to be served without the foggy social demands made by more purposeful compliments.

Why bother mention this as a technique? Because I noticed that people can — and sometimes do — resort to artifice to engineer the impression of an unintended compliment. A charmer might intentionally mistake mother and daughter for siblings, your friends’ music for a famous artist’s, or an American student for a French one.

#4: Aren’t We All Great?

Two couples arrive at a wine-tasting event. Surveying the crowd, one of the men says (addressing the other, but clearly intending their girlfriends to also hear): “We definitely brought the hottest dates to the event.”

If you were party to these words, you’d probably feel good in a smug, superior sort of way. Yet you might not register it as a compliment at all. Nor indeed might the speaker. Instead you might view him as cheerful or a tad arrogant — but in a pleasant, inclusive sort of way.

Let’s take a closer look at the original statement by unpacking it. It’s a compliment to both his date’s looks and to yours, and both these people overheard. And (assuming the speaker thinks in “trophy-partner” terms), it’s also a compliment both to his dating prowess and your own. Thus there was a compliment for everyone in the audience. And it is this universal distribution of praise – most especially the extension to the speaker himself – that lends this technique its power.

I’d like to share some other examples of “Aren’t We Great” compliments:

  • “That hot guy was totally checking us out” – the flattery about being checked out doesn’t go to just one person but to the entire group.
  • This next one was said in the context of a college room-mate feeling guilty about skipping a party later that evening: “Who cares if we fall asleep early and miss it? We were freaking awesome during the day.”

I’m a big fan of “Aren’t We Great?” compliments. They pump positive energy into interactions, create solidarity, and leave everyone feeling sparkly – and all without the intensity and complication that can accompany more classical praise. Responding to these compliments is easy: just join in and cheer.

#5: Implicit Compliments

British actor turned politician Michael Cashman was a participant in the first gay kiss in a British soap opera, aired in 1987 to much public outrage. During a radio interview with Cashman, the conversation struck a sad tone when discussing his music career— or rather lack of — a failure Cashman attributed to homophobic discrimination. The interviewer, perhaps wishing to steer the conversation towards lighter matters, offered “Boo sucks to them anyway because you worked with Elizabeth Taylor … and they haven’t!” Cashman perked right up: “ABSOLUTELY!”

This comment about working with Elizabeth Taylor is what researchers call an implicit compliment. Instead of the interviewer praising Cashman directly (e.g. “you are a fantastic actor”), the interviewer pointed out his collaboration with Elizabeth Taylor. Listeners at the time would have considered Elizabeth Taylor to have set the bar for glamour. By association, therefore, Cashman must also be something special.

There’s another interesting property of implicit compliments: To agree to one is merely to agree to a statement of facts as to what occurred (e.g. “yes I did work with Elizabeth Taylor”). As such, even the most humble mind should feel no responsibility to defray the positive associations that these facts might elicit, no matter how predictable those associations might be. This makes implicit compliments refreshingly simple to receive as compared to more explicit ones.

Implicit compliments often occur as actions rather than words. Imagine you’ve spent the last half an hour explaining something to a professional acquaintance. When they insist that lunch is their treat, this reads as “your input was so worthwhile that I feel indebted to you.” I have another example that came from witnessing an entrepreneur with a gift for getting high-status people to like her. Her secret, she confides, is to pull out a pen and notebook while the big wig is speaking and jot down select points. This says: “Your ideas are worth recording”.

Implicit compliments can even be built on exaggerations and fabricated facts. I saw a small-scale website owner Rob introduced with “Have you guys heard of TikTok? Well Rob actually owns TikTok”.

#6: Present It as a Competition

An anonymous reddit user on a thread about flirting says that instead of complimenting his crush’s hair, “I’d build a sort of funny story, about how I just got a killer haircut and I was confident I was gonna just walk in and crush it, and here she is stealing all my thunder with her stupid perfect goddess hair. What exactly is her angle anyway?”

By framing the compliment as play rivalry, he saves his crush from the complexity of having to respond to a hair-on — I mean head-on — compliment. Keeping the conversation going is easier for her, since the conversation now has lower stakes, just riffing on a rivalry.

#7: Irony

Oh The Irony

Irony, or expressing one’s meaning with words normally signifying the opposite, is a complimenting style especially popular among men that are closed with their emotions.

To someone who has everything in life, I once heard one of their friends say: “You and your hellhole life, your dead-end job [surgeon], your crumby apartment in the middle of nowhere [penthouse downtown] – I don’t know how you manage.” The recipient of this compliment loved it and joined the jest by adding: “… and these shitty friends who never come visit me [the first speaker was in fact a friend visiting from out of town]”. Such a compliment, thanks to the way its payload resides between the lines, allows people to express things they might feel uncomfortable with otherwise voicing. It has much in common with the implicit compliments we saw above.

#8: As a Consequence of…

Say you are flirting and you want to hint that you’re into your crush. A compliment about their looks would certainly get the message across, but it risks coming off as too strong. You consider a compliment about their fashion choices, but conversely worry that it wouldn’t signal romantic interest. One way around this is to begin the compliment as one about their clothes, but then praise their looks as a consequence of her good taste in fashion. E.g. “That’s a great sweater, really matches your hair… You look great.” In structuring the praise this way, you still send the message that they look great, but you add plausible deniability, since the looks compliment could be read as “DUE TO the sweater”, which is a damn lot less intense than being told “you look great” full stop.

#9: Litotes

Litotes is a form of understatement involving double negatives. Growing up in rural Ireland, I once heard someone say, “You’re less of a d**k than you look like.” Not exactly the most flattering compliment I’ve gotten, but I’ll take it.

A less vulgar litotes example is the following one about someone’s beauty: “You’re not hard on the eyes”. This witty formulation brings up the ghost of a smile, and with that makes the compliment a smidgen less intense.

#10: Exaggeration

Almost paradoxically, a compliment inflated by an absurd amount can be easier to receive than its unamplified counterpart. For example, I once heard someone say in reference to someone’s toned physique: “Look at how ripped he is. *Speaker protects their eyes* Oh dear – all those angles on your abs are cutting me up! This isn’t right.” The silliness and drama made this compliment fun – not just for the recipient but also for podgy observers like me. And, because the degree of exaggeration was left undefined, the recipient was free to interpret the true intensity of the compliment as they pleased, perhaps softening the demands of the truthfulness maxim we saw above.


Knowing everything about some social behavior, like complimenting, is not the same as being fluent in actually carrying it out. For that you need practice. So, just like Fabio in the introduction, I put a note up on my mirror saying “Compliment someone every day” and did my best for some time.

Despite mostly good experiences, complimenting still feels scary. And perhaps it should too, since I’ve had compliments bomb — ignored or treated with suspicion. But knowing how much a compliment that lands well can imbue another person with confidence — or how it can cause a relationship to blossom — makes the social risk worth taking.

Like take last night. My bandmate’s singing sounded particularly good, so, even though I felt cheesy saying it, I told her how lovely she sounded. She was delighted by the praise. So delighted that her eyes teared up.

And then I noticed something: my eyes started to tear up too. The thing about joy is that it’s contagious. If you give it to others, you get it back in return. If that’s not a good enough reason to start complimenting, I don’t know what is.

General References

- I made extensive use of the book You’re Too Kind.

- Jon Millward’s excellent article