Thursday, 8 October 2015

Dear Reader,

How often do you give compliments, and what form do they usually take?

I have been travelling on public transport a great deal this week, and overheard more than my fair share of conversations.  Aside from the usual work banter, or relationship crises (one lad was on the phone to his girlfriend for over an hour, trying to 'persuade' her that breaking up with him was in her best interests - hilarious) some things have really struck me: how thin the line between a good compliment and a bad one.  Take this overheard conversation:

A: " No, no sugar for me, thank you."

B: "I thought you took sugar?  Didn't you used to?"
A: "Oh I did, I did for years.  Two sugars, always.  But then I moved to sweeteners, and now I've quit."
B:"Wow, that's AMAZING!  You've done so well!"
A: "Yes, and I only have red milk as well now."  (I was terribly confused by this until I worked out they meant skimmed)
B: "That's SO GOOD!  You're an inspiration!  I don't know how you do it!"

Why does this ring so false?  Well, partly because of the over-reaction.  The compliment was not in proportion to the action it was referring to, in my opinion.  Secondly, the first speaker didn't actually give any indication that this was difficult for them, so the compliment may have even been somewhat unwarranted.  Thirdly, it was remarkably repetitive.

However, this wasn't the worst exchange I have overheard this week.  That one went a little like this:

C: "Oh, I LOVE your shoes."

Doesn't seem like much, does it?  And in the grand scheme of things, it's pretty harmless.  But the habit we have of complimenting people on how they look, rather than what they have done, is one which - when taken to extremes -  leads to some of the more damaging assumptions society has.  In this blog post ("How to Talk to Little Girls") Lisa Bloom explores why she bites her tongue when meeting small people of the female persuasion, because it is a strong instinct to say something like "You look pretty,"  "I like your dress/shoes/cardigan" or "Your hair is so lovely!". It's a strong instinct, sometimes born of politeness, or difficulty knowing what to say to children, or embarrassment.  But the devastating effect is this: "teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything."

It's not just girls.  Boys, women, men: if we naturally gravitate to looks, clothing, hairstyle as the standard ice-breaker, we do ourselves an injustice. We sell ourselves short.  That person is an amazing collection of neurons, translating into likes, wants, hopes, passions, skills, thoughts, ideas.  The random arrangement of the cells on their face or scalp, or the piece of fabric they chose this morning to keep the cold out is the LAST thing we should be interested in.  

Moreover, it invites responses that are similarly shallow, or on a low level of connection with that other human.  Compare that to finding out what that person is really into, what gets them going, what they love to do and are an expert at and watch them smile at you with a spark in their eyes whilst they articulate what makes them feel alive in the world.  This works with children too. "What are you reading at the moment?" or "What is your favourite book?" sometimes gets you there, or gentle questioning about what they got for their last birthday or their dream job might too.  And if you feel moved to compliment, try "I'm impressed my how mature you are", "That's a really interesting idea" or "You've really thought about that, haven't you?" as a good start. 

I was recently at a conference and was right at the front of a presentation on female leadership. The person presenting was attractive, smartly dressed, and professional-looking, and naturally those were the first things I noticed about her.  She had on some spectacular shoes, which I also couldn't help but notice.  At the end of the presentation, I stood up and, being directly in front of her, caught her eye.  What to say?  My brain reached for the nearest thing, the easiest thing, which was the shoes - I genuinely liked them, and I can imagine they were specifically chosen, with care, to set off the dress.  But then I realised how ridiculous this was.  This person had just spoken eloquently and passionately for the last thirty minutes about her life's work, and I was going to tell her I liked her footwear?

I'm glad I took a second to think about that.  I told her that I had enjoyed the presentation and that I thought she was doing important work, and thanked her.  I have intentionally kept this away from gender where possible, but consider if you will the sex of persons A, B and C in the conversations I related earlier (and D, the recipient of the compliment).  Any ideas on what (roughly) genital persuasion they may have been? 

That's right. This is a pervasive issue that certainly affect everyone, but anecdotally it seems to be a sad feature of female-to-female dialogue that we are struggling to escape from.  Why?  Women do amazing, and ordinary things.  They think and plan and invent and discover and create and destroy things - let's talk about that.  I remember getting furious at a party this year.  I walked through the kitchen past three ladies talking on my way outside, and was briefly caught up in their conversation about their stretch marks and how they had affected their confidence and self-esteem.  On my way back, some sixty minutes or so later, they were still talking about it and I caught one of them exclaiming: "Why is it so important?  Why do people care so much about how I look?" 

"BECAUSE YOU TALK ABOUT IT ALL THE TIME?" I offered, less than politely.

Of course, I know that this isn't really the problem; appearance as the greatest factor for judgement is out there, and it's not going anywhere anytime soon.  But that doesn't mean we can't try and fight it.  Otherwise all those elderly people, and odd-looking people, and acned people, and non-symmetrical people, and low-confidence people, and wearing-the-wrong-colour people won't get a fair chance to show us what they're really all about. And that's ALL OF US.

I'm not suggesting it isn't ever ok to compliment someone on their looks or outfit.  I have a brood of sisters working in fashion who will attest that time and effort spent on these things deserves praise, and I am not suggesting this industry isn't worthwhile or important.  But compliment-wise, we are so stuck in a rut that something needs to change.  Pause, reflect. Make sure it is something you really want to say, not just the conversational equivalent of water finding the lowest ground. Keep it small, and specific.  As teacher, I know that praise needs to be proportionate and specific if it is to motivate and function as effective feedback. Save lavish and effusive for when your daughter wins the Nobel Prize.

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