All Opinions Wrong But Useful

@rixx@chaos.social · @rixxtr

Against Compliments


In the spirit of All Opinions Wrong But Useful, I’m going to argue with a previous post that told you why and how to give more compliments.

Compliments, it turns out, have a number of ways of impacting the recipient negatively. This is not about plain clumsiness: The original blog post plus a bit of practice usually takes care of social awkwardness. This is not about malicious backhanded compliments either: a creative malicious person will find ways to use any tool to their ends, and we can’t let them guide or block our behaviour.

No, it’s more insidious than that. The wrong compliment can impact the subsequent behaviour of the people involved in non-obvious negative ways.

A whole bunch of studies have been done (most prominently this one and this one) showing that complimenting children for personal attributes like their intelligence instead of their performance can change their future behaviour significantly. Praising effort and work helps to highlight their importance and to motivate children to improve. Praising attributes like intelligence, on the other hand, does not give children actionable context to improve, and instead gives a fearsome explanation for every subsequent failure: clearly, they are not so intelligent after all. Connecting performance with self-worth by way of ill-advised compliments can influence behaviour long-term and is hard to repair. Ask anybody who was known as the smart kid in school.

Similarly, there have been studies to suggest that women experience reduced intellectual performance after being complimented on their looks. This connection is thought to be a result of the added stress of the reminder of gender inequality and double standards. Nothing conveys appreciation quite like reminding somebody of the discrimination and devaluation they have experienced in the past and are likely to experience in the future.

On a lighter note, the (highly recommended) book The Inner Game of Tennis gives a wonderful example of compliment misuse: Imagine your tennis opponent finds their way into flow state, where the game comes effortlessly to them. Without reasoning or second-guessing themselves, they manage to just play instinctively, and play very well. If you then walk up to them, compliment their game, and maybe ask if they’ve started to do something special with their backhand? No? Maybe they’ve had a good practice session? – you have a good chance of knocking them out of flow state.

To reduce these insights to a more fundamental common denominator: Every time you give a compliment, you’re judging a person, and then declaring your judgement relevant to be shared and appreciated. That’s a rather self-important and often overreaching attitude to take. It’s a problem at the heart of many ill-received compliments: While your friend may be delighted that you enjoy their change in dress, the stranger on the street will not. We judge others constantly, but it may be better if you tried to have fewer opinions, or at least kept them to yourself.

While this is pretty bleak, all things considered, I’m still in favour of giving more compliments, but more nuanced and less unhesitant than a month ago.